Reflections on my 6-week residency at Art Cube, Jerusalem
Stepping out of the studio, my time was spent walking the city streets in military fatigue to engage with women like myself. Occupying a variety of roles in the Israeli Defence Force [IDF], and often approached commuting, shopping, training, or working, their dress code varied between uniform and casual with their youth signifying active or previous IDF service. From volunteer soldiers to recruits from mandatory conscription, they relayed diverse viewpoints on service, duty, and collective purpose.
My research here was located across the broad geopolitical landscapes of Nigeria, Israel, and Kurdistan explored through performative action. By linking women who have been victimised by Boko Haram to active servicewomen in the IDF and the Kurdish women of Rojava, common threads underline the intertwined and shifting roles of women in each conflict context.
To facilitate dialogue, I drew on visual elements that played on the similarity of the militarised aesthetic and heightened security in both Israel and Nigeria. I drew on my National Youth Service in Nigeria, adopting the khaki garb (which bears an uncanny resemblance to the IDF uniform) performatively as a point of intra-relation and as material evidence of my own labour. The gathered testimonials were stencilled onto my uniform in Hebrew as they were written by most of the women soldiers.
Narratives of gender in the conflict landscape of northern Nigeria relies on a reporting framework that often positions women and girls who have 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 orgies in 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, education, 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 between (international) 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 must 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 for 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 women 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 was driven by a spiritual calling and they perceived 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 acknowledged 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 such a country is a slippery slope that can jeopardise national security. Their concerns highlights one of the key democratic dilemmas faced by governments: How can a country at war preserve its democratic liberal values and still effectively counter escalating terrorism?
Breaking the Silence
I encountered a number of refusers who generally identified the expanding settlements in the 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 figure 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 only 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 wouldn’t hold true. For every ‘Women in Black’ type anti-settler movement, there is a counter ‘Women in Green’ Zionist coalition.
The turbulent realities surrounding Israel makes its army one of the largest social institutions in the country and as such, the public expects it to be representative of society. Nationally, support for the IDF remains at an all-time high, with an increasing number of gay, female, black, Arab, Muslim, and 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 have 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 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 mixed weapons drills in the Brazilian Jiu-jitsu class but the sheer number of women participants and the imagined scenarios. I was stunned to observe a drill that 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 fight training and if I’d heard right during the ‘Allahu Akbar’ 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 – the latest red alert terror threat notification apps have amassed millions of subscribers and are increasingly normalised.
Support for Terror Victims
Among many, there were strong expressions about the awareness that as Jewish women, they were targets of Islamist men. I attended the screening of Black Forest, a film about a stabbing attack in the Judaean Hills in which Kristine Luken was brutally murdered and her British-Israeli friend Kay Wilson was left for dead. Both women were hacked at by a man shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ who admitted targeting them merely 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 new immigrants throughout the country.
In the IDF museum, an artist’s 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 defence policies meant that they largely felt an affiliation to the spirit of Israel (the people, the culture, and the revival of the Hebrew language) 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 war and conflict are often located between oppositional categories – from the didactic frame of protest art to regimental commissions which serve as an antithesis to the former. ‘Why We Serve’ adopts the position of an intervention that does not sanitise the human cost of war but emphasises the often-undermined value 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 overlooked until war calls for it.
At the end of my residency, I relayed my encounters to a gallery audience, where questions were raised about the seeming absence of critique of the State in my work. Indeed some may look at recent developments in Israel and hold up Ahed Tamimi as a Palestinian 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. My take is – can we dare to envision a future in which the Islamists have won? To answer this, we can only look at history. In re-examining the CIA-funded pro-WWII films such as Why We Fight (1942), 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 against 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. With Turkey in alliance with the UK, she inadvertently stood 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 anti-Islamist 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 sacrifice was unaccompanied by any fanfare. The continual shift as actions and counteractions are launched reveals more questions than answers. In northern Nigeria, teenage girls under Boko Haram 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. Will women eventually come to face their counterparts on the battlefield?