Palestinian Women: Narrative Histories and Gendered Memories
By Fatma Kassem
Zed Books, Forthcoming (March 2011), 224 pages, $125.95
Fatma Kassem has made the empowerment of Arab women inside Israel, and the wider region, her life’s work. As a lecturer in behavioural sciences at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, she has published several texts on the subject, and her activism led her to a directorship in ESCWA (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia). She also serves as a board member of the association for promoting higher education among Bedouin women in the Negev.
The majority of Kassem’s published work has dealt with current issues, such as Knowledge, Action and Resistance: The Selective Use of Pre-natal Screening Among Bedouin Women of the Negev (2001). With Narrative Histories and Gendered Memories she turns her attention to the thorny subject of the 1948 Nakba, and specifically the mark it left on Palestinian women who lived through it. It represents the first serious attempt to “document the experiences and the historical narrative of ordinary Palestinian women who witnessed the events,” through a series of fascinating interviews encompassing a diverse range of perspectives.
Kassem analyses why these voices have not been heard over the past 60 years, dealing with Israel’s systematic repression of unwelcome historical accounts. This repression is most extreme when addressing the Nakba, which Israeli schools are forbidden to teach. She provides deeply personal accounts of women’s trauma and loss, filtering them through the prism of her own experience, using the insights gleaned from decades of working in Israeli academic institutions. She also examines the continuing role that events of 1948 play in Palestinian and Israeli society today, finding that guilt, fear, denial, and hatred colour attitudes and are passed down through generations. She argues that without recognition of this dark chapter of history, relations between populations will remain poisonous.
The author allows her sources to speak for themselves without much of the patronising, interpretative leaps that undermine other academic approaches to the Palestine/Israel conflict. By allowing female witnesses an unreconstructed voice she gives their previously overlooked perspectives greater authority, and she and readers are rewarded with powerful, original accounts.
Most fascinating are the passages dealing with how witnesses chart the evolution of resistance movements from 1948 to the present day, how Nakba victims inside Israel seek to preserve their identity and reject historic injustices despite the mounting pressure they face to assimilate and forget. The witnesses’ need to manage daily realities while maintaining deeply held values is touchingly observed.
Kassem also devotes attention to her specialist subject of women’s subordination in the region, so that history marries the present day, but this important and fresh approach to 1948 should not be dismissed as generic feminism. Available from March 29, this should be on every bookshelf.