This performative research project took place in Israel, collecting contributions from current serving women in the Israeli Defense Forces [IDF]. The project is located between the broad geopolitical landscapes of Nigeria, Israel, and Kurdistan. By linking women who have been victimised by Boko Haram to the women in the IDF and the Kurdish women of the Rojava revolution, common threads underline the intertwined and shifting roles of women in each conflict context.
The mode of information gathering took the form of a collective dialogue and the visual elements utilised the similarity of the militarised aesthetic and heightened security in both Israel and Nigeria. I drew on my youth service in Nigeria, adopting the khaki garb performatively as a point of intra-relation and as material evidence of my own labour. The testimonials were stenciled onto my uniform in Hebrew as they were written by most of the women soldiers.
Having investigated gender in the conflict landscape of northern Nigeria, the reporting framework had often positioned women and girls who had come into contact with Boko Haram as casualties. Like other extremist factions, Boko Haram’s key aims are territorial gains, implementing Sharia, and the complete eradication of all western liberties and traditions. But for all its savagery, Boko Haram’s Islamist doctrines demonstrate a deep-rooted fear of women that connects the stories of women in Nigeria, Israel, and northern Syria / Kurdistan. Central to the heart of every martyr is the fear of being killed by a woman in combat, due to the belief that such a cowardly death would shatter the promise of sensual paradise.
The unrelenting crisis in northern Nigeria produced a drive to expand the dialogue to explore other religions of conflict where women were not simply victims of terrorists but standing in opposition to them. Each year, 55% of 18-year-old Israeli women enlist in the army. Approximately 5,000 women occupy combat roles at any given time, with thousands more collectively contributing to Israel’s struggle against terrorism in intelligence and support roles.
In engaging with the IDF’s current serving women, the complexities of the relationship between them and the institutional whole varied broadly. Unsurprisingly, there were categorical distinctions among lone soldiers and Israeli-born recruits. For migrant servicewomen, their Aliyah to Israel had often taken place despite all the odds. There’s a language barrier that has to be overcome, they’re often making economic compromises, and also have to re-establish a social network of peers. Their responses were often layered with a deepened sense of patriotism. There was also an expression of appreciation about living in a Jewish-majority state where they did not have to explain their differences. Unanimously, there was an expression of a strong desire to give back to their new home.
But even among locals, there was a further split between the religious women who receive an exemption by default but choose to serve, and their counterparts who are drafted organically. Religious girls appeared to be driven by a sense of moral obligation to play their part and set an example for others. There was a sense that their service is driven by a spiritual tendency and they perceive the defense and protection of their homeland as a calling.
Among others, which includes those serving in combat and creative roles – similar views were expressed emphatically, although from different perspectives. The liberal-minded were keen to assert that their political beliefs were at odds with that of the state but that service was important, while combatants expressed the historic significance of their achievements as women in warrior roles. Some were happy to utilise military service as a form of occupational development before they decided what to study at university. Those of Ethiopian origin similarly expressed the need to give back to the country that gave them refuge. A number considered Sherut Leumi [National Service] and volunteering as a more worthwhile form of civic participation with greater immediate impact on their lives than army duty.
Among them, there was an awareness that some in their generation were opposed to military service and they expressed empathy for them and conceded that it was wrong to imprison refusers. Some remained split on whether enlisting should be a matter of choice while others echoed the MoD stance that choice in this instance is a slippery slope that jeopardises national security. This raises the question of the key democratic dilemma faced by governments: How can a country preserve its liberal values, remain a democracy and still deal effectively with terrorism?
Breaking the Silence
I encountered a number of refusers who generally identified the expanding settlements in West Bank and Israel’s military presence in Gaza as their main contention – sometimes, in addition to the desire for a ceasefire from all sides. For as long as the IDF has implemented the conscription model, there has been a subversive counter-action refuser movement, Why We Refuse.
Most Haredi [Ultra-Orthodox] men, as a rule, resist drafting although that is changing. Those refusing for reasons other than religion tend to be female with the most prominent being Omer Goldman who served a prison sentence in 2008 for her conscious objection. As the daughter of the former deputy head of Mossad, her refusal to serve created a resounding reverberation around the world. Ten years on, such acts of defiance still make headlines but are newsworthy precisely because they are an aberration.
To present women involved in the conflict as having a singular cohesive position is to offer a simplified narrative that does not hold true. For every Women in Black type anti-settler movement, there is a counter Women in Green coalition.
The turbulent realities surrounding Israel makes its army one of the largest social institutions in the country and as such, the public expect it to be representative of society. Nationally, support for the IDF remains at an all-time high, with an increasing number of LGBT, black, Arab, Muslim, Christians enlisting.
For some current and former women soldiers, the army as an institution created a battleground for gender equality within its ranks, the effects of which has rippled through Israeli society. Once rife with sexual harassment, women have not only asserted their bodily autonomy but redefined the remits of what the IDF had imposed. Alice Miller’s 1994 legal victory shattered limitations on women’s participation in elite positions such as aviation and combat duty. It became evident that it was women’s continued participation rather than withdrawal, that has made the army more progressive.
In Jerusalem, I lived within a stone’s throw of a dojo and initially trained there for the convenience. But I was taken not only by the use of weapons in the BJJ class but the sheer number of women participants and the scenarios we drilled. I was stunned to observe a drill which was based on a knife-wielding attacker and was keen to press further. I wanted to understand why women who had served placed continued emphasis on training and if I’d heard right during the ‘Allahu Akbah’ part of the drill. This proved to be a revelation into the lives of ordinary Israeli women living in Jerusalem. I learned about how the wave of knife attacks that had besieged the region served to remind them of their proximity to extremist violence. But these women were not alone – Israel’s Red Alert terror threat notification app has amassed almost a million subscribers.
There were strong expressions about the awareness that as Jewish women, they were targets. I attended the screening of Black Forest, a film about a stabbing attack in the Judaean Hills in Jerusalem in which Kristine Luken was murdered and British-Israeli Kay Wilson was left for dead. Both women were hacked at by a man shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ who admitted targeting them on suspicion of being Jewish. I was led to the charity organisation established by Liora Tedgi, a survivor of a car bomb attack in Jerusalem and volunteered at their food bank. Each week, the Terror Victims Support Centre provides food supplies to more than 400 families including Israeli, Palestinian and migrants throughout the country.
In the IDF museum, an artists’ portrait of David Elazar depicted him in the fields to illustrate the phrase, “To hold the soil in your hands is to feel the warmth of Israel” making reference to the public’s deep affinity with the spatial province the nation occupies. For some, their oppositional stance to Israel’s defense policies meant that they largely felt an affiliation to the spirit of Israel (the people, the culture, and the tradition) but for others, this went further, encompassing not only the spirit of Israel but the body of Israel (the territory, the landscape, and its victories). Collecting soil from my walks across Israel functioned as a tool for mapping that formed part of the process in both archival and performative formats. At the presentation of the project at Art Cube Artists’ Studios, the soil functioned as the material in a durational mapping performance about women’s work and labour.
Artistic interventions on conflict are often located between the oppositional categories that have likened the genre to a rock and a hard place – from the didactic frame of protest art to regimental commissions which serve as an antithesis to the former. Why We Serve adopts a liberating proposition for an intervention that does not sanitise the human cost of war but emphasises the laudable values of women’s sacrifice.
Why We Serve frames service around gender, underlining the importance of women’s valour and sacrifice, which in civilian life is often undermined until war calls for it.
In relaying the work to a gallery audience, questions were raised about the seeming absence of critique in the work. Indeed some may look at recent developments in Israel and hold up Ahed Tamimi as a heroine for standing up to ‘IDF terrorists’, at once rejecting and redirecting the label of terrorism, mirroring the central disputes of a conflict mired in mutual recrimination. In the end, we can only look at history. In re-examining the CIA funded pro-war film Why We Fight, it is important to note that for a film shelved away as propaganda in its time, contemporary critics have noted the vast underestimation of the Nazi threat and now concede that in fact, the film did not go far enough.
While the majority of Israel’s lone soldiers are American Jews, I encountered a number of British recruits. Mirroring the guerilla resistance to ISIS by women fighters of the YPJ, a broader commonality became evident. The YPJ comprises primarily of Kurdish women, sometimes aided by foreign volunteers. One of such independent volunteers was Anna Campbell from Sussex who felt compelled to fight the Islamists after reports of their brutalisation of Yazidi women. But unlike her lone counterparts in the IDF, Campbell, – had she lived – would have been deemed a terrorist by the British state due to her positioning in the YPJ, which placed her in opposition to Turkish forces allied with the UK, and thus in opposition to her own country.
In Britain where the public enjoys a safe distance from the reality of inhabiting a war zone, responses to military action are often mixed. There’s a growing disparity between the state’s definition of the enemy and what is imagined in the public consciousness. As such, Campbell’s death was unaccompanied by any fanfare. The continual shift as actions and counteractions are launched reveal more questions than answers. In northern Nigeria, teenage girls in captivity have been strapped with bomb vests and sent to blow up civilians. With ISIS losing much of its territory and army combined with the fear of losing out to women in combat, it has resorted to rallying women to the frontline. What happens when women come to face women on the battlefield?