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Humanizing the conflict, in the words of the women who live it

Online testimonial project ‘The Political is Personal’ gives regular Palestinian and Israeli women a platform to talk about the conflict as they experience it. +972 sits down with its founder, Sarah Arnd Linder, to discuss the importance of amplifying women’s voices in both societies.

By Laura Selz

Sarah Arnd Linder (By Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Sarah Arnd Linder (By Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Too often, we view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a political and impersonal framework. But at the end of the day it is individual women and men who are affected by the politics, policy and violence we hear about on the nightly news.

Sarah Arnd Linder wants us to see the personal, and specifically, to hear the under-represented voices and and narratives of Israeli and Palestinian women.

For almost a year, Linder, the Swiss-born daughter of a Danish diplomat who grew up in France and Denmark and has lived in Israel for the past decade, runs a project called “The Political is Personal,” collecting and publishing the stories of Palestinian and Israeli women — in their own words.

Earlier this month, we met at a café near her home in Tel Aviv suburb Givatayim to talk about her project, why she started it, how it has affected her, and what she hopes to accomplish.

“I’m still a one-woman-show,” she says, referring humbly to her work, explaining the importance of amplifying women’s voices in two societies that tend to under-represent female perspectives in the media, and the impersonal ways we understand the conflict.

***

You profile women from all over Israel and Palestine by letting them speak for themselves. What about the current climate makes that important?

I think that the media often dehumanizes the conflict. We read about “settlers” and “interests” or “terrorists” who get “neutralized.” But it’s too easy to interpret everything from the outside.

Sure, you could get a picture of the wider conflict by reading Wikipedia but reality isn’t only made of facts. We are so detached from what these things do to people on a very personal level.

There is not only a lack of personal perspectives in media but especially a lack of female perspectives. And I try to fill that gap with my project.

I’m not trying to get a specific kind of story or narrative. I just want to provide a platform for women to speak out.

Are there social difficulties running a project like this? Do you face resistance?

I really try to be balanced but get accusations of bias. For some people there are too many Israeli women taking part, for others it’s too many Palestinian women.

Also I get accused of normalizing the conflict, which is not true. I don’t think humanizing means normalizing. And others, of course, just think it’s “cute.” They don’t take it seriously.

Why do you focus on women? Why did you feel these stories and perspectives are missing, and necessary?

Women don’t get the same public attention as men in the Middle East, and especially in conflict zones where women are mostly regarded as objects. As victims maybe, but we carry half the burden. We are mothers, sisters and daughters of Israelis and Palestinians and we are directly affected by the conflict. So a web page about women is not “nice to have” or “cute.” It’s absolutely necessary for understanding what this conflict does to us.

But the project is not only about negative things happening to women. We also talk about what inspires them, and what gives them strength.

Of the women you have met through this project, have you stayed in touch with any of them? And what story moved you most?

Yes, with some I still Skype once in a while since I’m curious about how their life develops.

One story that moved me most was one a Palestinian girl told me. Together with her mother she once passed the border between Egypt and Gaza (when the Gaza side was still controlled by the Israeli army). As everyone had to go off the bus for a check, an Israeli soldier humiliated her mother by shouting out asking what she had between her legs. She had her period and apparently she lost blood. (Read the story here.)

It had a big impression on me. When we spoke on Skype it was clear she is now a grown woman with a lot of confidence, but when she told me this, she got very emotional and had to take a small pause. So it touched me in many ways.

Would this project also be imaginable if it was about men? Like, about fathers and brothers who are also silently affected by the conflict? I mean, obviously it’s not only about changing the quantity of women speaking out, but also about changing the quality of the media product.

Of course. A project like this about men would be very interesting, too. How the whole conflict affects their manhood or their pride, for example. But you have to make a choice once. And as a woman, it was the most obvious and maybe also easiest thing for me to do.

It’s also easier to have a deep conversation with women. They are more open in general. But you are right, the qualitative lack of personalization in the media is the same when it comes to men.

You started your project in April last year. You have published 20 stories so far. Are there shared elements that you’ve found in the different experiences of these women?

Actually every story is unique. But when it comes to mothers, they tend to be more understandable towards each other. When I ask a Palestinian mother what she thinks of Israeli mothers, there’s much more empathy than you would think. The instincts and the fears are the same.

In this conflict, every stabbed Israeli and every shot Palestinian is a political issue. A number. But the personal pain is not too different. And among my Palestinian interviewees I must say that these women share the experience of domestic violence, unfortunately. Some of them also asked to remain anonymous.

‘The personal is political’ was the slogan of the women’s rights movements of the 1960s. You flipped it and chose to name your project ‘the political is personal.’ Why?

I must admit I wanted a cool, bold statement — a recognizable feminist title which makes it absolutely clear that I focus on women.

The original claim, “the personal is political,” had more to do with women’s rights over their own bodies. So the personal, their body, became political. In my project it’s the other way round. The political has a direct and indirect impact on the personal. It also refers to the format I chose, of absolutely personal subjective stories.

Why did you choose this format of raw documentation? Is this the only way to a certain truth?

I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. It’s written in first person so I think it’s as close as you can get — as if the reader was sitting right in front of the woman. In the end, this is not supposed to be a substitute or an alternative to the news media. It’s an addition. An extension of perspectives.

You moved to Israel in 2006. What led you to Israel?

I had been here many times as a kid to visit my grandmother. Later, my parents moved here, because my mother worked at the Danish embassy.

So I came a few times and I somehow fell in love with the people here. They are very open and warm, not like in Denmark, where everyone is strict and distant. And then just life happened. I found a partner and I stayed.

But over the years I realized how hard life here can be. I changed. I became suspicious and nervous. When I go down a street today I look at people to see if they are hiding something in their pocket, for example. You get so used to seeing machine guns, to soldiers and in the end the whole conflict gets normal. That’s horrible. Because it is not normal at all.

Do you ever think of leaving?

Sometimes. The conflict bothers me, also the taboos. People are maybe not as open as you thought. There are certain narratives you cannot use depending on with whom you are speaking. But it’s not even their fault. Most people are not ignorant on purpose.

So why do you stay then?

There is so much potential in this country. And I want to contribute somehow, as I’m trying to with my project. I don’t want to leave just because it’s hard. Also it’s not so easy to just build up a whole new life back home in Denmark.

And I feel this connection to Israel. My grandfather fought the Nazis in Europe and then he fought again in the War of 1948. My father was in the IDF, his cousin died in the Yom Kippur War. The future, though, is in dialogue.

How do you pick your interviewees? Is there a type of person that you wouldn’t want to interview?

Many ask me if I’m looking for specific stories or specific women. But anyone who wants to share her story will be interviewed, as long as she is Israeli or Palestinian. I just think my red line would be if someone, no matter from which side, uses it as an opportunity to incite hatred or violence.

I once had a story that was right on the edge. A woman used the word “terrorists” every time she referred to a Palestinian. That was problematic. Another woman from Gaza talked of “martyrs” all the time. Same problem.

These examples are on the margins but in the end I kept them, because these are their words. But I would not allow it to go any further.

Laura Selz is a radio and print journalist based in Germany, covering society and zeitgeist. She is currently reporting from Israel as a scholar of the Herbert-Quandt Foundation.

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    1. Lauren

      An inspiring project and I’d love to read these stories. Being an American-born Israeli, and working in the Negev Bedouin society, I can understand why the project has come into being. There are so many stories, and women whose voices needs to be heard. I’ve got my own from living, working and learning. Would love to meet Sarah.

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