Women in Black
By Kirthi Jayakumar
Source: Manos Simonides
The Women in Black is a women-led anti-war movement, comprising around 10,000 activists world over. Created by Israeli women in Jerusalem in 1988, after the outbreak of the First Intifada, the women came together to protest the serious human rights violations carried out by Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories of Palestine. They began by holding a vigil in central Jerusalem, dressed fully in black, as a mark of mourning for all the victims of the conflict. Originally, the women had no name – but their repetitive use of black clothing earned them the title of Women in Black (Spender & Kramarae, 2004). Borrowing the black color code from the Mayo Mothers in Argentina and Chile, these women identified with a global cause of resisting violence and occupation (ActiveStills, 2014). These women are from different backgrounds, and are united purely by their desire to address militarism and violence.
The network – not an organization – is fundamentally committed to peace and justice, and actively opposes injustice, war, militarism, and any form of violence. The network recognizes the myriads of challenges that come with a uniquely gendered experience of war, and focuses on challenging militaristic policies. Without any manifesto or constitution, the women are committed to letting their actions endorse their feminist perspectives (Kumi Now, n.d.). The group also recognizes that violence against women in their domestic lives and in the community – across the peacetime-wartime continuum – are related. They see that violence is used as a means of control, and thus strive to educate, inform, and influence public opinion to the point that war becomes an “unthinkable option” (Kumi Now, n.d.).
With time, more women began to gather, as the initiative spread to other parts of Israel. The women began to keep vigil in the main squares of their respective cities, and at junctions on inter-city highways. Their movement had no formal program of action: They were opposed to the occupation and wanted that opposition to be known. However, each local group remains in charge of determining whether or not to open up the scope for participation to include other women and men, given that each site presented its own political contexts.
At the peak of the Intifada, there were as many as 30 vigils across the occupied territories. In 1993, it appeared that the Oslo Agreement held the promise of peace – allowing for the number of women protesters to decrease. However, following the violent events that unfolded shortly thereafter, the number picked up.
In 2001, when the women called for vigils against the Occupation of Palestinian lands, a minimum of 150 chapters world over responded – with perhaps around 10,000 women participating. To date, the women hold regular vigils, every Friday, from 1 to 2 PM in four places: Gan Shmuel, Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv (Kumi Now, n.d.).
In 2002, a documentary film by Donna Baillie captured the efforts of the Women in Black in stepping up to form a human shield around Palestinian civilians. These women, from the London branch of Women in Black, travelled to the West Bank and came to be known as "Hell's Grannies" by the British Press. They forced an Israeli tank off the road, and stuck a "Return to Sender" notice on it. They dismantled roadblocks around Palestinian villages, and engaged in what they called "tactical friendliness" with Israeli soldiers and settlers (Gender and Security, n.d.).
Commitment to Non-Violence and Resisting with Peace
The Women in Black Prioritize and deploy non-violent and non-aggressive forms of action. Their key approach to resisting occupation and militaristic policies and demonstrating this resistance includes peaceful means such as holding vigils, blocking a road by sitting down, entering military bases and other forbidden zones, refusing to comply with orders, and even bearing witness (Kumu Now, n.d.).
The Women in Black have not been met with peace for their resistance, though. They’ve braved beatings, verbal abuse, and even been called such things as “Whores of Arafat” and “traitors” (Palestine Museum, 2023). Drives on the street honk their horns and shout obscenities, calling them sl***s and "traitor b****s" among other things. The women train themselves not to react, and absorb the verbal abuse (Strubbe, 1990). Several acts of violence have been carried out, targeting the women. Once, one of the leaders' cars was burned, and threatening letters were sent out to the women who kept vigil. In July 1989, the women were at the receiving end of bottles, eggs, and tomatoes being thrown at them. They were kicked and beaten (Strubbe, 1990).
Today, there are multiple vigils world over – with chapters addressing region-specific realities through their protest. The women intend for this to be an indefinite movement, where the end point will remain the end of occupation, militarism, violence, and war.
Active Stills (2014). PHOTOS: Israeli women who have stood up to the occupation for 26 years. +972 Magazine. https://www.972mag.com/photos-israeli-women-who-have-stood-up-to-the-occupation-for-26-years/
Gender and Security (n.d.). Women in Black. https://genderandsecurity.org/projects-resources/filmography/women-black
Kumi Now (n.d.). Women in Black. https://kuminow.com/women-in-black/
Palestine Museum (2023). Free virtual screening of the documentary film: "We are Still Standing: The Stories of Women in Black by Ellie Bernstein." https://www.palestinemuseum.us/events/2023/women-in-black
Spender, D., & Kramarae, C. (2004). Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women: Global Women's Issues and Knowledge. Routledge. p. 1517.
Strubbe, B. (1990). Women in Black: Weekly Vigils Against the Israeli Occupation. https://ontheissuesmagazine.com/international/women-in-black-weekly-vigils-against-the-israeli-occupation/