Perhaps I was born a woman; perhaps, as in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, I have become a woman. In any event, being a woman is a very central part of the montage of my personal and political identities. Womanhood is the lens through which I view myself and the world.
It may be anachronistic to write about my identity as a woman in this post-modern era – especially ever since Judith Butler disrupted our universe with her concepts of gender identity as social construction, a form of performance, rather than something that is “natural.” Indeed, it seems that in feminist discourse, identity is always perched at the top of a slippery slope, tipping towards essentialism, social construction, and the very stereotypes that we seek to escape.
Yet along these slippery slopes and within the different spaces in which I move, I demand the right to actively define my own identity as a woman.
My identity as a woman is made up of pieces of women’s continuous history; it is composed of an ongoing dynasty of witches and story-tellers; farmers, cultivators and healers, women writers and scholars; women who cook and sing; women who have held a sleeping child close to their breasts. My identity is made up of my grandmothers, may their memories be a blessing, and my mother, may she be blessed with a long life; the sisters in my own family and the sisters I have drawn in close to me through the years. It is nurtured by and develops from my daily interactions with those whom my heart loves above all. It is made up of women I have never met and those I have met in the pages of books, pictures, and stories. It is made up of real-life women and mythological figures.
And over the past few months, I have come to realize that my identity also draws from the courage of brave Liberian women.
About two years ago, I first encountered the film that documents the struggle of Liberian women, Muslim and Christian, to bring peace and put an end to their country’s cruel, bloody civil war. The film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, is one in a series of documentary films about women throughout the world who have brought a peaceful conclusion to bitter, brutal conflicts.
Activism in the “Women Wage Peace” movement has brought me the opportunity to see the film again and again in screenings throughout the country. Each time I see the movie, I see another detail; another sentence engraved into my memory; another scene troubles my sleep. Yet each viewing also restores my belief in the human spirit and its capacity for great compassion, deep wisdom and emotional resilience in the face of unutterable cruelty.
After each screening, we conduct a discussion with the audience. Each discussion is different and special, and each one brings new insights and different understandings.
On a cold Jerusalem night several weeks ago, I returned home from a screening that had taken place in the small, cozy shelter of the Mashu Mashu Theater for Social Change. Moved by my experiences, I sat down to write. About knowledge. Women’s knowledge.
I found myself playing with the deconstruction and reconstruction of the binary oppositions that we have learned to accept as “proper”: masculinity as the opposite of femininity; intellect as contrasted with emotion; rationality as compared to impulsivity; activism versus passivity; physical power as different than gentleness. I played with the words, as I have learned to do, with great effort, from Jacques Derrida, who would deconstruct binary oppositions until the terms melded into each other.
The women of Liberia sang and cried, danced and embraced all the way to a peace agreement and the establishment of a democratically-elected government. They stood in the scorching sun and in the rain; they sat and refused to budge; behind the scenes they mediated between the antagonists when they thought that these efforts weren’t enough. They worked with the children-soldiers to bring about disarmament and acted as inspirational political community workers. And at key moments, they knew how to enlist the terror of the curse…
Patiently, with great wisdom, the women of Liberia showed just how pathetic cruelty is and exposed the limits of thieving, raping, plundering power. They revealed the greed, avarice and lust for power and control that were behind the fighting groups’ rhetoric. They fought to bring back to the sons and daughters of Liberia the childhood that had been stolen from them.
For me, the women of Liberia distilled the essence of a very important insight: Emotion is a form of knowledge. The ability to yield and to compromise for the greater good is a form of knowledge. The capacity to put differences and arguments aside is a form of knowledge. The skill required leading a wounded, torn; bleeding community over the long, winding road towards healing is a form of knowledge. The ability to forgive those who have committed the most heinous crimes against humanity is a form of sublime knowledge. The ability to enlist religious beliefs in the service of peacemaking is a form of knowledge.
And knowledge is power. Power can be gentle, flexible, all-encompassing, and aware of its own limits. Power can be something that we choose to share, thus making it even stronger.
The discourse about security, war and the possibility of peace must include this knowledge. Security is not the province of men or warriors alone. In fact, the very opposite is true: Each and every one of us possesses knowledge about security – personal, physical, economic, gendered, social and cultural.
A discourse that seeks to make peace must encompass all of these forms of knowledge
I feel very grateful to all the women in my life who have taught me these lessons.
And I invite you all to see the film.
Follow this link to the film’s website: http://www.forkfilms.net/pray-the-devil-back-to-hell/
For a list of screenings throughout Israel, please visit the “Women Wage Peace” facebook page:
Or visit our website at:
English translation: Etta Prince Gibson