Women, Militarism and Geographical Space
Haggith Gor and Rela Mazali
paper presented at tje conference
Social and Spatial Coexistence -Lessons of Gendered Exclusions
May,28- June, 1, 2000,
The Department of Geography and Human Environment,
Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel
In 1948 my mother lived in kibbutz Dan with my sister Talia who was a few month old baby then. When shooting started the women and children were evacuated to Haifa. Yet the women had to take turns back at the kibbutz cooking and cleaning for the men for 4 week periods. They left their children with the other women who were evacuated, in order to provide the men with the needed services. My sister Talia, did not grasp yet her role in men’s society, so she did not stop crying for the whole 4 weeks while my mother was supporting the fighting men by women’s chores. The psychological well being of babies had no priority at that time. Military considerations were the first priority. Dislocation of mothers from their babies for the sake of the men’s needs was a natural thing to do; on a military scale of criteria the fighting men had the highest status at the social structure of 1948, endowed by their role as the defenders of the community. As such their needs were taken care by women, whose position was lower in that structure. Kibbutz society that claimed to be equal had practices, dictated by military codes, that were not so equal for women or children. In a perspective of 50 years later, we can view it in a critical eye and see the harm that was done to the children and the unjust treatment of the women at that time. Yet our ability to apply the same criteria is somewhat limited when it has to do with Palestinians in our times.
A few weeks ago, Gideon Levy wrote in Ha’aretz about Naserin Ni’rat a young Palestinian woman who was not permitted by the Israeli authorities to return to her 7-month-old baby, Gihad. She left him with his grandmother at their home in Matalon village next to Jenin, and traveled together with her husband to visit her sick mother in Jordan. Coming back after a week, the father was allowed to enter the West Bank but she wasn't. Israeli law does not define her as a resident since she grew up in Jordan. Gihad, the baby was living for weeks separated from his mother and he cries all the time. He re-lived the same trauma that my sister had as a baby. His psychological need to grow with his mother is on a low priority in Israeli society, as it was for Jewish babies 50 years ago. There are many layers and diverse facets to this impermeability. It relates to right wing perspectives on making the whole of Palestine Jewish, to the silent deportation of Palestinians from Jerusalem, and to the population control of Palestinians under Jewish occupation.
When we bring the example of a baby and how the closed entrance zone policy, dictated by Israeli militaristic rule, prevents his mother from nurturing him, we deal with an obvious case that is clear and apparent to us. This issue is immediately connected to the arguments between right and left, to issues of human rights, but not to the issue of militarism. Militarism in Israeli society generally, is invisible, we see through it as if it is not present in our lives.
In my presentation today I want to discuss the physical presence of militarism in our space as women, the influence it has on us, its opacity in our consciousness.
The paper I’m presenting grew out of a project of two women’s study groups ongoing for over three years, dealing with the subject of ‘Women in Militarized Society.’ These study groups were independent framework, facilitated by Rela Mazali, in which women research and create knowledge about their experiences living in a militarized space, both in physical and social terms. We draw upon the theoretical work of feminist writers such as Cynthia Enloe, Kathy Ferguson, Ximenia Bunster, and others, integrating this with our personal insights to construct a body of growing knowledge. The study groups have also led to the establishment of a feminist, political movement, “New Profile,” working for the demilitarization of Israeli society. Some of the movement strategies have involved challenges to the spatial exclusion or segregation so typical of military sites, for instance, by holding demonstrations at the main induction center (Bakum), or publicly exposing and opposing the spatial constraints (imprisonment) imposed upon conscientious objectors. We also use the strategy of letter writing by civilians, particularly civilian women, to high-ranking military officers. All of these amount to a defiant entry into a conceptual space from which the military routinely excludes civilians and particularly civilian women. The movement and the study groups are unique in their systematic and continuous linkage of experiential research and academic knowledge, to create a means of empowerment for political activism.
Militaristic considerations are ruling us, we don’t like to say it or see it, as we prefer to think of ourselves as living in a developed western democratic country.
It is not very pleasant for us to see it, to look at it and examine our unconscious adaptation and cooperation, how we comply and do not ask questions. Everything related to the army is hushed with secrecy that we as women are labeled in relation to it as “non-understanding”. We have no access to information we have no right to express opinion.
Rela Mazali, my co presenter, was invited to give an interview on Israeli television. I decided to come along. We drove in circles for half an hour around the “Hakirya” compound, searching for the TVstudios. This military area in which the television studios are located, is within five minutes walking distance of my home. Our disorientation in the streets of “Hakirya” can serve as an absurd illustration of how this vast army zone, in the midst of Tel Aviv, so close, yet so far, is an invisible domain in our consciousness. Since, I have asked several people to tell me how this military zone is represented in maps of the city. Not one of them had any idea, but each one wondered about the peculiar question. I looked at the map myself just to find that the area is signified as an empty orange space, with no characteristics. Its representation as an empty zone correlates with its absence in our minds.
But not only maps are non-specific, not only maps lack representation in our minds, also our knowledge about bases in other areas is missing. Since everything is so secret around the army, there is no access to sociological information, questions of such nature are not even asked. Last summer for example, I had a student, who grew up as a child in an army base. She wrote her final paper about the stratification into militaristic classes she experienced in her childhood. She described the discrimination she had to put up with as a child of ground maintenance personnel. In the base she lived, the rank hierarchy and the order of importance between pilots and ground maintenance personnel reflected on the children’s social life. The lowest status was reserved for daughters of the lowest ranking ground mechanics.
Cynthia Enloe writes in her book “Banana Beaches and Bases” about American military bases in different parts of the world. She says, “most bases managed to slip into the daily lives of the nearby community. …(They) become politically invisible if its ways of doing business and seeing the world insinuate themselves into a community’s schools, consumer tastes, housing patterns, children games, adults, friendships, jobs and gossip.“
Orna and Michal, two friends of mine, live not far away from the fence of the biggest bomb factory in Israel. The military industry compound is located next to an expensive prestigious neighborhood, or should I better say, the respectable neighborhood is located next to the military industry zone, as this is the order of importance it takes in our lives. In most parts of western world citizens of middle upper class do not live in the vicinity of a huge warehouses where tones of bombs are stored without questioning, and inquiring its influence. But in a highly militaristic society, such as Israel, these issues are blurred and concealed in our consciousness. On January 1992 in Nof Yam next to Herzelia Pituah, there was a big explosion in the military industry that is located few meters away from the residential area. Several employees were killed and wounded, and a great damage was caused to property nearby. Since it has to do with the military public criticism and questioning was minute and the whole matter was silenced.
Lately we witness a public campaign against cellular phone antennas. In this social fight against the hazardous radiating antennas, the big telephone companies invest a lot of money in advertisements, yet groups of civilians got organized to remove the health immense away from their vicinity. Yet civilians don’t ask questions regarding the immense vast areas in which chemical materials are stored, chemicals that might blow up or contaminate the ground, the water. We block out questions on nuclear power, we are excluded from questioning, from doubting from raising a public debate.
Rachel Cornwell and Andrew Wells report in the Peace Review, September 1999, about increasing health problems around current and former US bases that have been linked to environmental destruction. They have found that "land, water, and air (around army bases) are polluted with toxic waste and noise, resulting in high rates of illness, low birth weight babies and deafness.” Despite this damage to the social and natural environment, the US did not change its deploying strategy.” On 1991 the Philippine Senate voted to close down Clark Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Station after a long civil struggle against the military domination that was established there by the US. These two bases were closed down in 1992, leaving behind toxic soil and water. Against its own policy guidance, the US military left the Philippine government with no documentation on the extent of the contamination, the Clark Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Station are considered the most contaminated sites of all US overseas facilities. They now serve as residences, tourist sites and industrial facilities. Various illness, disabilities and congenital problems in the near by communities are associated with their environmental contamination.
We don’t have comprehensiveinformation about the equivalent situation in Israel. But only last week (12/5/00) Ha’arez published a report of the Water Authorities about contamination of water wells in Hashalom Way in Tel Aviv, where a military industry was located until just a while ago. The Environmental Ministry, and ground water experts claim that this recently closed military industry and the existing one in Ramat Hasharon, cause severe damage to the soil and water resources. High concentration of poisonous metals, which cause cancer, were found in the water ground underneath the closed military industry of Hashsalom Way.
We are conditioned to accept this as natural. The presence of military facilities in the midst of civilian residence goes unquestioned. We take it for granted. This is just another way we are channeled to be obedient, “non-asking,” non-questioning citizens. We circle around these areas, some of which are located very close to our homes. These geographical areas include military industries, firing ranges, army camps, the tops of high buildings, where military installations are frequent. They are hidden areas, no one talks about them, no one thinks about them, and no one pays attention to the restrictions they introduce into our lives or to the meanings they entail. Their mere existence and our unconscious reluctance to relate to them, is part of the layout of accepting military secrecy as a routine factor which is taken for granted in our ostensibly civil society. This disposition prevents criticism, it applies the security secrecy to everything relating to the army, including nuclear reactors. Nuclear centers in Israel are perceived as far and remote though, in nuclear terms of incidents and failures, they are located right in our backyard, . [I would say even inside the house…] A small group of feminist women and other activists demonstrate every year against the nuclear plant in Dimona, they just did last week, but they hardly get any media coverage, leaving them in the black hole of the public absence of consciousness. In the same way, we accept ammunition warehouses, due to our acceptance of our exclusion from them by secrecy, we stay uninformed about the threats they pose to our health and well being. We accept the obscurant space they create, we accept the lack of knowledge & consciousness, and we don’t criticize.
In almost every country in the world, from Sweden to India, the left is active in criticizing nuclear plants. In Israel, it has hardly penetrated the public debate. Our natural attitude toward the limitation of space is part of the normalization of the military in our life. The locations of military compounds in the most expensive urban areas are part of daily routine, unquestionable and natural. If anything might change it, it would be financial considerations, not the pollution, or the limitation of space they create, or the penetration of militarism into our daily life.
We are also often unaware of the exclusion mechanism, which we had learned to tolerate and live with and unaware of the social stratification it causes in our lives.
Patricia Cooper and Ruth Oldenziel show how exploration of some of the social meaning attached to bathroom space, offer clues about the cultural construction of gender. Oldenziel claims that the discussion of cleanliness and the concern of separating women’s and men’s toilets /rest areas in a wartime context, express and reinforce socially and culturally constructed boundaries. “Absence and presence of bathrooms had social and spatial dimensions, women could not be hired into the railroad workplace until there were toilet facilities available for them. A classic excuse for not hiring women has always been the lack of rest rooms….bathroom construction re-ordered work space and inserted women materially and symbolically into male work territory. The wall of the bathroom not only created female space, but in their literal concreteness, they also hinted that women might remain after the war ended… although bathroom made women’s presence obvious, they also segregated workers by sex and race, affirming familiar boundaries. The bathroom space signified inclusion but also segregation, separation and difference.
They show how toilet facilities or the lack of them for example were brought as reason for continued exclusion of women from military institutes, but metaphorically also from power and control.
The same way the “bathroom is a significant site for feminists analysis, loaded with powerful meanings” so are military bases analysis in our culture.
Military zones are off limits for most women, for Arabs, for the civilian disabled population and for many newcomers, new immigrants to Israel. In areas destined for military practices male dominance seems only natural. Army bases, virtually invisible and transparent to most of us, create an exclusion that seems natural. In geographical terms the military segregates women and men, and creates a clear differentiation. Men in Israel thus come to dominate larger areas, both physically and mentally. There is a basic difference in the perception of the country’s map and the feeling of geographical space that men have in our society - created through their soldierhood - and the ones women have. The way we are conditioned to accept this as natural is yet another way of accustoming us to obedience.
Jewish women are conscripted into the Israeli army and serve as soldiers too. But geographical exclusion works in ways that are complicated and often indirect. Women are worth less in military terms, since they are banned from combat duties, they are not allowed into the zones of important military decisions. They cannot cross the lines, within the military compounds of important matters, therefor they don’t know what is happening there. Members of our society who have the higher status are the ones who get into these important military zones, and they rise higher in the hierarchy of importance. These individuals can be, by definition, only men. Within the military area, there are different classes and women are in the lowest one.
The “pit” is the name for the top command headquarters in the main compound of “hakirya” in the center of Tel Aviv. It is a physical place, dug underground, under the buildings of tel aviv, where I live. The ones who are allowed to enter and know what is going on there enjoy a special high status. Women only serve coffee and answer the phones there. They enter this secret sacred important place just to give services to the men. They are stationed there temporarily, and they have low ranks. Amira Dotan who was Commander of the Women’s Corps – with the acronym of “Chen” meaning “grace”, struggled to sit in on high command meetings but she lost. The role of women there stayed the same, coming in and out to serve the men.
Our view is that the firing ranges and military areas around the country expel women from power centers in our country in both the physical and metaphorical sense.
Whereas in police, courts, parliament, government etc, the entrance to civilians, including women, is allowed and the exclusion mechanisms are hidden, in military compounds they are exposed, clear and obvious, but are considered natural so no one challenges them. We don’t ask questions about them, we don’t consider how much space they take up in our life, the militarization of our life is translucent.
Israel is a small country with a big army and a lot of military areas. We have developed a complementary consciousness to the sequence of bases, a consciousness of a society under siege. The army camps and bases are physically outside in the land everywhere and it is mentally in our minds as something natural, normal and acceptable. It is not against common sense any more, it is the common sense of the country therefore it is peculiar to question it. It has created a kind of thinking where the illogical becomes logical and makes perfect sense.
The basic western perception of land, in my view is militaristic and chauvinist in general. We may notice some common expressions concerning land: “mother land, virgin land, conquering a land, owning land” etc. These idioms portray concepts of western culture and history toward the relationship of men and land. Kate Wyane quotes Allen Laguna-Pueblo, professor, activist, storyteller and writer who tells us for example that“… all Native American peoples view the land as holy – as intelligent, mystically powerful, and infused with supernatural vitality.
In western cultures however, where land has women’s attributes (mother, virgin) men are trained to conquer both lands and women, and rule them, and get the maximum out of them. Men in the west are not used to perceive land or women as – as intelligent, mystically powerful, and infused with supernatural vitality. In western society women were/are considered as irrational creatures powerless and passive – to be acted upon.
Both land and women are objectified and seen as targets of conquest. During training in Israeli army units it is common to give hills and other parts of land names of women. This way, when a military unit has successfully done its mission, it did not just conquer the hill but also the woman. You can hear the soldiers and commanders says “we conquered Sara” “Sharon is ours” “ we marked Dana” this way they don’t just perform an army exercise in which they conquer the land, control the hill, but they also conquer the woman as well. I have just read that some Israeli intelligenceunits, has a final exercise of their training course, in Tel Baruch, an area next to the beach of prostitutes and pimps. They watch the hookers through night vision telescopes, while they are camouflaged with bushes, as if the women were a security target to be put under surveillance, then they report what they see. A successful completion of the mission is to give detailed report of every action of the target (both prostitute and client) without being noticed. It is considered in the army, I guess, as a funny morale-boosting exercise. In deeper analysis it is not very surprising that for the military land target, enemy target and sexual target are synonyms.
1991 In the Philippines I was staying in a small hotel on the beach of La Union while I taught there. One afternoon I got into a conversation with an African American who I found out was a soldier in a near by base. Unlike white young and old men that were sitting there, he did not have a Filipina woman pampering him. We discussed what we saw: white males with money and power and Filipina women serving them. I was critical of the exploitation I saw in front of me. He gave me the small details in daily stories of soldiers of how it works in reality. He described the attitudes of American soldiers in the base he served toward what they call “the local women. He made a connection between the racist attitude toward the Filipina women and racism against African American in the states he that experienced as a child and teenagers in the south. I admired his smart analysis of the similar signs of oppression. I liked his feminist sensitiveness toward the women trapped in that social hard situation. It was for me the beginning of learning about women sexual exploitation in the tourist industry and around army bases. Filipina feminists made the connections between the global marketing, militarism and patriarchal values in their fights against the American bases. They brought into the public attention how many poor women were forced to leave their lands and do cheap labor services for military men. The militarized prostitution became a bond between the right wing the feminist and the communist in their anti based campaign. Cynthia Enloe once asked rela if we, like other countries in the world, have prostitutes houses next to military bases. Rela answered that Israel, in a way, physically and mentally, the whole country is a big military base.
And as such there are several questions that we have to ask ourselves. In Okinawa we know from women anti militaristic organizations, the rate of rape of women is very high we also know that wives beating of military personnel are very high. These are questions that have rarely if ever been raised in Israel? What are the direct impacts of men stationed in the military bases on the women they are in touch with. We know that the military thinking influence the behavior in daily practices regarding women.
If the whole country approximates a military base and life seems normal and natural in an army camp it is only logical to leave a Palestinian mother out of the base, we cannot allow her to enter our base to take care of her baby. We might allow her though to take her Palestinian baby out of our camp, because we consider ourselves human.