nesa'iyéh / نسائية (a woman thing)

Documentary photographic exhibition by Mati Milstein

"nesa'iyéh (a woman thing)," photographed by Mati Milstein and curated by Saher Saman, premiered in Summer 2012 at Marji Gallery & Contemporary Projects, in Santa Fe, U.S. More exhibition dates coming!


Video Editing: SocDoc Studios

The Middle East is a region of strong indigenous patriarchal cultures. In a fragile coexistence with this oft-overwhelming misogyny and chauvinism, woman have historically played a consistent yet varied role in the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.

Nevertheless, a pervasive patriarchal paradigm also dramatically influences the West's visual perception of Middle Eastern strife. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Palestinians depicted in visual media and culture are almost always men, usually masked and engaged in acts of violence. Women are, quite literally, disappeared from the visual landscape. Conflict-related images of women produced by the mainstream media that do reach the public sphere almost always present them as weak, passive or suffering. The visual record is awash in images of Palestinian mothers, for example, mourning male relatives killed by Israel. Rarely if ever do we see strong women, in control and making decisions about their own fate.

On 15 March, 2011, Mati Milstein, a photojournalist who has worked covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for nearly 15 years, began to notice what shortly thereafter proved to be the dramatically-expanding role of Palestinian women in direct political action.

Young women activists, inspired by the Egyptian revolution and employing a strict doctrine of non-violence, surged to the forefront of West Bank street protests and took on key organizational roles on a scale never seen before. Standing on the lines – often in front of their male counterparts – these women faced physical violence, arrest, and sexual harassment for their bold efforts to shake off Israeli occupation while concurrently demanding gender equality.

"This project portrays a very different image of the Palestinian people," said Diana Alzeer, an activist who appears in Milstein's images.

Nesa’iyeh, the Arabic word chosen to represent this photographic collection, is Palestinian slang that means "feminist" or "a woman thing." It is the role-altering actions of these young feminist activists which nesa'iyeh is now bringing to new audiences around the world.

"Throughout history, women have been active in revolutions but then, after the revolution is over, men would take the leadership roles. But we intend to go for all these roles," said key activist Ashira. "Women are often scared of being leaders. But any woman who has a chance for a leadership role should take it. That's the only way we can change society."

Mati Milstein is an Israeli Jewish man who is, for all intents and purposes, the polar opposite of the Palestinian women upon whom this project focuses. He is a photojournalist and a visual artist, but he cannot escape the baggage of the world in which he grew up and in which he was socialized. His is a world in conflict and he is of the dominant gender on the dominant side.

"I realized I had to shut my mouth and open my mind. I came to listen and to take pictures. And the best pictures come when you stop looking inward and start looking outward. I wanted to provide a visual forum via which the bold new approach of these women could be projected to a wider audience."

Clearly, it is impossible to divorce a photographer from his subjects. During the course of work on this project, Milstein – who has himself been a direct and active participant as a combatant in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – experienced a profound evolution in his own perception and consciousness as he continued to engage with the "other."

"Trust doesn't come out of nowhere," Alzeer said. "It grows with time and we've gone through that process. Communicating with Mati now feels much different than communicating with him a year ago."

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