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U.S. exhibit to display nonviolent struggle led by Palestinian women

Next month, the Palestinian non-violent resistance movement will take center stage at an art gallery in New Mexico. Mati Milstein, an Israeli photojournalist, has spent the last year documenting the activities of a group of women activists fighting the occupation. He discusses “Nesa’iyéh (a woman thing),” his exhibition of their struggle as depicted through his lens, in an interview with Noa Yachot. 

How did you get involved in the project?

I was in downtown Ramallah on March 15, 2011, photographing Palestinian demonstrations calling for unity between disparate political factions. I noticed that many of the protest leaders were, in fact, women. Though I did take note of this unusual fact, it initially remained filed somewhere in the back of my head. As the following weeks passed and I continued to photograph Palestinian protests in the West Bank, I realized I was seeing the same women – week after week – that I had seen at that protest in Ramallah.

I began talking to them, trying to get a grasp of this new and unusual image (at least new and unusual to me) of women leading men in Palestinian street protests. Eventually described by the international media as the “March 15th” group, these women (together with their male colleagues) were a very loose coalition of like-minded individuals, non-violent in their strategy and totally independent in their political affiliations. In parallel with photographing their political actions, I also sat and listened to them, attempting to educate myself and understand their approach and objectives: eliminating the Israeli occupation, confronting the totalitarian nature of the Palestinian Authority, altering their own place as women in a patriarchal Middle Eastern society.

I was intrigued and quite soon realized that this was something unique in our region that I wanted to document.

What do the pictures convey in your eyes?

The Israel-Palestinian conflict is dominated by a very specific sort of visual images: armed soldiers shooting guns, young men throwing stones, tanks, warplanes, flags, suffering. These images are dictated by an accepted and assumed paradigm that dramatically influences our perception of the conflict, of each side party to the conflict, and of the nature of “acceptable” interaction and communication. You rarely see conflict-related images of women – Palestinian or Israeli – unless they are mourning the loss of a loved one or themselves suffering in one way or another. You almost never see strong women, in control of and making decisions about their own fate.

My meeting with this subject matter came, coincidentally, just after reading an analysis by Gila Danino-Yona of photographic news coverage depicting the presumed role and place of women in the Arab Spring revolutions in North Africa. I realized that right here at home, I was witnessing women taking an outspoken and proactive approach to political activity that runs directly counter to the West’s dominant perception of Arab women.

I also realized that I could document Palestinian protests in one of two ways. I could choose to reinforce and maintain the current, ego- and male-dominated paradigm of conflict: you shoot, I shoot back. My gun is bigger than your gun. Or I could choose to allow my own perception to be altered and evolve – starting at the immediate, visual level – and attempt to honestly and accurately capture images of this new paradigm and new approach now being written by Palestinian women.

You are exhibiting at an art gallery – is this a political or artistic project? 

I have chosen to photograph a subject that is clearly political in nature. But this is an art exhibition. I leave it up to the women to make their own political statements. I am creating art. My intention was to capture and present visual images that cause people to stop and think and, hopefully, reconsider the manner in which they view their world. I want my photographs to shake things up. The West is used to seeing images of Arab women concealed beneath amorphous religious Muslim garb, or otherwise hidden at home, making food and producing babies while their men are out leading the fight. I’d bet most Western audiences aren’t used to seeing Palestinian women (or Arab women, in general, for that matter) dressed in skinny jeans, designer hi-top sneakers, Ray Bans and matching keffiyehs. And I think most audiences might be even more confused to see these same women going head to head with heavily-armed infantry troops and paramilitary police forces.

This incongruity is one of the things that grants the women a certain element of power on the ground. And I think it’s also what grants power to my images. I’m very curious to see how this will be received by a Western audience, when we open in June.

How did you choose your subjects?

I didn’t. They chose me. I don’t like to push myself on subjects. If someone doesn’t want to be a subject, if they don’t want to be photographed, then I won’t force them. The more you push yourself on someone, the more the resulting images have to do with you and the less they have to do with your subject. I try to keep myself out of the picture as much as possible. I simply spent time with them. Those individuals who wanted to talk with me, who were happy to be photographed, I obliged. And those who didn’t, I let them be. I am not the subject. They are.

Have you encountered difficulties making this project happen?

As a Jewish Israeli working in Palestine, I have never faced any discrimination from Palestinians. I have never felt threatened. The greatest difficulties I encountered over the past 14 months were, unfortunately, the result of Israeli military actions. Conflict photographers, due to the very nature of their work, often find themselves in the line of fire, caught between opposing sides. This is an accepted risk. However, press photographers – be they Palestinian, Israeli or international – working in the West Bank are frequently targeted directly by Israeli troops. We have been threatened with arrest and shot at with tear gas grenades and various types of rubber and plastic-coated steel bullets. This, clearly, makes it harder to work.

Was your position as an Israeli male an obstacle to the project? Has it informed your perspective? 

I am an Israeli Jewish man, with all that means in terms of my upbringing, my socialization and my personal history. There is nothing I can do about that. But this needn’t be a deficit. It can be a distinct advantage. I am, for all intents and purposes, the polar opposite of the Palestinian women upon whom this project is focusing. Due to the extreme disparity of our life experiences, I could have condemned this project from the start. But that would be buying into the dominant approach I mentioned earlier that dictates nearly aspect of this conflict, down even to our visual perception of it. Or – and this is what I chose to do – I could simply wipe the slate clean: shut my mouth and open my mind. I had to start from scratch. I didn’t come to argue or to debate. I didn’t come to talk at all. I came to listen and to take pictures. And the best pictures come when you stop looking inward and start looking outward.


What does the name of your project mean? 

Project curator Saher Saman and I decided to discard the project’s initial working title – “Palestine: Women First” – as we preferred something in the language of the women activists whose work I have been documenting in photographs for the past 14 months. We wanted Arabic but we weren’t looking for a title necessarily easy for a non-Arabic speaking audience to wrap its tongue around. The project name was the subject of prolonged discussion and debate and numerous options were considered and eliminated for one reason or another. Either the meaning wasn’t exactly right, or the sound of the word itself was not pleasing to the ear. I felt like I was choosing the name for a child about to be born. Throughout this process, we consulted with many of the women whose images appear in the exhibit, seeking their thoughts and suggestions. Time was running short and the options simply weren’t what we wanted. One evening earlier this week, hopeless and at the point where I was prepared to simply give in and stick with the original English working title, I was driving with a friend from Ramallah to Jerusalem. I laid bare to her my desperation, hoping for – at least – some words of comfort. But she turned to me and said “How about nesa’iyeh?” Nesa’iyeh means “feminist” or “a woman thing.” It was love at first sight. I knew, immediately, that this was the project name. It is a name that respects and honors those portrayed in the exhibition’s images, and one that is in line with the cultural and linguistic context in which it was created.

“Nesa’iyéh (a woman thing),” will open on June 15 at marji gallery & contemporary projects in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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    1. Jo Prostko

      Beautiful. Strong. Shukran.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Danya

      Mati, did you interview the women as well? Can you share more of the ideas and perspectives you heard from the women you photographed? I am very interested in the following line, I am particular interested in hearing about the second two.

      ‘eliminating the Israeli occupation, confronting the totalitarian nature of the Palestinian Authority, altering their own place as women in a patriarchal Middle Eastern society.’

      Reply to Comment
    3. Mati Milstein

      Hi Danya, I didn’t conduct any formal interviews as the intention was not to write up a news or feature story about it. However, during the course of the past 14 months I have spent hours with the activists, sometimes on a more formal basis and sometimes much less so, asking questions but mostly just listening to what they have to say to me and to each other. As for your questions, I’d rather not speak for them. I recommend you take a look at this article by Linah Alsaafin: http://electronicintifada.net/content/imperfect-revolution-palestines-15-march-movement-one-year/11092

      Reply to Comment
    4. Joel

      Uhh..isn’t the guy behind Ray Bans girl non-violently throwing a rock?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Kolumn9

      Throwing rocks can be considered non-violent depending on the religion of the person who is throwing the rock. Muslims are graded on a curve when it comes to violence, oppression and intolerance.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Jack

      Where did you read that highly enlighted stuff? Brevikmanifest?

      Reply to Comment
    7. palestinian

      Occupying people,shooting them ,stealing their land,culture,heritage and history ,demolishing their homes,humiliating them,torturing them ….and lying can be considered self defense(not terrorism)when the perpetrators are the “chosen”.Thats what money,deception and dirty minds do to people.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Joel and Kolumn9 need to paint all protest identically. I think the possibility of alternatives to rocks, etc. scares them. They cannot be wrong; that is not allowed.
      Nonviolence infiltarates cultural rules, uses loop holes, forces cognitive dissonance. Women can break the contours of conflict. So can fasts. I remain hopeful for us, humans, after reading pieces like this.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Mati Milstein

      Hi Joel – This photographic project focuses on a particular group of non-violent women activists. Not on young men and what they may or may not choose to do. If you notice in the image to which you make reference: though this woman is surrounded my young men throwing rocks, she herself is not throwing rocks or engaging in any other such act, but has instead made a conscious decision to advance on foot towards the Israeli lines holding no more than a flag and a “V” sign. This image, the way I see, illustrates a fundamental difference between the respective approaches of men and women to this conflict.

      Reply to Comment
    10. caden

      Mati, I notice the women here are pretty hot. Was that a deliberate choice?

      Reply to Comment
    11. Caden, is there one article involving women activists in which you haven’t felt it necessary to comment on their physical appearance?
      Incredible as it may seem, not everybody shares this misogynistic outlook.

      Reply to Comment
    12. caden

      Lighten up Vick, I was being complimentary.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Caden, you should try your ‘complimentary’ technique on a ‘hot’ woman. Let us know how you get on.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Jack

      Nice pictures at your homepage Mati, bookmarked.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Joel

      Hi Mati. I’ve e-mailed you in the past and told you that I love your photos. Nothing’s changed.

      Stay safe.

      Reply to Comment
    16. caden

      Do I sense interest there Lisa.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Joel_O

      Just a clarification: I’ve been posting with the signature “Joel” for some time on 972. And the above Joel is not me. So… just to avoid confusion, this needs to be said and hence forth I’ll use “Joel_O”
      Ps. This doesn’t seem to be the only topic in which there might be a risk for confusion. It’s in fact a bit troubling that I know that someone else is now posting comments in “my name”, even thou I’m obviously not the only Joel around… Hrmpf.

      Reply to Comment
    18. If by ‘interest,’ you mean ‘contempt’ – then, yes.

      Reply to Comment
    19. caden

      You know what they say Lisa, the opposite of contempt is passion

      Reply to Comment
    20. XYZ

      Try as they might, pro-Palestinian propagandists trying to appeal to Western liberal/progressive sentiment will NOT be able to separate between supposedly “non-violent” protests and the usual violent Palestinian acttions. You can’t say, “well, put aside the regular Palestinian violence and terror and focus on the more politically-acceptable relatively non-violent protests and then say ‘this represents the Palestinians Israel should talk to'”.
      It was the Palestinian suicide bomber campaign plus the ongoing indiscriminate rocket attacks that soured mainstream Israeli public opinion against a Palestinian state. Propaganda of this sort will not succeed in getting people to forget about these things. In any event, it is not Western liberal/left/progressive opinion that the Palestinians need to get to, it is ISRAELI public opinion that needs to be influenced because they are the ones who are going to have to make the decisions about whether to give the Palestinians anything or not. So far, the Palestinians are failing miserably in this.

      Reply to Comment
    21. Kolumn9

      No, Jack, the NY Times had a bit of an aside on describing the new non-violent protests where they mentioned in parentheses that Palestinians don’t consider stone throwing to be violent. It was left at that, in parentheses, without undermining the premise of these being non-violent protests.

      As for the grading of Muslims on a curve. That seems obvious considering the pass given to Muslim states to oppress and the liberal justifications for such wonderful Muslim cultural practices as beating their wives, killing their daughters, stoning gays, throwing acid on women’s faces and being violently intolerant to any criticism. According to many liberals (noble souls like the late Christopher Hitchens excluded) Western morals have no room to judge Muslim morality and in any case shouldn’t because of the ‘crimes’ of the West which apparently turn every Muslim and Arab worldwide into a victim, free of agency over his actions. According to such reasoning in the end the responsibility for Muslim actions always rests elsewhere while the actions are either understandable or inevitable.

      Greg, I hope that you can distinguish between moralizing idealism and reality when looking at humanity from whatever godly heights you have set yourself on, but after reading some of your comments I do not remain hopeful.

      Reply to Comment
    22. Ruben Kaufman

      It is a shame that immature goofs like Caden are allowed to post completely off-topic and utterly stupid comments when the proper subject is serious and meant to raise awareness of issues of humanity.

      Reply to Comment
    23. Jack

      Thanks for proving my point, that you actually find you stuff on right-wing extemists sites.
      You are a bitter man that defends the occupation.

      Reply to Comment
    24. Kolumn9

      @Jack. You think Christopher Hitchens was a right-wing extermist? How did you like that extreme right-winger’s Robert Fisk’s article on the accepted norms of racism in the Arab world?

      I consider the occupation to be legitimate in the absence of viable alternatives.

      Reply to Comment
    25. Jack


      Do you consider Christohper Hitchens a rightwing?

      The occupation is illegal, you are pro-illegal measures and prejudice.

      Reply to Comment
    26. Kolumn9

      @Jack. Christopher Hitchens was a liberal with balls. His moral positions were consistent regardless of the race, religion or location of the subject matter and didn’t suffer from the fog of post-colonialism. He was also an anti-Zionist because he disagreed with nationalism as a concept and an ideology. Here too he was consistent.

      You haven’t actually argued against any of my points.

      Not only that, but you are factually wrong in your responses. The occupation is completely legal according to all international law.

      Reply to Comment
    27. Jack

      There is nothing much one could argue with prejudiced persons. Given them facts wont change one iota.
      Occupation is not legal in any sense since its being used keeping and occupied people in total control while stealing their land.
      But as I said, facts wont bite on certain people. Lets see if you prove me correct again.

      Reply to Comment
    28. Kolumn9

      Jack, the occupation is perfectly legal according to international law, including according to all those nice rulings by the ICJ that you seem to enjoy quoting.

      You can’t argue with my other points because you have no arguments to back yourself up. It is thus easier to dismiss them as prejudice, which I must admit is a very effective form of getting people to avoid using their brains.

      Reply to Comment
    29. Jack

      So you even deny the prejudice?

      “Muslims are graded on a curve when it comes to violence, oppression and intolerance.”

      “As for the grading of Muslims on a curve. ”

      Would it be ok to talk about “jews” in general degrading terms? Thats not prejudice (or even beyond that)?

      Reply to Comment
    30. Kolumn9

      Jack, Muslims are graded on a curve. It isn’t prejudice to state that which is true. There is a reason why there is no movement to boycott Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Sudan, etc. There is a reason why there are practically no effort put into investigating human rights abuses in Muslim countries. They are in fact graded on a curve.

      Egyptian Islamists that demand death to gays, death of anyone that insults the Koran, death to those that leave Islam, inferior rights for non-Muslims, the repression of women and all those pleasant things are labelled moderates in the West. HOW IS THAT NOT A CURVE???

      Judaism and Jews are talked about in degrading terms all the time, within Israel and abroad, including on this site (see Yossi Gurvitz’s pieces). Much of the time the attacks come from the left. When the criticism is fair there is nothing particularly wrong with it. On the other hand even discussing Islam by a non-Muslim without extreme fawning is either slammed as being intolerant, or insensitive, or disturbing the public order and the violent Muslim reaction is considered somehow understandable.

      Reply to Comment
    31. Jack

      Thats the point. Your ignorance and prejudice is obviously too deep for you to understand what you are writing. You cant speak of muslims, just like you cant speak of jews. Thats generalizing, and in this context, degrading. Muslims nor jews are a coherent mass of people.

      Reply to Comment
    32. Kolumn9

      Jack, yes, it is possible to generalize the treatment of Islam and Muslims in liberal circles in the West. It is possible to do so because it is obvious and blatant. Your response to my last point is exemplary of the typical line taken. Rather than responding to my points, which make my case clear and obvious to a three year old you attack me on personal grounds.

      How is a response of ‘not all Muslims are the same’ a rebuttal of the FACT that the liberal circles in the West have a double standard when dealing with Islam and Muslims?? If you find me somewhere where I even argued all Muslims are the same you can have a cookie.

      I’ll let you off if you explain to me how it is possible that the entirety of Western liberal media has presented the Muslim Brotherhood as a ‘moderate’ organization, without grading on a massive curve.

      Reply to Comment
    33. Jack

      Well like I said, “facts dont bite” and your ignorance and prejudice is too deep for you to understand what you are writing. Most people accept prejudice as something negative, didnt you learn this basics in school?

      Reply to Comment
    34. Kolumn9

      @Jack, yep, like I said, when you are incapable of arguing with facts, you must claim prejudice.

      Reply to Comment
    35. Jack

      My response is grounded in facts.
      1. On the occupation.
      2. On debate on muslimS and jewS I refered to the problem of your ignorance and prejudice which hamper your reasoning.

      While I have repeated this many times now there is obviously no point in continue to do so since you refuse the very premise of arguing, that is on facts.
      With your argument, one cant critise prejudiced people because according to you thats considered ad hominem.

      Reply to Comment
    36. Kolumn9

      @Jack, Again, you would rather discuss my supposed prejudice then respond to my arguments, because you can’t.

      Reply to Comment
    37. Jack

      Proved my point again. I just made clear that I did that, but I understand that you dont want a legit debate so I respecefully end it right here.

      Reply to Comment
    38. Elisheva Gilad

      Dear Mati and 972,

      Thank you for bringing these beautiful pictures and story to light. I would love to see this exhibit in Israel. Any plans for that?

      Reply to Comment
    39. Hi Elisheva,

      Thanks for your kind words! We are planning a number of stops in the U.S. before heading to the Middle East, with tentative shows in the Gulf, Amman, Beirut and here. I am maintaining the exhibit’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/PalestineWomenFirst) and you may remain updated there.


      Reply to Comment
    40. Iscah Carey

      Hi Mati~ Lucky me I live in Santa Fe, and look forward to your opening!

      Reply to Comment
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