Following our recent posts here and here on the Gaza demos, this guest post by Zubeda Limbada is an account of one woman’s experience of being one of only two women in the sit-in that was staged in front of the Israeli embassy last Saturday.
‘Sister go back, you shouldn’t be here. Please, go back before they hurt you.’
These were the words uttered to me by a random, Asian or Arab male wearing his kefiyyeh, hurriedly indicating that I ought to leave the spot I had selected when I had decided to join a hastily formed sit down protest at the south side entrance of the Israeli embassy on Saturday. With thousands of people marching peacefully behind me, and a younger crowd standing and looking curiously at the people throwing shoes into the grounds of the embassy, a tinge of danger was perhaps inevitable even before adding a platoon of heavily armed riot police into the mixture.
Let me give you a bit of context. I was attending the peaceful rally to express solidarity with Gaza with a coach from Birmingham, one of the 27 that had come down from the city. A mixture of families from all backgrounds had departed from all over Birmingham and joined the 100,000 people who also added their voice to London’s Gaza demo last Saturday.
Now, being in my 30s, and a veteran of marches, I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to demos. So when the opportunity to stand peacefully near to the grounds of the Israeli embassy occurred in the march, curiosity overtook me. A melee soon ensued as the police – equipped with their batons – began their task of pushing the crowds back from the gates and forcefully charged into the crowds. The atmosphere changed as tear gas, wooden missiles, shoes, red paint and chants of ‘free, free Palestine’ began to fly around, escalating still further when the police presence suddenly grew menacing as reinforcements were brought in.
Suddenly, someone shouted ‘let’s sit down to show the police we’re not causing trouble,’ and so I instinctively did. But then a curious episode happened as I sat on the ground at the front. The police charged into us with their helmets and riot gear. I felt one police officer’s boots imprint itself on my hand as they attempted to kick us back with their shoes and shields for a full minute before withdrawing and repeating. Suddenly a guy said, ‘Sister go back, you shouldn’t be here,’ which caught me by surprise. I was not expecting to be treated as a ‘woman’ in the middle of a demo.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t think this was some comment about segregation, religious observance nor disapproval. I confess I’m not normally someone who embraces the use of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ as I feel it enforces and demarcates unnecessary boundaries between the genders, and I always ask people to use my name to ensure people interact with me directly, and not some perceived statement they may believe I’m making because of my headscarf. So I am surprised myself at how warmly I feel about the memory of sitting with this motley crew of totally random strangers of men considering what happened.
Once he knew I was staying, this brother sitting next to me began to advise me on how to stay safe, suggesting I put my head down and cover it with my arms when the police came at us. He used his own body as a shield to cover me where he could, absorbing many of the heavier police blows directed at us. Each time he got hit by the police he asked me ‘Sister, are you alright?’
Some may say that these Muslim brothers felt inclined to be over-protective once they saw my headscarf because of our shared faith. I think their kindness was more overt because I was a woman; I think they admired me for being there when there was such a risk of getting hurt because it’s not what they were expecting of ‘women’. In another situation, I probably would have been annoyed at being treated as if I couldn’t take care of myself and needed special protection. But for the half hour that we sat on the ground facing the police’s might, this brother made obvious one of my feminist contradictions: how a man’s impulsive kindness and actions towards me, offered because I’m a woman, can be welcome.