Palestinian Women: Narrative Histories and Gendered Memory
by Fatma Kassem

Zed Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-848-13424-9.
Reviewed by Susan M. Andrus
Posted on 10/15/2011

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus; Nonfiction: American Women in Their Cultural/Historical Context

When a conqueror takes over a country, to the victor belongs the spoils. This happened in the newly emerging United States when Tory homes were occupied and Tories escaped to Canada or England. In the same way, in 1948 when the nation of Israel was formed, the Israelis forced out over 700,000 Palestinians, who lost their homes or had to move to ghettos or refugee camps in other countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, to accommodate the Israelis moving in from around the world.

How appropriate that I was reading Palestinian Women this September, just when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations to ask for recognition of a Palestinian state. On that day, one Gazan family named their new baby "Ayloul" (September) to commemorate this event. Palestinian Women is a collection of memories of women who lived in Palestine in 1948, and how their memories and actions create a history of Palestinian life and their response to the Israeli occupation at that time.

Kassem interviewed twenty women living in Lyd and Ramleh who lived through these events. Although having difficulty expressing their stories due to repression by the authorities and shame of having gone through some harrowing experiences, the women showed how they adjusted to their losses of home, family, children, and self-respect. Being illiterate, these women told parts of their stories to their families to keep the history alive, but revealed even more when they learned that Kassem was a Palestinian woman herself, spoke to them in Arabic, and assured them that their stories would help create a history of the unspeakable events from their past.

These women also felt marginalized because their culture gave women second-class standing. Having an opportunity to tell their stories validated these women, even while the Zionist authorities sought to destroy their memories. As Kassem related, "Mourning and remembering the events of 1948 that shattered and dispersed their personal and collective lives are silenced in the public space of Israel," under the guise of national security.

Kassem shares her own family's history by showing, through the story of her mother's birth, that women were considered second-class citizens. While her grandmother was in labor, a guest decided to stay until after the baby was born. When told that it was a girl, the guest said, "'I wish that she had never given birth.' And then he left." During the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kassem's family was displaced and she uses her mother's and grandmother's stories to show how they survived.

After explaining how she collected these stories, Kassem explains why she chose these two cities, and how her recording and listening to these women affected her reporting. As a doctoral candidate at Ben-Gurion University, this project became the basis for her dissertation. She reports how she met with resistance from a Zionist member of her committee who attempted to prevent her from using these women's stories for her research. He was later transferred to another department and Kassem was able complete her work.

Finally, she organizes the twenty Palestinian women's stories into categories of "Language," "The Body," and "Home." In the Language chapter, Kassem shows how women used language to tell their stories as a form of resistance through hidden meanings, much like the Gazan family named their daughter Ayloul. In The Body, Kassem demonstrates how women used words pertaining to bodily functions, and/or their silence to report abuse, rapes, and murders. In Home, Kassem shows how newly built Palestinian homes and sustainable crops were destroyed to make room for ghetto housing for the displaced Palestinians and new homes for the Israelis.

Additions of photos and poetry by Palestinians, add to the richness of these stories. The somewhat academic nature of the reporting makes for dry reading at times, but at the same time, I could envision a documentary rivaling Exodus, (the movie depicting the Israeli side of the story,) based on these Palestinian women's stories.

Kassem believes that the roots of the continuing conflict in Israel stems from the events of 1948 that have not been resolved. By preventing the Palestinians from commemorating these events and refusing to tell both sides of the story, the Israelis are perpetuating a never-ending conflict. Reading this book makes me wonder what it would take for the conquerors to change, allowing those they conquer to live with them in peace and harmony.

Fatma Kassem completed her Ph.D. in the Department of Behavioral Science at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Her research stemmed from deep interest in how structural and hegemonic relations work within and between societies, and how they influence women and marginal groups. Kassem has both academic and practical training in conflict resolution, with practical experience of facilitating dialogue in groups of Jews and Palestinians in Israel. During 2007-08 she was a fellow of the research program Europe in the Middle East (EUME).

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