Checkpoints and counter spaces

Nadera Shalhoub Jane Gabriel
12 July 2009

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian talked to Jane Gabriel about her latest book ‘Militarization and Violence against Women in Conflict Zones in the Middle East'. A Palestinian case-study. In which she analyses Palestinian women's agency and the many different ways in which they create counter spaces to the militarization of their daily lives.

NSK: In my 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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