A ‘sister’s’ perspective of the Gaza demo, 10 Jan 09

// 19 January 2009

Following our recent posts here and here on the Gaza demos, this guest post by Zubeda Limbada is an account of one woman’s experience of being one of only two women in the sit-in that was staged in front of the Israeli embassy last Saturday.

‘Sister go back, you shouldn’t be here. Please, go back before they hurt you.’

These were the words uttered to me by a random, Asian or Arab male wearing his kefiyyeh, hurriedly indicating that I ought to leave the spot I had selected when I had decided to join a hastily formed sit down protest at the south side entrance of the Israeli embassy on Saturday. With thousands of people marching peacefully behind me, and a younger crowd standing and looking curiously at the people throwing shoes into the grounds of the embassy, a tinge of danger was perhaps inevitable even before adding a platoon of heavily armed riot police into the mixture.

Let me give you a bit of context. I was attending the peaceful rally to express solidarity with Gaza with a coach from Birmingham, one of the 27 that had come down from the city. A mixture of families from all backgrounds had departed from all over Birmingham and joined the 100,000 people who also added their voice to London’s Gaza demo last Saturday.

Now, being in my 30s, and a veteran of marches, I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to demos. So when the opportunity to stand peacefully near to the grounds of the Israeli embassy occurred in the march, curiosity overtook me. A melee soon ensued as the police – equipped with their batons – began their task of pushing the crowds back from the gates and forcefully charged into the crowds. The atmosphere changed as tear gas, wooden missiles, shoes, red paint and chants of ‘free, free Palestine’ began to fly around, escalating still further when the police presence suddenly grew menacing as reinforcements were brought in.

Suddenly, someone shouted ‘let’s sit down to show the police we’re not causing trouble,’ and so I instinctively did. But then a curious episode happened as I sat on the ground at the front. The police charged into us with their helmets and riot gear. I felt one police officer’s boots imprint itself on my hand as they attempted to kick us back with their shoes and shields for a full minute before withdrawing and repeating. Suddenly a guy said, ‘Sister go back, you shouldn’t be here,’ which caught me by surprise. I was not expecting to be treated as a ‘woman’ in the middle of a demo.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t think this was some comment about segregation, religious observance nor disapproval. I confess I’m not normally someone who embraces the use of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ as I feel it enforces and demarcates unnecessary boundaries between the genders, and I always ask people to use my name to ensure people interact with me directly, and not some perceived statement they may believe I’m making because of my headscarf. So I am surprised myself at how warmly I feel about the memory of sitting with this motley crew of totally random strangers of men considering what happened.

Once he knew I was staying, this brother sitting next to me began to advise me on how to stay safe, suggesting I put my head down and cover it with my arms when the police came at us. He used his own body as a shield to cover me where he could, absorbing many of the heavier police blows directed at us. Each time he got hit by the police he asked me ‘Sister, are you alright?’

Some may say that these Muslim brothers felt inclined to be over-protective once they saw my headscarf because of our shared faith. I think their kindness was more overt because I was a woman; I think they admired me for being there when there was such a risk of getting hurt because it’s not what they were expecting of ‘women’. In another situation, I probably would have been annoyed at being treated as if I couldn’t take care of myself and needed special protection. But for the half hour that we sat on the ground facing the police’s might, this brother made obvious one of my feminist contradictions: how a man’s impulsive kindness and actions towards me, offered because I’m a woman, can be welcome.

Comments From You

son of the arab // Posted 19 January 2009 at 11:32 pm

As a muslim man, “sister”, I approve of you being there as an individual showing solidarity to a worthy cause, and while muslims have a duty to uphold what is right, regardless of their gender, women should also be protected in conditions of physical adversity. This was your right and this gentleman (in the original sense of the term) gave it to you. Equity rather than equality …

Sahar Rezazadeh // Posted 19 January 2009 at 11:38 pm

I feel the same way too Zubeda since there are natural physical differences between males and females, men will normally be ‘protective’ of women. I welcome that and think that it’s almost nature at its best! I think the young mans reactions were very sweet. :-)

Very well written too Zubeda, I could imagine the situation and circumstances as if I was there.

nick // Posted 20 January 2009 at 12:21 pm

Wow. What a refeshing change to read something that does not critise or demonise men and their actions.

I think in a situation like that human instinct and survival come into play, everyone looking after each other in the best way they can.

Ellie // Posted 20 January 2009 at 3:42 pm

Yeah all for men being bigger and stronger than you but they’re not better able to take pain or be trampled on by the police.

I don’t think physical differences have much to do with the desire to protect people.

I would feel ashamed if I let someone else take a beating for me.

Laura // Posted 20 January 2009 at 4:00 pm

My issue with accepting any benefits that come with being treated differently because of our gender is that it leaves us no leg to stand on when we complain about the negative effects of being treated differently. If I’m going to accept that I can be offered more protection in war, say, because I am a woman then it can be argued that I must also accept being paid less or refused employment in a certain workplace because I am accepting that it is OK to treat people differently because of their gender. I don’t think that is OK, and while I don’t wish to criticise what you did, Zubeda, if I was in the same position I would feel really bad that a man felt he had to protect me – why should he suffer more pain than me just because he’s a man?

missing words // Posted 20 January 2009 at 4:04 pm

Hi Zubeda,

Thanks for sharing your experiences of the demo. I was at the main rally but not outside the Israel embassy so didn’t know about what happened there. It is disturbing that police continued to attack you when you were sitting down.

Kath // Posted 20 January 2009 at 4:29 pm

Well if someone is bigger than you then it is kind of them to try to protect you. Gender shouldn’t come into it. I would try to protect another adult who was smaller than me, if I was there.

Stephanie // Posted 20 January 2009 at 5:01 pm

Truly heartwarming.

Zubeda // Posted 20 January 2009 at 10:00 pm

To pick up on some points I ought to make clear that sometimes the impulsiveness of our actions don’t always require one to make a statement, and perhaps accepting a gender related position on absolutely everything. That can seem a little dogmatic.


What I wanted to convey was that within that immediate protest environment, I was prepared to sit down with everyone without reflecting on gender. * I* made my decision. The fact that a guy chose to ‘protect’ me did not require my input insomuch as my feminist principles did not require me to say yay or nay, but to appreciate the impulsive kindness.

Laura I see your point, but everything does not mean one has to compromise if one accepts one or the other.

Ellie – I take no responsibility for letting someone absorb some pain if they offered to be a gentleman. Why should I worry or be ashamed?

Nosheen Karim Özcan // Posted 20 January 2009 at 10:55 pm

As well as making a statement of solidarity there is a feeling of selflessness and compassion with the cause and with one another at the demonstrations, therefore i am not surprised this individual offered you his protection. I am sure had a man been in your place he would have also received protection/encouragement/concern from his fellow comrades.

Ellie // Posted 22 January 2009 at 10:18 am

“I take no responsibility for letting someone absorb some pain if they offered to be a gentleman. Why should I worry or be ashamed?”

Er, I’m not saying you should take responsibility for his actions, I’m saying that his actions are a result of his gender, putting himself at risk for the sake of your safety. I don’t think this is something any adult should let happen because you are essentially saying that your safety is more important than his. It matters not whether he offered to take that pain for you or not, you should have accepted the consequences of your choices in the protest and not hidden behind someone elses body.

I know I would feel ashamed of my own (what I would perceive as) cowardice. I don’t know what mental processes you go/went through, I guess we just have different values about what it means to be a woman.

Cara // Posted 22 January 2009 at 2:14 pm

While not wishing to criticise you, Zubeda, (or any other individual woman) I agree with Laura.

Her argument that we cannot have it both ways is right; women won’t ever be ‘allowed’ to do male things such as fighting on the front lines, or to do physically tough jobs (e.g. building, logging, plumbing….) if we are also seen as weaker, to be protected.

Equality does not have to mean being the same, no. The issue is when one gender is perceived as being ‘weaker’ overall.

Yes, men are generally larger, and have more muscle mass proportionately – but these are just averages. Some women are larger and stronger than some men. Muscles can be developed by working out, and size – well, I’m 5’0 and am always going to have to ask someone taller (man or woman) to reach stuff, but it’s surprising how you can learn to compensate for lesser size and weight (self-defence classes are enlightening). The trouble is that the very specific fact that men are on average larger and more muscular gains a greater significance and becomes a general ‘truth’ that ‘all women are weak and therefore women should not be allowed to do x’.

I have heard men argue that women shouldn’t be police officers and firefighters due to their apparent physical weakness – actually, very little of those jobs involves sheer physical strength, and they do not act alone; one woman may not be able to drag a man out of a burning building, or singlehandedly arrest a resisting man, but *nor could most men* do so alone (especially if they are weedy and 5’5) – that is why equipment is provided, techniques are used (e.g. there are ways to lift) and why no-one in these jobs works alone.

It is also true that men are not necessarily better able to take, say, being kicked and hit with batons.

I am sure the guy meant well, but this is benevolent sexism, and it isn’t any different to plain old ‘women are rubbish’ sexism, in fact, they play into each other. ‘Treating women like ladies’, holding doors open, protecting them and so on may seem nice but the implication is indeed that women are weaker and less capable.

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