Challenging the Masculine War Myth

Judith Gabriel
Miriam Cooke giving a lecture at the University of Washington on January 31, 2017.

Women and the War Story
By Miriam Cooke
Berkeley: University of California Press Berkeley 1996

The War Story has traditionally been a masculine genre, blazoning with sex, guts and glory, in which women only play supporting roles. If not depicted as victims of rape and plunder, they are wanly drawn as nurses or long-suffering mothers-a virtual auxiliary of weeping non-combatants.

In the 20th century, new roles for women emerged in the War Story, and in the Arab world, which include the female Algerian guerrilla, the mothers of the Palestinian Intifada shebab, and then the woman writer.

"Women and the War Story" by Miriam Cooke is about wars and gender in the contemporary Arab literature. Cooke analyzes, through detailed plot summaries, the choices Arab women made as they wrote about their experiences during wars, not as combatants per se, but in a new role, that of "the woman who has lived war not as a victim but as a survivor, who may not have borne arms but who has played all the other roles a war culture prescribes." These women have generated a body of recent war-related fiction, much of it yet to be published in English, although Cooke notes that "Arab women’s writings are increasingly translated into all the major, and even not so major, languages of the world and some Arab women are receiving a recognition that few of their male colleagues have enjoyed."

While the book’s title might indicate a universal approach to the subject, it comes as no surprise that this noted professor of Arabic literature at Duke University would focus almost entirely on the Arab world. While the book’s "internationalist feminist" exploration of women’s war roles extends to other geographical fronts, including Vietnam and Bosnia, its primary focus is the writings of Arab women emanating from four wars in the region: the Algerian war of independence from the French, the Palestinian-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967 and the Intifada, the Iraq-Iran War, and the Gulf War.

Cooke has written widely on the subject. In "War’s Other Voices: Women Writers in the Lebanese Civil War," published in 1988 by Cambridge University, she writes about the women she calls the "Beirut Decentrists,"women excluded from both the literary canon and social discourse. She co-edited "Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing" (Indiana University Press, 1990), considered to be the first collection of Arab women’s writings organized within a feminist framework. She also co-edited "Gendering War Talk" in 1993, and in 1994, with Roshni Rustomji-Kerns, co-edited "Blood Into Ink: South Asian and Middle Eastern Women Write War," the first anthology to present 20th century women’s writings about conflict and war outside the West.

Levantine Marginalia

The non-Western war story is generally dismissed as if dispatched from a front far beyond the pale of human experience. For example, in a 1997 review of "Women and the War Story" in the Nation Magazine, Barbara Ehrenreich noted that "Oddly, the only example Cooke gives of the war story and its pernicious contract between violence and glory, dualism and death, is one that even the most determined anti-Eurocentrist might find a bit exotic: a 1977 collection of photographs from the war in Lebanon, titled ‘Harb Lubnan.’"

Cooke came across the photo collection while she herself was in "exotic" Lebanon. She had started studying Arabic at the University of Edinburgh in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. Two years later, she attended the American University in Beirut. Because of the Civil War, she could not return until 1980, when she spent three months in Lebanon again, meeting with the emerging numbers of new women writers.

Before she left Beirut, she came across "Harb Lubnan," a 1977 commercially popular table-top-book collection of 160 pages of photographs, 32 of which she uses in a chapter titled "Subvert the Dominant Paradigm," calling them "a concrete example of how the confusion of war can be streamlined into the black and white certainties of a binary narrative" with its depictions of snipers, bodies, and defiant fighters manning their weapons, symbolizing the "masculinization that is the sine qua non of victory."

Crimes of Silence

Women writers present a worldview that offers alternatives to those traditional "binarisms" of war that Cooke talks about repeatedly in the more generalized, non-localized sections of her book: the dichotomies of war versus peace, home versus front, and civilian versus combatant. They have also sought to transform their own role, and sometimes, those attempts came too late. More specifically, in the chapter entitled "Silence is the Real Crime," Cooke compares men’s and women’s writings on the Algerian experience, and delves into why Algerian women who had taken up arms in the revolution became so quickly suppressed in its aftermath.

"The women did not know how to profit from their war experiences-nor indeed that they might do so," Cooke offers. "In the absence of a concerted attempt on the women’s part to change their conditions, the men quickly established a neotraditional system that deprived the women of any voice. Literary evidence supports a recent contention that Algerian women were not so much forced back into oppression as they were blocked from pursuing opportunities they did not at the time recognize."

According to Cooke, Algerian women did not realize their potential social transformation partly because there was no feminist context within which to carry on their struggle. "The revolution came too soon in the history of modern Arab women’s activism to be recognized as a catalyst for the inscription of feminist issues into the nationalist agenda. War was declared an opportunity that women had failed to exploit."

As a result, she writes, Palestinian women would refer to the Algerian experience, debating how they could battle both the nationalist and the feminist causes, and how they could engage in resistance, lobbying for social change, without letting the window of opportunity pass. Five years after the end of the Algerian revolution, its lessons were being invoked by Palestinian women writers who claimed that women were indispensable to the nationalist revolution, stressing the need for radical changes in society that included feminism as an ideology. How that need is ultimately met is yet to be seen, but awareness of women’s vital role was stirred decades ago.

Women of the Stones

By the time the rest of the world became aware of the Intifada, Palestinian women had already been using the term for 20 years to describe their "women-specific ways of resisting the occupation" without bearing arms. Cooke reports that later, as their courageous exploits entered the realm of legend, these women came to recognize the social possibilities inherent in political resistance. They bought to their war participation "the awareness that if political victory is to have any meaning at all, it must entail social transformation." The resistance effort of these women "becomes self-consciously feminine" as they attempt to wage peace rather than to participate in the destruction of war.

Cooke notes that they were the first among the Arabs to organize themselves politically, however, many Palestinian women have been too overwhelmed by multiple pressures to focus solely on the women’s agenda. She points to the work of Sahar Khalifa ("Wild Thorns," "Sunflower,") who maintained that women should balance their allegiances so that culture, nation, class and gender remain in tension with one another. The tensions are not clear-cut. Khalifa, whom she describes as "the best known woman novelist working in the Occupied Territories," often focuses on gender roles and has been accused of writing only as a feminist. "Writing from inside the Occupied Territories, she is expected to represent her nation uncritically," Cooke says. "Self-criticism is out." Writing from inside also means she didn’t have "the freedom of Palestinian women from elsewhere who can write with impunity about the Israelis and the hardship of separation from the homeland. Equally important, she does not have the distance to overlook the damaging effects of a persisting bourgeois patriarchy." Yet Khalifa confronted the Algerian Lesson, the "fear of the Algerian women’s post-conflict disempowerment."

In her segment on Palestinian women, Cooke also examines the gender and nationalist lines in the work of Najwa Qa’war Farah, Raymonda Tawil and Fadwa Tuqan, each of whom recognized that "women’s disadvantaged positions have a negative impact on Palestinian society and its ability to resist." Palestinian women have felt-as had their Algerian sisters-cheated, diminished. Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi, former spokesperson for the PLO, complained in 1992 that men’s writings about the uprising saw women being again reduced to "the embodiment of the unattained, the perfect goal: fertility, lush land, the womb of society, Palestine itself," their social agency erased.

Cooke stresses throughout the book that it is crucial for women to speak and write while their movements still have the stage and their actions are visible. "Women like Rosie the Riveter in America and the Algerian Jamilas learned too late that actions do not carry their own rewards, but that they must be remembered and repeated so as not to be erased." Such is the task of writers.

This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 28, Summer 1999.

Copyright © 1999 AL JADID MAGAZINE