As a feminist activist, I am contacted regularly by international volunteers, interns, and researchers who are doing research on feminism. I usually don’t like the end result, as my quotes are all too often taken out of context. This time, however, I was glad that the researcher made extra effort and worked with me, meeting me three times to fine-tune the interview, ensuring that she got everything right, and also checking with me each time if I wanted to add, delete, or change something.
Sonja Köhler interviewed me, and the research project was funded by the Queerfeminist Austrian Students´ Union. Her project deals with the motivation of feminist activists in Israel. Sonja is an Anarcha-Feminist and is interested in different Feminist approaches and their attitudes towards patriarchy, capitalism and hierarchy or the concept of “government” in general. She has a masters degree in Social Pedagogy and in Psychology, and she did an internship at Isha L´Isha – Haifa Feminist Center, where she found a fascinating way of living the idea of a feminist collective, and she came back to do research about it. The following interview is part of her research.
Extract 1: So the issues I deal with right now in this stage of my life are sexual violence within the Palestinian community and women with disabilities. I think in both of these topics, sexual violence and women with disabilities, the source of the motivation is personal. The Palestinian society is a very closed society and this issue is a taboo issue so we´re not allowed to talk about it. So what I do on the “Tuskuteesh” Facebook page is, we publish the testimonies, anonymously mostly. It’s a safe space for Arab women to share testimonies of sexual violence. It puts a mirror to the society to show that these stories are happening. And the second thing is for the women themselves. This is an opportunity for them to speak about the issue when they have no other way of speaking. To publish their stories, even anonymously, it´s kind of a therapy. So the feedback that I receive is also a motivation to keep going. With women and disabilities my activism is more in the form of writing. I´m working right now on a novel in which the main character is a woman with disability. This motivation also comes from a very personal place, because I have a disabled mum. When my mum got her stroke, I think the first two years I only dealt with it on a very personal level. It was something very personal. I didn´t see the bigger picture.
(I): So the root of your activism comes from a personal spot and then connected with general, political issues. Do you think the fact that your basic motivation comes from your personal experience affect the way you work on these topics?
(E): I think so. Because it comes from a personal place I can connect with women who experience sexual harassment. I can relate to their experiences. I´m not saying that I can totally understand everything every woman goes through, but I think that I have empathy and I think that I´m more sensitive to their experiences. That´s also true for the issues women with disabilities are dealing with. Because my mum is disabled and because I know personally what her challenges are in the public space I can relate on the political level. I can have a deeper understanding of their challenges. Before my mum had her stroke, I didn´t see those issues, it was invisible to me.
Extract 2: What made me an activist is Isha L´Isha. I wasn’t an activist before. I found my voice, my writing voice, my political voice here and I think that the most important thing – I don´t know if you can call it motivation, but I guess you can call it a motivation – it´s having a supportive community. I don´t think that I would have initiated the “Tuskuteesh”-page if I weren´t a part of Isha L´Isha. It´s really important, because the outside world in Israel is so hostile so that it´s almost impossible to do something that has a real effect in activism on your own, especially when you are a national minority. In this place, you see the women without any masks on. You can say how you feel or you can express an opinion that you know you can´t say it to somebody else outside on the street. Here you can say it and nobody will judge you. They will argue with you, but nobody won´t love you because of that. It is the supportive and the inclusive environment here.
(I): That´s interesting because almost all the women I interviewed said that they have felt lost before and found a home in Feminism. Later you also describe Isha L´Isha as a kind of safe space. I think that there are still a lot of women out there who have the same feeling but didn´t find their “home” or “bubble” yet. How could they be reached?
(E): That´s a tricky question. I try to do that. The way in which I try to reach out to those women is on one hand working with social media. I write about my experiences at Isha L´Isha and I write about that this is my Feminist home. So I put my feelings, that I found my home here, on social media. It´s not like reaching out like grabbing them, but it´s about putting my own feelings out there and hopefully some women from Haifa will read it and can relate to it and come to Isha for a visit. Other than social media we are also having public events and sometimes I see one woman out of 50 who is new and I have a chance to maybe have a cigarette with her I ask her why she came here and I try to explain about Isha L´Isha. It is very individual work. I don´t know how to do it on a wider, on an organizational scale. I am not sure that that would be more effective, because I think that people probably relate more to the personal.
(I): With the Tuskuteesh-page you´re also providing space for women. Do you think that´s also a way to show women that other women are supporting them so they can also make the connection to Feminist issues?
(E): It´s a different question. It´s very complicated, because I´m an activist at Isha L´Isha. I couldn´t do this page without Isha L´Isha, but at the same time Tuskuteesh is independent. It doesn´t belong to Isha L´Isha. It´s a different target audience. It´s women, some of them are not activists, some of them don´t even know what Feminism is. I don´t try to reach out to them on the political level. I don´t think that´s the place to do that, because these are women who came to Tuskuteesh to share something very specific, a trauma. All of them always write me back on the page and thank me for giving them a voice and giving them strength and that´s already a political empowerment for me. They don´t have to know that this is Feminism what I´m doing with them. I don´t think that I have to point directly at it. I think they go through some kind of process with themselves and hopefully it will open doors for them in the future, but not specifically in that moment, because it´s something so traumatic.
Extract 3: Today I believe that if you identify as a Feminist, you can´t be a Feminist just on the personal level. Feminism is a political ideology. You can understand the theories, but there was a missing link to make the connections with the personal – so this is what Isha gave me. I don´t think that I can separate between the personal and the political level any longer. Every issue that I come across, it goes hand in hand. I think when you want to make some kind of a political change it has a much stronger effect when the words are personal.
(I): That the private is political is an important topic in a lot of Feminist discussions. Did your change in perspectives, to see that the personal and the political level are connected, has an impact on your life?
(E): Of course. I don´t think I can express it in words, but my whole life changed. It has become a way of life. So everything I see I see from a political perspective. For example I just came across a soldier with a machine gun here in Isha L´Isha and this is my home. This is supposed to be my own safe space. So it is my home and it´s my rules. And so it is personal but it´s also political. I wrote about it in posts on Facebook, because it´s also political, because you see machine guns everywhere here and it´s not normal. It has become such a norm. People see a soldier on the bus and it´s normal to them, because that´s the way we have been living all our lives. So I wanted to make a statement and say: “No! It´s not normal!” And at the same I experienced something very personal. When I saw the soldier here in Isha he polluted my home. The image of the machine gun is staying in my mind.
Extract 4: I think the right term to describe my Feminism is intersectionality. I think there are so many things that we need to fix, but of course the fact that I live in Israel affects my activism. I think that I´m very limited in expressing myself. I don´t think any of my ideas undermine in a way the state of Israel, I know I´m not a threat to Israel, but still you never know how they will interpret whatever you write. I think everybody has to be careful about what they write. The atmosphere on the street, specifically during military attacks, is very hostile. Sometimes the only place where I really feel safe is actually here in Isha L´Isha.
Extract 5: We live in a conflict zone so by default it affects everything. I´m wearing a “Tuskuteesh”-T-shirt, it´s in Arabic and I live in a Jewish neighborhood, so just by being and walking in the street with some kind of identification item it´s a different experience. During a military attack there is tension, the racism is out there. And I can pass. (“Passing” is a term that Afro-Americans use, when you´re half Black, half white and you can pass as white.) So I can pass as not Palestinian, but there are some people for whom there´s no way they can pass, because they wear a Hijab. They don´t have this option at all. So I have the option to play with my identity, if I want to. It doesn’t mean I do, but at least I have the option.
(I): Identity politics are a big issue in Feminist discussions here I have the feeling. Do you sometimes feel any confusion about your identity?
(E): The fact that I say that I can play with my identity, it doesn´t mean that I do play with it. I don´t know if it´s confusion, but I think that if there´s a military attack tomorrow at Gaza maybe I would think twice if I´m going to wear my Tuskuteesh shirt. I don´t wear a cross, because I´m an Atheist, I don´t wear a Hijab, because I´m not Muslim. So on a very regular level I don´t have any specific external national identification markers. So the identification markers would be clothes like T-shirts or the Tuskuteesh-bag. I don´t think that they are so important as items, because it´s just a T-shirt. It is not a Hijab or a cross. If I were a believing Christian it would very confusing – should I wear a cross today or not? I think that it has a much deeper meaning than just a T-shirt. I think that I would make a conscious decision in the morning to wear the Tuskuteesh-T-shirt because it´s clean and it goes with my pants or I don´t feel like thinking too much about what I´m going to wear. But then I would take into consideration that I might face racism in the street. When I say playing with my identity it doesn´t mean that I´m ashamed of being Palestinian. That is not the thing. It is an issue of I might draw more attention and the question is if I want that attention on that day. Maybe I woke up in a really bad mood. Maybe I have stress at work and I just don´t want to deal with it today. So I am going to wear a different T-shirt just because I don´t want to deal with it. Maybe on another day I would wear this T-shirt on purpose to make a statement that I´m here, I´m Palestinian, I have nothing to be ashamed of.
(I): Is there a broader public discourse about identity politics? Does the discourse on identity politics affect you in any way?
(E): I think that in Isha L´Isha it is a very big issue. It is an issue everywhere, but in Isha L´Isha I think the fact that it´s central it enables us to be more sensitive to the different voices of the different groups – Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, Palestinian – and to consciously give the voices of these groups enough space or weight to be present and to be heard. Also we are very aware that just because I´m a Palestinian, it doesn´t mean that I represent the Palestinian people. I can say some things that are very, very personal for me, but then I´m also Palestinian. So yes, what I´m saying comes from a place with experiences that Palestinians are going through, but it doesn´t mean that somebody else who is also Palestinian also goes through this. But you always have to take into consideration that I´m Palestinian, for example in the story with the soldier in Isha. Maybe other Palestinians who would have been here would have had different experiences, but I experienced this because I´m a national minority. If I were Jewish I don´t think that I would have experienced that. Maybe I would have felt a little uncomfortable, maybe I would have felt a little bit awkward, but it wouldn´t have been such a huge issue for me if I weren´t Palestinian.
Extract 6: The issues I´m dealing with now – sexual violence and women with disabilities – have seemingly nothing to do with the conflict. I could live anywhere in the world, I could live in Switzerland, and I could deal with these things. When I think about it in a theoretical way or try to analyze it, of course everything is always connected to the conflict. If we wouldn´t live in a conflict zone, maybe more activists would be active on sexual violence issues, because the conflict for the Palestinians is THE struggle, the big struggle. This is “the most important thing”. This is where we have to put all our efforts in. Sexual violence? Maybe later, after that – when we have ended the occupation. Women with disabilities? Not important right now. So maybe I would have chosen something else if I didn’t live in a conflict zone. I think I would have chosen “sexual violence” anyway, because it´s so taboo and it connects to the personal. You can´t separate our political reality from how we live our lives here. It is the reality within which we act. So it is connected. You can´t separate that – this is where you live.
Extract 7: “Grassroots voices” are the voices that are absent from any discourse when people for instance speak about the 1-state-solution or the 2-state-solution, but neither of these solutions is viable or sustainable. Neither of these solutions is taking the Palestinian citizens of Israel into consideration. If we talk about the 2-state-solution – where am I supposed to go? Where am I supposed to live? My home is here, Haifa. So the grassroots-voices are the needs and the voices of the women who are completely absent from the discourse that politicians are having or people in the West having. They are only speaking in terms of “1-state-solution”, “2-state-solution”. That´s all they speak about. They don´t hear any personal stories of how we are living here, how it would affect us – the little people, the small people!
(I): “The radical feminist perspective is almost pure anarchism. The lesson the child learns, from father to teacher to boss to God, is to OBEY the great anonymous voice of Authority. To graduate from childhood to adulthood is to become a full-fledged automaton, incapable of questioning or even thinking clearly. (…) Radical feminist theory also critizes male hierarchical thought patterns – in which rationality dominates sensuality, mind dominates intuition, and persistent splits and polarities (active/passive, child/adult, sane/insane, work/play, spontaneity/organization) alienate us from the mind-body experience as a Whole and from the Continuum of human experience. (…) I believe that women frequently speak and act as “intuitive” anarchists, that is, we approach, or verge on, a complete denial of all patriarchal thought and organization (p. 26f.). Living within and being conditioned by an authoritarian society often prevents us from making that all-important connection between feminism and anarchism. When we say we are fighting the patriarchy, it isn´t always clear to all of us that that means fighting all hierarchy, all leadership, all government, and the very idea of authority itself.”
What do you think about that?
(E): I have a lot to say about this, but it´s not about that paragraph – it´s connected to something else. You are talking now about Anarchism and that´s something I have been hearing more and more from people about Tuskuteesh. People are beginning to talk to me about that maybe we should start thinking about establishing Tuskuteesh as a project with funding and I keep saying that I don´t want it to become a funded project, because then we´re going to loose our freedom of action. Being a funded project would mean that you are already committed to the funders to use the money for this and that and also I would receive a salary. Now I don´t receive a salary for my work. It is completely voluntarily. And also I have complete freedom of acting according to what happens. At the demonstrations against murders of women we, Tuskuteesh, were able to make a lot of noise. We had a very strong presence and if the project was established and funded I would have had a clear action plan. After the demonstration so many things happened. So many people contacted me and wanted this or that, but also had some ideas for activities or about the development of the project. And I have complete freedom. I can do whatever I want according to what the grassroots level informs me. Also I have the feeling that it is not my project. I´m the one on the page receiving the testimonies, but everything else is not mine – it belongs to the people. And they really do feel that this is theirs. Several close activists who wear the Tuskuteesh-bag always they tell me that their friends ask them about it and when they speak about it they speak in terms of “we”. So they feel that this is theirs. I explained to someone why I don´t want to get funding and he told me that I´m an Anarchist. I don´t like labels. Maybe I am an Anarchist at heart, but I´m not familiar with theories of Anarchism. I think it´s more my Feminist way, because radical Feminism is supposed to be nonhierarchical. And this really connects to that that I don´t want Tuskuteesh to be a funded project. So there you have the Anarchism I think. And I can connect to everything else that is written there. I think that when I look at myself from an outside perspective that what I want to do is to deconstruct this patriarchal thought and I reject everything that is about it. I think with Tuskuteesh I was able not only to reject, but also to create a new form of reality. And this is also what we do in Isha – we create alternative realities.
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