News coverage of Israel’s invasion of Gaza was sparse when it came to picturing women. Despite the fact that hundreds of the victims are women and their children, we have yet to hear their voices in a meaningful way.
If you were watching the coverage, try to recall a picture or an interview with a Palestinian woman. A quick Google scan of the news images confirms that Palestinian women rarely make the news. Ironically, the only woman regularly pictured was Israeli military spokesperson, Major Avital Leibovich.
The exclusion of women from media coverage of Gaza is sadly the norm. The invisibility of women in print, television and photographs silences them and their experience of war.
Invisibility is not the only way women are silenced. They are also silenced through mediums that appropriate their voices, image and experiences–the most powerful of which are photographs.
Think about the pictures you usually see of women in war zones. Maybe it’s a picture of a young girl with piercing, brown eyes and a worried look. Maybe it’s a picture of a middle-aged woman in a hijab wailing. Maybe it’s a picture of the AIDS-ravaged bodies of women raped by soldiers.
While these photos may evoke a strong emotional response, they don’t tell the stories of their subjects. They fail to provide information that would present the truth and challenge the dominant understandings of gender, race and class that shape and are perpetuated by the media.
The problem with pictures
The problem with pictures is that they are interpretive works that are given the authority of objectivity.
Writer and political activist Susan Sontag comments on this contradiction in her book Regarding the Pain of Others:
Photographs had the advantage of uniting two contradictory features. Their credentials of objectivity were inbuilt. Yet, they always had, necessarily a point of view. They were a record of the real—the incontrovertible, as no verbal account, however impartial could be—since a machine was doing the recording.
Sontag also suggests that photos exclude by framing. Framing dispels the myth of objectivity.
Typical exclusions in media images of women in war zones include their voices, their stories, and even, their names.
These images hide the complexity of victims as unique individuals and the context of violence.
Instead, pictures of women reinforce the stereotype of women’s helplessness and hide the power relations that perpetuate gendered-based violence.
Common media representations of women demonstrate the same ‘ideal’ victim. The pictures generally portray women as helpless victims. Since the woman portrayed is helpless, she is also innocent—an assumption built on the virgin-whore dichotomy historically favoured by media.
These representations gloss over the reality that women and their responses to violence and conflict are complex and in some ways empowered.
For example, political scholar Mats Utas tells the story of a young woman named Bintu who had a series of relationships with soldiers during the Liberian Civil War.
After her first soldier-boyfriend was killed, Bintu was picked up as part of war spoils by another soldier. Despite being a victim of violence, Bintu used her situation to gain looted economic goods and secure physical protection.
A picture of Bintu would not demonstrate her identity as a complex victim, who, while constrained, is empowered to act.
Photos of women also lack context. They hide the information we need to understand the social, economy and political context or the power relations that perpetuate gender-based violence.
We need to know that women experience rape during war as part of ethnic cleansing programs.
We need to understand the role of rape in breaking down the familial relationships that are central to a society.
We need to know that women are violently subdued as a part of a war economy that requires domestic workers or rewards male soldiers with women as the booty of war.
Without context, pictures depoliticize and dehistoricize the experiences of women. Violence against women is separated from power relations and suspended outside of history. This prevents an analysis of how these power relations make women vulnerable and how women respond.
Journalists have to accompany images of distant violence against women with stories and captions that enlighten us about the gendered-power relations that create vulnerability and empower us to question our own preconceptions about women as victims.