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Hebrew University
[Hebrew University, Law] Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian blames Israel for the poor state of Palestinian women, in: "Checkpoints and counter spaces"

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian webpage http://law.huji.ac.il/eng/crim.asp?staff_id=85&cat=802



Published on open Democracy News Analysis (http://www.opendemocracy.net)

Checkpoints and counter spaces

By Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian

Created 2009-07-12 10:26

NSK: In the book I look at the day to day life of Palestinian women and try to uncover the effects

of militarization and occupation, and the global denial of the ordeals of the Palestinian women in

both the private and the pubic sphere. I try to show that you can never divorce the private

sphere from the public sphere and discuss the way that the bodies of Palestinian women are a

battlefield for the occupation. So the book starts by asking the question: "Can Palestinian

women speak, can the subaltern speak?" I take the point of departure from post colonial

theorists thinking and ask whether Palestinian women can speak back, speak about and speak

truth to power.

JG: Meaning that they have some kind of agency?

NSK: I argue that we should never look at Palestinian women only as victims, but try to look at

the agency and the power - and women's power never ceases to amaze me in the way they

deal with the abuses against them, with victimization and with the demolition of their houses,

with the invasion of their private and public spaces and the effect of militarization on their day to

day life. This is why this book is a kind of tango between showing the effect of victimization,

acknowledging the trauma of being occupied and living under occupation, but then bring to

those who are reading the book the power of Palestinian women, because it is adding insult to

injury when we talk and kind of steal all the power of women. For example, I look at the effect of

spatial militarization, how space is raced, classed and gendered, and I show the effect of Israeli

spatial policy, the geopolitics - which is a way of controlling our spaces, ghettoizing us in small

enclaves, and then looking at us from a purely Orientalist perspective without looking at the fact

that women in the field are finding a million ways to cope with the atrocities committed in our

spaces. For example, I talk about young girls dealing with the Israeli separation wall which is

separating them from their educational institution, built by the occupier to deprive them of an

education. They have to pass through the military checkpoint to get to school and each time

they pass the soldiers harass them sexually, so they found out - and this is where the agency

comes in - a fascinating agency that you need to be in the field to detect and understand, they

stood beside the soldiers and every time they wanted to pass they started to ululating and the

soldiers would shout "Go! Go!" So that is a new language, a counter discourse to the hegemonic

discourse, finding a new way of resisting, based on their singing, on their ululating and their

arguing. There are many ways of acknowledging women's agency and that's what I'm talking

about in the book. I identify and look at the effect of the trauma of the militarization and the

occupation, but at the same time I'm not silencing the women's agency, but bringing it to the

forefront and stating that "this is us, we are Palestinian women with different voices, different

ways, different reactions and with different languages".

JG: You talk about the situation of women as being ‘betweeness'- that they are exiles in their

own homes, what do you mean?

NSK: I ask the reader to remember that we as women are in a state of betweeness, we are kind

of border patrolling everything, we are border patrolling the border between the outside and the

inside , the private and the public - our bodies, our lives, our future are all in the state of

betweeness. If I take the example of the Palestinian home, Palestinian women are in their

houses and my research into housing demolition revealed that women sometimes sleep in their

clothes and do not wear nightgowns fearing that the Israelis might invade their house, so yes

they are at home, but they are in exile at home because the private space is militarized and the

Israelis are controlling the private space. But more than this, the effect of the control over the

private space is not only reproducing a different kind of masculinity and patriarchy within

Palestinian society by the Palestinian men, it's also reconstructing it in a totally different way.

Look at the example of the checkpoints where I give an example of my own experience; I was

dropping my partner off at his clinic when they had this flying checkpoint - which is an immediate

checkpoint when the Israelis decide they must check the area - so they stopped us and they put

the men on the right side and the women on the left side, and they told the men to raise their

hands and body searched them, and we were on the other side, and this kind of not knowing,

this uncertainty that we were all living at that moment, this geography of fear that they created in

a very small space, our space as women, all of a sudden it became militarized and they kind of

stole our space from us. We became exilic in our own space and the men became dehumanized

and demonized in front of our very eyes, they hit the men and the men were trying to cope with

the situation. This entire exercise of emasculating the man and humiliating somebody inside the

family happened while we were watching, each in our own way. I was very scared. We were

asking ourselves what we could do in this situation where the men of our families were being

searched and undressed in front of us. And what happened to that man when he got back home

and he had to look his wife in the eye? So this militarization that I'm talking about ends up

putting us, as women, as boundary markers, so we are the punching bag for the men outside

and the punching bag for the men inside, and we want to move and change the situation, but we

are in a state of ‘betweeness' because protecting the home and protecting the men inside the

home means that sometimes we have to let go of some of our freedom and rights. We do not

want to do that, so we are fighting all the time and we are the front liners, looking for ways under

such very tough conditions when we are uncertain and afraid and worried, not sure where we

are going, but at the same time I am arguing that we have found a different language so you

hear it, you see it, you feel it. Maybe it's not documented and this is what this book is doing, the

book is documenting and bringing voices that are not heard and bringing faces that are not

usually seen.

JG: When you were lined up with the other women at the checkpoint were you able to create

any kind of counter space to what was going on?

NSK: This is one of the things I write about, the counter discourse which is amazing, I write

about one of the women who was next to me at the checkpoint, I was cold and she asked me

where my jacket was and I told her it was in my car and she said "why don't you explain to them

and go and get your jacket?" and she started talking in Arabic to the soldier and I translated in

Hebrew and this discussion sort of scared him because we were talking in such a convincing

normal way - human language is hard for soldiers because a soldier is supposed to dehumanise

and not look at you as a human - and all of a sudden we were talking about needing a jacket

and asking him to allow the mother who was standing there with us with her baby crying, to

breastfeed her baby in my car. So he didn't know what to do, he was struggling with the counter

language that we were speaking of the daily suffering, a language that speaks clearly and

challenges him when he is under orders not to be attentive to our needs. But we continued and

it became the creation of a ‘home' in an exilic situation, we were in the street and we were lined

up and the soldiers were holding their rifles and the entire area was totally militarized, but the

discussion between the women continued, and one of the girls who was holding a book because

she was on the way to take her exams, was asked by one of the women why she didn't start to

read the book while she was standing there. So all of a sudden this became a creation of a

home in such a scary exilic situation, where I'm freezing, the other woman is breast feeding and

the young girl is reading the book and Um Ahmad is controlling the situation. All of a sudden we

became a family supporting each other in our different ways, me speaking Hebrew, Um Ahmad

with her ability to lead and others in their own way. This is women's agency, this is women's

power, but again it is women who are border patrolling where this line of demarcation comes

between looking at the ‘other' as human - and ‘othering' and dehumanizing, stealing the human

face from the other. Standing there on the checkpoint I try to document the human story, the day

to day small things, the talking to the soldiers. You don't need to speak Hebrew to talk - you can

talk by ululating, by singing, by carrying your books, in so many ways.....

JG: These oppositional strategies you are describing on the ground, do they amount to some

kind of theory of resistance in your work?

NSK: Yes, that's what I really talk about, a different theory of resistance that acknowledges the

day to day acts, the oppositional discourses, acknowledges the counter discourses and looks at

the fact that every time you see denial by the other - the colonisers and the occupier - it requires

you to look carefully inside at what is going on, to look at the reactions of the women who are

caring and getting their children to school. To look at their ability to continue.

When I was doing my study of the effect of the separation wall one young women told me

something which is what I call oppositional discourse and this is my theory of resistance, it's

bottom up theory, it's listening to the voices of the mute and the silenced and hearing what they

are telling me. I asked her what she thought about the wall and she looked at me and asked me

whether I saw her backpack, and I said yes, and she asked me what I thought she had in it and I

said books, and she said "I'm carrying the entire pain and history of the Palestinian nation, that's

what I'm carrying," and she explained that because of her identity as a Palestinian woman she

was harassed when she passes through the wall. So if we think she's a normal 13 year old on

her way to school, and then you hear what she is telling me, that requires you to stop and go

back and check yourself. This is the story of a hyphenated self that is continually traumatized

from one side, but at the same time also has agency.

Sometimes we do not have power, sometimes we have the right just to sit and say today "I can

not do it", it's a process. My request to western feminists is that they look at it from a purely

genealogical aspect, because you can never understand Palestinian women with out

understanding geopolitics, you can never understand Palestinian women without understanding

bio politics and the demographic war, you can never understand Palestinian women if you do

not understand necropolitics, the politics of life and death, because there's an economy, an

economy of life and death that is killing and muffling and silencing, and if you do not read the

silence and you do not see what is not seen, you fail to acknowledge where we stand and what

we are doing.

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