Palestinian Women by Fatma Kassem
This book is a series of accounts by Palestinian women who lived through the ‘Nakba’ of 1948, in which they lost their homes and were either forced to leave the newly-formed state of Israel or were internally displaced within it.
Except that it’s not. Not really. We don’t really hear much from the women themselves – only short quotes in certain places, to illustrate a particular point. We don’t get to know each woman clearly enough to feel the full power of her story from start to finish.
For a long time, we don’t get to the women at all. We hear about Foucault’s theory of the historical past as a rhetorical construct for the present. We have a chapter on the methodological aspects of telling life stories, another chapter on the author’s own life story, and detailed scrutiny of her effect on the women’s stories, their reactions to the tape recorder, etc etc. We’re 80 pages in before we get to what we came here for, the stories of Palestinian women.
The book was initially a PhD thesis, and it shows. It shows in the style of writing, which is academic and often quite dry, in the extensive quoting of Foucault, Spivak, Said, Minh-Ha et al, in the constant analysis of process and acknowledgement of flaws and biases, and a lot of other tactics which are perfectly necessary in order to forestall the potential questions and objections of PhD supervisors, but which tend to distract and/or annoy the general reader.
It shows also, however, in positive ways. PhD theses, after all, require rigour in the methodology and depth in the analysis, and this book displays both of those merits. I loved the analysis of language and the body, for example:
In my reading, when they describe Israeli ‘entry’ into the cities or villages in 1948 the choice of language used by the women I interviewed is linked to the penetration of the female body.
Kassem then explores the multiple ways in which this is relevant, from the obvious piercing of Palestinian defences to the fact that brides on their wedding night are, like Palestinians in 1948, inadequately prepared for the sexual act, and that a woman experiences a ‘conspiracy of silence’ from her family, similar to that within the Arab ‘family’ who knew what was going to happen but did nothing.
I also liked the stories of people who tried to return to their homes, as any people return to their homes after a war, but were called “infiltrators” and forcibly expelled. What struck me most was how the women themselves used this term “infiltrator” to describe themselves or their family members who tried to return to their homes. It reminded me how easily we can adopt language that doesn’t reflect our own view of reality.
The account of women’s clothing was also interesting, and much more nuanced than the total condemnation of the hijab commonly seen in Western media. Kassem recognises that conservative religious dress can be seen as an assertion of male power over women’s bodies, but also points out many examples of young women choosing to wear this style of their own accord, in the face of disapproval from older family members. In the context of Palestinians living in Israel, wearing full Muslim dress is often seen as a rebellious, political act. One woman, for example, lost her teaching job over it.
Covering the body from head to toe could be interpreted as women complying with the religious imperative to discipline their body and reproduce their subordination. However, the choice by a young, educated woman to dress in such a fashion that ‘this woman who sees without being seen frustrates the colonizer (Fanon, 1965: 44) … can also be interpreted as an act of resistance; a refusal to comply…
My overall conclusion: lots of good stuff here, but could have done with a rewrite to make it more appealing to a general audience rather than an academic one.
Have you read this book? Did my review make you more likely or less likely to check it out? What are your views on academic style? Am I right that it should have been changed to appeal to a general readership, or should the onus be on the reader to persevere and learn to love academic writing?
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