Review of: Palestinian Women: Narrative Histories and Gendered Memory, Fatma Kassem, London: Zed Books, 2011.

When Fatma Kassem submitted her PhD proposal, Yigal Ronen, the director of the Kreitman School of Advanced Graduate Studies in Ben Gurion University required her to make a series of changes. Unless she removed the term ‘Nakba’, the discussion of the Hebreicisation of place names, the term ‘first generation since the Nakba’ (‘first generation’ apparently refers only to the Holocaust), and eliminated the claim that life stories convey broader socio-cultural understandings – she would be unable to pursue her PhD. Under the guise of scientific truth, Ronen – and the university – not only doubted Kassem’s competence as a researcher, but also humiliated her as a [Palestinian] citizen of Israel, questioning her right to name her world in her own words.

Ironically, BGU is home to several radical Israeli (Jewish) scholars, including Neve Gordon, Uri Ram, and Kassem’s supervisor Lev Grinberg. It is also home to the  ‘new historian’ Benny Morris, whose  studies of the 1948 Nakba exposed the atrocities (though not the deliberate Zionist Plan D, detailed later by scholars such as Ilan Pappe, to ethnically cleanse Palestine). The anti-Zionist Pappe was forced out of Haifa University into exile in Exeter, where he continues to produce politically-committed scholarship about Israel-Palestine. However, the Zionist Morris, despite his important revelations, refutes ethnic cleansing or the existence of a Zionist plan to evict the Arab population, and has repeatedly said that he regrets the Nakba was not more complete; had Ben Gurion, he wrote in 2008, ‘carried out a full expulsion – rather than a partial one – he would have stabilized the State of Israel for generations’.

Into the thick of this heated debate, steps Fatma Kassem, one of a handful of Palestinian academics in Israeli universities. Despite Ronen’s instructions, Kassem did not give up, but she found herself doing exactly what the women whose life stories form the basis for her in-depth analysis of the gendered narratives of the 1948 Nakba did: ‘they made a commitment to self-enforced silence as a result of their disastrous experiences in 1948 in order to survive and rebuild their families and homes’ (79). However, though seemingly agreeing to the terms set by her university, Kassem used her research as a subversive act, charting the women’s knife-edge position between oppression and resistance to both ongoing Israeli colonisation and patriarchal Palestinian society, where women, while fulfilling their assigned gendered roles, stage acts of potent everyday resistance.

Kassem’s perceptive and ground breaking book can be read in several ways. On one level I want to read it as a triumph of the feminist life story methodology, aiming not to reproduce gendered power relations in Palstinian society but rather to dismantle these structures (63), enabling both researcher and researched to embody the tensions between acquiescence and resistance, living as they do as colonised subjects in a patriarchal society. Although Kassem tells her family story, this is not really an auto-ethnography, but rather a perfect example of what feminist writers call ‘situated knowledge’. The end result is also what Foucault calls the ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledges’ – ‘insufficiently elaborated knowledges: naive knowledges, hierarchically inferior knowledges, knowledges that are below the required level of erudition or scientificity…’ (Foucault, 2003: 7-8). As active agents, the quoted narratives of the women Kassem interviewed make a valuable contribution to knowledge, ‘specifically in terms of the ways in which they remember and seek to commemorate historical events’, despite their absence from most Nakba histories (239). But it is not only the women, but also Kassem herself who makes a crucial contribution to knowledge not only through steeping her own family in Nakba memories, and through straddling between citizenship and outsiderness, but also through her commitment to what Les Back calls ‘sociology as the art of listening’ (2007), assisting her in excavating the women’s life stories for a multiplicity of meanings.

Thus on another, perhaps more crucial level, the book must be read for the astute analysis of the narratives of these elderly women, first generation to the Nakba, living in what Kassem calls the ‘contested’ rather than ‘mixed’ cities of Lyd and Ramleh.  Carefully mining her narrative data, Kassem excavates the women’s stories around three main themes. The first focuses on the use of language, which, in its quotidian use (the women are mostly illiterate or of low levels of education), provides gendered meanings, spanning the private, the political, and the subversive. The second theme is the focus on the body. Here women speak of the vulnerable, victimized male body, hanged, expelled, imprisoned, killed, and ultimately signifying failure in the public sphere, not being able to protect families and gain access to the political arena. The female body, on the other hand, is spoken about as a site of memory and resistance, a strong body of survival, even though none of the women spoke explicitly about rapes during the 1948 Nakba, also silenced by the Israeli side, though for different reasons. This is a particularly fascinating chapter – as the women memorise historical events through ‘body times’ – maidenhood, pregnancy, childbirth – charting feminine patterns of memory and denoting both suffering and strength. The third theme is home, which the women speak of in complex and sophisticated ways, linking home and homeland, loss and at time re-gaining. To me Kassem;s analysis of her data is always compelling, perpetually surprising, evoking multilayered meanings which illuminate the gendered experiences of the Naka.

Through providing both a detailed and painful account of the ‘migration’ of 1948 – the women resist using terms such as expulsion, refugees, or Nakba, more commonly used by the men – and an explicit analysis of these first generation women’s strategies of resistance to Israeli governmentality, Kassem enacts her own resistance, providing more than an adequate response to her university’s attempt to silence her.

Finally, I read this book as a potent illustration of the paradoxical gendered positioning of Palestinian women citizens of the state of Israel. Nahla Abdo (2011) rejects claims by Israeli scholars that Palestinian women are oppressed mostly by (Palestinian) culture, religion and patriarchy, arguing that their subordination emanates from living in a settler-colonial state, where they not only experience repression through house demolitions and land confiscations, but also become boundary markers as Israel’s ‘demographic anxieties’ target Palestinian women in gender-specific ways. Kassem, however, does not shirk discussing Palestinian patriarchy, particularly, but not exclusively, in discussing ‘honour killings’, more prevalent since the loss of the vatan in 1948. While Palestinian patriarchy seeks to control women’s bodies, the Israeli state often forgives the perpetrators, exposing the women to two types of violence, from Palestinian men and from the state of Israel.

Kassem’s book is extremely readable, relying mostly on the women’s words rather than on complex theorisations. I learnt a lot, not only about gender and the Nakba, but, more importantly, about resistance and about what Abdo calls ‘these strong, opinionated and committed women, who, through understanding their society and its traditional/patriarchal limits, are nonetheless able to challenge these through their political involvement’ (Abdo, 2008: 186).

Abdo, N. (2008) ‘Palestinian munadelat : Between western representations and lived reality’, in R. Lentin (ed.) Thinking Palestine, London: Zed Books.
Abdo, N. (2011) Women in Israel: Gender, Race and Citizenship, London: Zed Books.
Back, L. (2007) The Art of Listening, Oxford: Berg.
Foucault, M. (2003), Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the College de France 1975-6, London: Allen Lane.

To be published in Holy Land Studies, November 2011