Stand Up, Speak Out – President Peres and the body politics of a statement

Every now and then Israeli politicians visit the Netherlands. Last year Netanyahu was here. Last week Israeli President Peres was in the Netherlands. One of the events in which he participated was the TV show Collegetour where in a one-to-one interview a guest is confronted with questions from the audience; mostly students. This concept has already produced several interesting episodes. The episode with Peres was, in my opinion, quite boring. There weren’t many critical questions but at one point this changed. Look at the next fragment (it’s in English, with Dutch subtitles).
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On the Dutch blog Wij Blijven Hier (We are here to stay) Nazir Bibi Naeem, the lady who asked the question reported about her experience. Interestingly she describes it as a bodily experience:

“My heart pounded. For a moment I thought I would hyperventilate because I was so nervous. There were threehundred people in the room. Enough security. And something I’m not used to at all: cameras and a microphone. But it was also something I really looked forward to. I concentrated on my breathing and I realized that I did not want to go home like others to say I saw mr. Peres. No. I was going to say something. Mind you, not ask, but SAY something.

I stood up and fortunately the presenter saw me. He pointed at me and the microphone came to me. I took a deep breath and said one of the things I could have said. I tried to stay calm, because I did not want to come across as ‘that angry girl with the little headscarf’. I sat down after my ‘question’. An uncomfortable look appeared on the face of the presenter, which I would translate as ‘Boy, that escalated quickly’.

She did not really bother about the answer (‘Yeah yeah. Talk yourself out of it, again.) After the meeting was over, the audience applauded and left, she stayed for a moment. When she left, she received several compliments from the audience, but her reaction was: “People. Please. Don’t. Do. that. If you believe in something, stand up. Literally.” She wanted to take the opportunity to criticize Peres not only among likeminded people, but in a meeting where she could confront him.

I’m interested in this relation between modes of activism and bodily experiences. What Nazir Bibi Nazeem so vividly describes here is probably familiar to everyone who has spoken in public and who has spoken out on issues that are close to one’s heart. With her saying that she doesn’t want to appear as the angry girl with the little headscarf she appears to refer to a common stereotype in Dutch Islam debates about angry Muslims (called ‘booslims’; a combination of the Dutch word for angry – boos – and Muslim – moslim). Not much is needed to get that stereotype imposed; speaking out is sufficient. Trying to remain calm and reserved and speaking clearly she apparently realizes that her body is part of what signifies an accepted but (in the case of Muslims) not expected mode of debating.

What public speakers often do is cultivating self-control but at the same time the body is never completely in control. Many noted, in the above example, president Peres appeared physically uncomfortable when the question was asked. As indeed most of the questions were not very critical and he could indeed elaborate on how Israel was to be protected, this question probably came as an unpleasant surprise. Others however, on Twitter, stated that her remarks were displaying a lack of respect and decency, referred to her as ‘angry little headscarf’ and ‘radical Muslims’ (yes, there you go) ‘agressive’ and thought Peres responded with dignity, wisdom and grace.

The way a public speaker sees him/herself (body image) and tries to model herself into the accepted ways of debating shows and gives him/her a sense of place in the world and a connection to others. A person’s body image and the ways in which he/she tries to shape it, influence posture, movement, tactility and speaking out and is informed by the idea the speaker has of other bodies and that other bodies have of the speaker. People’s bodies therefore are not separated from the mind nor are they merely physical entities. The body is the medium through which the mind speaks and there is a myriad of ways in which society is inscribed on the body. Furthermore it is not that the body just stands for the accepted modes of public speaking, it ís speaking as the speaker’s reference to angry Muslims and headscarves illustrate.

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