“The iconic photograph of Leila Khaled, the picture which made her the symbol of Palestinian resistance and female power, is extraordinary in many ways: the gun held in fragile hands, the shiny hair wrapped in a keffiah , the delicate Audrey Hepburn face refusing to meet your eye.”
(The Guardian - 26 January 2001)
Alright, I got a bone to pick with this caption. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Leila Khaled, for whatever anyone may say about her, is a fighter. And I have some issues with the way that female fighters are talked about versus the way that their male counterparts are talked about. Women are not allowed to be viewed as fighters, as revolutionaries, and as human beings. And the fact that this caption shows up with this image and people don’t critically take on the language we use to talk about women in war, women in revolutions, women in armed struggle, is really, really interesting to me.
I don’t know how the image and the text were paired up. All I know is while I agree with the assessment of female power, I see nothing ‘fragile’ about the hands that clasp that gun. I see nothing ‘delicate’ in her face and I certainly don’t channel Audrey Hepburn when gazing at this picture. I don’t feel the need to talk about Khaled’s inherent fragility and delicateness in, what, a need to water her and her actions down, make them a little more palatable? I don’t need to liken her to film actresses so that it almost seems as if we should be viewing her as a role-player, rather than a revolutionary.
I’ve written extensive papers on women of the Basque separatist movements and how they were viewed by the Spanish media. They were often discussed in terms of their menstrual cycles, the blood they shed for their political beliefs linked irrevocably to the blood they shed as ‘delicate women’. They often took the roles of messengers where sexism actually helped them move about more efficiently, since a woman could never be a rebel. They were allowed access to prisoners and could diffuse information to their separatist comrades. They were discussed only in terms of maternity and while motherhood is certainly a radical concept in and of itself, Spanish media constantly harped on the political subverting these women, making them non-women. If you can’t lighten up their image with commentary on their fragile hands and delicate faces, better make them ‘not-women’.
The discourse surrounding woman revolutionaries is vastly different from the way males are. And as someone who is often read as female and who wants to be known for the political work they put out there, knowing that much will be made of my small hands or my menstrual cycle at the expense of my politics, my ideals, and my struggle infuriates me. Unless this was the interpretation Leila Khaled wanted to be attached to this image, I’m seriously unimpressed. I’m unimpressed that no mention is made of what she did, only what she looks like.
True. It is very annoying, and The Guardian quote up above is a very shitty description of this photo. I don’t know who wrote it but I know the lens being applied is a white male lens, which tends to automatically place women in a sexualized context of femininity or lack thereof, no matter what other cultural contexts are being visually represented or addressed in immediately relevant discourse. Thus, no matter what a woman is pictured doing, her hands are deemed either “fragile” or “mannish”, her hair either “shiny and flowing” or “unkempt”, her features either “delicate” or “rugged”, and so on, creating an elaborate code language by which the white male lens is actually merely rating the desirability of its subject, necessarily according to its own racist sexist politicized standards, even as it feigns a posture of universal objectivity. Regarding this particular photo, the fragile delicate Audrey Hepburn eyes-averted lingo seems to be an over-reaching expression of surprise and approval that a Palestinian freedom fighter has achieved a high rating. That’s the subject of discussion, not the substance of the actual freedom fight in which she is engaged.