The Mada poster: Not ‘rape’ but maybe worse


I just picked up a story from the Globe and Mail about Mada al-Carmel, an Israeli Arab NGO which is suing a Canadian government body for defunding it.

The story suggests — and Mada outright claims — that the Canadians pulled the funds after a campaign against the group by NGO Monitor. The International Development Research Center denies such pressure, and says it only now figured out that Israel was not a developing country, and that IDRC only funds programs in developing countries. (Note: My tone here is skeptical.)

The story’s writer, Patrick Martin, is a little credulous, I think, of Mada’s claims, but first let me back up and explain: NGO Monitor’s complaint had to do with this poster, which was distributed as part of a one-day campaign against sexual violence in Muslim societies:

So, back to the Globe and Mail’s Martin, and why I think he’s a little credulous. Here’s what he had to say:

“Mada al-Carmel publishes crude posters with images of an Israeli soldier touching the breasts of an Arab woman,” wrote NGO Monitor’s president, Gerald Steinberg.

The poster, however, clearly does not depict the soldier touching the woman’s breasts.

Furthermore, Mada didn’t publish the poster. Another organization did. But NGO Monitor persisted in its criticism.

“Even if Mada is not responsible for the poster itself, it still is part of a whole network of organizations that accuse Israel of sexually abusing Arab women, and that’s false,” Mr. Steinberg said.

This is a calumny: It makes Gerald sounds nuts, and without the benefit of the reader (at least the online reader) of being able to immediately see the poster for herself. I’ve critiqued NGO Monitor in the past for overstating its case, but in this case the Globe and Mail is giving the group a raw deal.

First, yes, the poster does not depict the soldier as touching the woman’s breast, and based on a reading of the release accompanying it, I don’t think the intention is even to suggest that he is about to. But it is a poorly staged picture, and one could be forgiven for inferring that he is about to touch her breasts. Gerald’s slight leap here is understandable.

Second, Martin makes it sound as if Gerald is making it up about Mada’s association with the poster. The quote defending his characterization of Mada "publishing" the poster is bereft of context, and one could infer that he is recklessly placing Mada in a broader conspiracy.

But check out the release. This is how it signs off:

Media Coordinators :
Mada Al-Carmel – Mr. Nawaf Athamneh – xxxxx
Muntada – Sexuality Forum – Ms. Safa Tamish – xxxxx

(I’ve erased contact info.)

You have in your hand or on your screen "media" and at the bottom is a reference to a group’s "media coordinator." How do you not conclude that the group helped publish the poster?

Okay, now to the ‘rape’ allegation. This became a meme in media coverage of the controversy, generated in part by New Israel Fund funding for Mada al-Carmel. (NIF, NGO Monitor’s principle bugbear, eventually denounced the poster.) We were guilty of using the word, so was the London Jewish Chronicle.

Here’s the thing. I really don’t think the intent is to suggest direct Israeli assault on Arab women. The soldier’s raised arm is meant to be a barrier, not a weapon.

But this might make it worse: The intent is to excoriate Israel for keeping Palestinian men from exercising their sexual prerogative with Arab women.

The poster addresses Israel’s refusal to grant citizenship to the Palestinian husbands of Israeli women.

Now, one can make a case — without working hard, even — that this is discriminatory. (Israel grants citizenship, albeit without Jewish immigrant rights, to the non-Jewish spouses of its Jewish citizens.)

But the point of this campaign — once you decipher the liberation patois in the release — is that the principle sexual violence afflicting Israeli Arab women is the citizenship law:

Sexuality and bodily rights are an integral part of human rights and an essential component in understanding the effect of militarization in the context of the conflicts with patriarchal power holders be it the state, society and other social institutions such as religious institutions. Recent years have witnessed frequent violations of these rights in several countries by the enactment of laws that undermine reproductive and sexual rights. An example is the “nationality” law in Israel affecting people’s right to choose their partners. In conflict ridden areas, young girls and women are suffering serious violations of their bodily, sexuality and reproductive rights such as unsafe abortions, imposed child marriage and other kinds of violence against women.

And the second line in the poster:

The racist Citizenship law is a violation of sexual and physical rights of the Palestinians.

Ok, where to start:

–What are sexual and bodily rights?

–Britain, for years — until the late 1980s — infamously granted citizenship to the foreign wives of its citizens, but not the foreign husbands. (I don’t think it was alone among western nations, either.) The thinking was that women were more vulnerable to the nafarious charms of foreign gentlemen. This law was decried as sexist and racist — but never, to my recollection, as violating the "sexual" rights of anyone. For sure, these laws make conjugal practices more inconvenient, but that is hardly the intent.

–The text of the release shamefully ellides from Israel’s citizenship law to rape, child marriage and unsafe abortions. Is this intentional? It’s hard to conclude it is not, and at the very least, the writers are equating the two. This is an outrage, and certainly detracts — if not negates — what one would think would be the most important message of such activism: Keeping women physically safe.

Here’s more:

We are principally highlighting the Israeli structural and legal violations of sexual, bodily, psychological, social and economic rights of Palestinians that intersect with the patriarchal social context, which restrain individual freedoms, perpetuates women’s inferior status and imposes silence on physical, psychological and sexual violations committed against women.

Israel’s restrictions intersect with the Palestinian patriarchy, and deserve to be "principally" highlighted.

This is discredited stuff: Blaming an opressor for how a victim oppresses others. It’s been used in the past to try and sweep patriarchal abuses under the carpet; you’d think folks in the 21st century would know better.

But here’s the thing: The whole campaign is, if anything, even more regressive.

Look at the poster’s catchphrase:

Her husband needs a permit to touch her.

Not: "She longs for her husband’s embrace." Not: "They want to be together."

No: The wounded party here is her husband.

It robs women of agency. Of course, normatively, he would need permission to touch her — her permission.

According to this formulation, the only thing keeping a husband from touching his wife is … Israel.

The woman has no say.

I’m Canadian. It’s a fairly progressive society. Boys and girls are raised as equals.

I’m wondering if the IDRC officials didn’t take a gander at this poster and think: ewwwww.

Recommended from JTA