We write this piece as (disappointed) fans of the Palestinian hip hop group DAM at a time when the fierce attack on Gaza reminds us of grim realities that are the everyday stuff of life and death for Palestinian women and men.
With songs like “Who’s the Terrorist?” and “Born Here,” DAM gave thrilling political voice to a new generation of Palestinians who were no longer silent about the racism of the Israeli state. They challenged the state violence that was devastating Palestinian lives and communities, whether in the ghettos of Israeli cities or the territories occupied, suffocated, and bombarded since 1967. This was political music; sharp, angry, born of experience.
Given DAM`s unapologetic and sophisticated political positions, it is surprising that when they decide to champion women’s rights, they succumb to an international anti-politics machine that blames only tradition for the intractability of (some) people`s problems. Why, when they decide to speak up about violence against women, do they suddenly forget the gritty and complex realities of life on the ground in the places they know?
DAM’s new music video, “If I Could Go Back in Time,” is about the “honor crime,” even if the final credit insists that there is no connection between killing women and honor. Directed by Jackie Salloum, who gave the world the intelligent beauty of Sling Shot Hip Hop, it operates in a total political, legal, and historical vacuum. The setting is not given. Perhaps one is not needed when the story seems so familiar. The threat of a forced marriage. A brother hits his sister. A car somewhere. Some woods somewhere. A grave dug. A woman shot in the head by two men, her brother and father. The only indicator of who the people in the video are is the family home where a mother answers the telephone and where a group of men recite the fatiha together to bless their decision. Muslim men.
Supported by UN Women (United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women), the music video faithfully follows the script of an international campaign against the so-called honor crime. The “honor crime” has a history in the UN. It emerged as a potent cultural-legal category in the 1990s to become a popular international cause for feminists and progressive men. After all, who could be “for” familial violence? But violence against women is never as simple as the seductive category of the honor crime would have us believe. Violence is dense and multifaceted. It is economic, political, military, and sexual. Most of all, violence against women in the name of honor has a history. The category of the honor crime highlights violence in certain contexts while obscuring it in others. It locates the cause in barbaric cultures and enduring tradition, out of time but in particular places. The history of the laws that enable this category and the fact that they are derived from the Napoleonic Code is once again forgotten in lieu of an easier answer: traditions and cultures of violence.
And what does the tragic heroine on whose behalf DAM is rapping want? She wants freedom. Freedom from what? From tradition, family, and community. Freedom to do what? To escape by plane to an unspecified destination where she will buy new clothes to live her new life. Where would this be, we wonder? From which airport was she hoping to leave? Tel Aviv, where if she is Palestinian she will likely be interrogated and strip-searched, her every item taken away for inspection and her body violated? Or was it Amman? How would she have obtained her travel permit? Would she get through the checkpoints and border questioning in time to make her flight? What enabled her to buy this plane ticket to freedom? Did she go to Haifa University or Birzeit? What did she major in?
In DAM`s new video, the very thickness of Palestinian lives disappears. We are left with the caricature of angry men, patriarchal culture, and innocent female victims. Why are these women being victimized? Because, if we were to rely only on the information the music video provides us, their culture devalues them. Here is a place where, DAM sings, families react to the news of the birth of a daughter “as if it had been a crime.” The real crime here, they want us to know (and who is this “us?”), is that a woman was killed because she was seeking freedom. Not freedom from the state or from the violence of settler colonialism that shape her community, but freedom from her family’s decisions about her marriage.
Where in DAM’s words are their Palestinian sisters who go to school, struggle with family, join political unions, confront police, negotiate harassment, fear soldiers’ demands, have recourse to lawyers, get caught up in criminal justice systems that humiliate them, compete for jobs, argue with their brothers over unequal household chores, share in their families’ survival strategies, lament deaths, look for love, dream of futures, and seek guidance in religious texts or hip hop music? Young Palestinian women do all of these, every day, in particular places, under specific historical conditions. They do it all, as one Palestinian feminist researcher and activist reveals, while living under constant surveillance even of their bedrooms (as in Israel’s Citizenship and Entry laws) and with the “freedom” to appeal when victimized to the only system offered them by the very state that has made them non-persons and trapped them in suffocating spaces (Shalhoub-Kevorkian, 2011, 2012).
The failure to come to grips with the everyday or to imagine grounded futures is epitomized by the visuals. Rewinding the victim’s life so that she can begin again, the song takes our tragic heroine “back” into a Technicolor Shangri-la where smiling girls with revealing clothes carry parasols and wave fairy wands under magical trees. And Amal Murcos in a white gown sings a refrain about a world in which women are free to write, sing, fall in love, and draw. What solution is this?
In relying on an international and UN-promoted framework that removes the “honor crime” from the realm of politics, DAM ignores the committed Palestinian feminist activists who have been working for decades on the various forms of violence Palestinian women suffer. These activists have drawn attention to very serious problems. Yet they have not isolated or elevated the “honor crime” because their priority is to develop effective interventions for women’s well-being. They have been analyzing what comes together to produce familial violence: economic strangulation; the frustration of occupation and unemployment; the militarization of society; the physical barriers that disrupt movement and police life; the lack of legitimacy of laws and authorities. They look at the ways in which imperatives to defend community under trying conditions shape gender ideologies. They uncover a long history of Israeli policies to freeze patriarchal family forms to facilitate control. They consider the many forces that undermine women’s organizing or mute other sources of power for them. While the intent may have been to demonstrate that violence against women should be a concern for all Palestinian and Arab societies, the music video disappoints by further depoliticizing this violence and relying on cultural narratives that have served to racialize and ethnicize Arabs as one of liberalism’s “others”
DAM’s video reproduces the logic that situates Palestinian victims in a culture from which welfare workers, legal personnel, social workers, and other agents of social control in the Israeli state must save them (Shalhoub-Kevorkian, 2005). It reinforces, and perhaps justifies in the eyes of many, the conviction that it is Palestinians’ backwardness and lack of civilization that should be blamed for violence against women in the community. DAM’s video does nothing to remind us of the structural violence that is usually front and center in their songs. They do not give us the context that fragments women’s family support, dislocates community systems of social protection, hollows out budgets for intervention, and denies help to those who are considered less than human because they are “Arab,” whether they wear jeans or hijabs. They do not talk about the way discussions of “honor crimes” in Israeli universities function as a tool of hatred. In the wider international discourse of saving Muslim women, the “honor crime” plays a crucial role. It locates the problem in culture and tradition. It isolates this form of violence from any others. In locating such violence in backward communities, it stigmatizes groups.
We are disappointed because DAM missed an important opportunity. They could have helped us come to grips with the dynamics of gendered violence in historic Palestine and beyond. But they failed here to treat women as political subjects. Women in this song are decontextualized victims of their culture, to be championed by young men with enlightened views, and by foreign intervention and international aid. As Israeli bombs once again pound a besieged Gaza, we needed to be reminded instead that DAM’s sisters live in this same world. Presenting their problems as lying in tradition puts them on exhibit for voyeurs. It does not do them justice. It does not offer a politics for realizing a better future in this world.
To read more about the complexity of violence against women and the question of the “honor crime” in historic Palestine, see:
Abdo, Nahla. (2011). Women in Israel: Race, Gender and Citizenship. Zed Books.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. (2011). Seductions of the “Honor Crime.” Differences 22 (1): 17-63.
Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Nadera. (2005). Disclosure of Child Abuse in Conflict Areas. Violence Against Women 11 (10): 1263–1291.
Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Nadera. (2004). Militarization and Policing: Police Reactions to Violence against Palestinian Women in Israel. Social Identities 10 (2): 171–194.
Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Nadera. (2011). “It Is Up to Her:” Rape and the Re-victimization of Palestinian Women in Multiple Legal Systems. Social Difference-Online 1: 30–45.
The Politics of Killing Women in Colonized Contexts, Nader Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Suhad Daher-Nashif
DAM Responds: On Tradition and the Anti-Politics of the Machine, Tamer Nafar, Suhell Nafar, and Mahmood Jrery (DAM)
Honoring Solidarity During Contentious Debates. . . A Letter to DAM From Lila Abu-Lughod and Maya Mikdashi, Lila Abu Lughod and Maya Mikdashi