Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Women Stand Up

Sujata Massey

Ieshia Evans photographed in Baton Rouge by Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

When I picked up my newspaper from the sidewalk Monday morning and saw this picture, I was transfixed.

At a protest for Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, a calm Ieshia Evans offers her wrists to the police. Something about the movement of her skirt makes her look other-worldy, almost angelic. The police arrested her and also provided the world with the latest iconic picture of a female stand against violence. Iesha's powerful calm has gone viral and been discussed in media like the Philadelphia Examiner and the Washington Post.

Images of women participating in civil unrest--or symbolizing war--are surely among the most powerful, imprinting images one knows. Even though I wasn't yet reading the paper in 1972, I know the photograph of the little girl burning from napalm by memory. Kim Phuc was taken for medical help by the AP photographer, Nick Ut and survived her terrible burns. Kim emigrated to Canada and has given interviews about the events of that day and what happened since the war. Her image became a testimony against war.

Nick Ut of the Associated Press won a Pulitzer for this photo and also saved Kim Phuc's life

At a Kent State University rally against the Viet Nam war, the Ohio National Guard shot dead four unarmed students in 1970. I can practically hear the screaming and smell tear gas in the black-and-white freeze-frame of anguish.  Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old staying near the campus, had attended the rally and grieved the shooting death of Jeffrey Miller. A photojournalism student, John Filo, shot the picture and won an Pulitzer. He has spoken about feeling guilty that Mary Ann might not have wanted to become the public face of the student struggle against war. But she holds no grudge. In the decades since, these two have participated in several forums on Kent State.

Kent State Massacre photographed by John Filo/Getty

What about the women who would not normally show their faces due to community custom and then discover their images broadcast worldwide? A famous photograph, shown repeatedly in magazines and posters, is known by the shorthand "Afghan Girl."Sharbat Gula, a young orphan, was photographed in a Pakistan refugee camp in 1984 for National Geographic. Sharbat's haunting eyes seem to tell the world everything you didn't want to know about what refugee life is like. Sharbat went on to marry young and live an extremely hard life with her husband and children in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Famous 1984 image of Sharbat Gula by Steve McCurry/National Geographic

Women  protesting during the Arab Spring revolutions throughout the Middle East in 2011 were widely photographed. Seeing colorful, modern headscarves draping passionate political protesters broke stereotypes about the passivity of Islamic women. The aftermath of the Arab Spring has brought continuing unrest and violence, but looking at these pictures at the time of the event, I shared these women's hopes.

Women at Tahrir Square in 2012 by Mohamed Omar/EPA

  Why do we react so strongly to pictures of women caught up in conflict? I suspect that women offer society palatable images of emotion, laced with vulnerability. Would men's faces and bodies communicate that as well? Can we bear to see a man cry, or hold out his hands for shackling?

The other side of the coin is that we have many armed women serving in the military and police who are part of these scenes, too.  I've not yet seen an iconic photograph of unrest where the restrictive element is a woman carrying a gun.

I'm sure it's coming-and we will be disturbed.



  1. I can't resist mentioning one more, Sujata. It became iconic in South Africa at the time of the Soweto school demonstrations. In it Hector Pieterson - a school boy shot and killed at the demonstration -is carried from the scene. But it is the grieving schoolgirl - his sister - next to him that tears our hearts.

  2. Brilliant, Sujata, on so many levels. I wish Blogspot gave us way to post more pictures in our comments.

    I had not seen the image of Ieshia. I have long been unable to look at the images that go with our heartrending news. Except for that first one, the rest of these are burned into my memory. As is the one Michael describes above. Reading his words, I can feel myself standing and looking at image at the entrance to the museum in Soweto.
    And I have one to add: the one of the lone man facing a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. True, it is of a man, but alone and so small in comparison to the force pitted against him. Very like Ieshsia above.
    One day we have to start another discussion here about why so many of the victims in crime novels are young women. But maybe the answer to that is obvious based on this post. These photos portray the very people that we know we must, as a species, protect. Thank you for this today!

  3. How timely, how powerful. Right now I am reading The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust, by Noam Chayut, founder of Breaking The Silence. At the heart of this memoir is a wordless encounter between Chayut and a young Palestinian girl, and his later reflections on that moment. Ulimately, it's a hopeful story of the transformation and reconcilliation possible when we learn to see, really and completely, the faces of others.

  4. When I see these iconic photographs, Sujata, I'm reminded that freedom demands eternal vigilance and commitment, for they show how far our world's progressed, fallen back, and has yet to travel.

  5. I have seen Iesha Adams' photo around the Internet, but didn't know her name. She came in peace, obviously calm and with no weapons -- and yet the police in riot gear thought her a threat.

    The other photos I know and are in my memory, as Annamaria says.

    There were also so many photos of women in many countries during the Arab Spring and commemorating International Women's Day on March 8. Very moving photos showing courage and strength.

    Women are playing leading roles in important movements today in this country.

    What knocks me over is the strength that mothers show after their sons are killed by police. They speak out and have so much strength and convey it through their anguish.

    However, as Lezley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, killed in Ferguson, Mo., two years ago, wrote in a New York Times op-ed on July 8, she goes to bed and wakes up in pain, thinking of her son.

    She will be there for other parents who experience what she has, but she asks, when will justice happen? That has yet to occur.