Everyday Prisons – Women’s Lives Under Occupation
by Samah Saleh
Hanan, a Palestinian woman, was released in a prisoner exchange, after serving five years of her life sentence. In an interview, during my research on women in Israeli prisons, Hanan closed her eyes as she described prison as no more than a series of boxes.
The boxes are connected to each other’ she explained, the distress in her voice rising ‘And we need a permit from the guards to move around. All boxes are connected to one lock, which is in the hands of the guard”.
Another woman, imprisoned for two years, says that on her release, she felt she had left a small prison to live in a larger one. In effect, to live in the occupied territories of Palestine is to live in a prison, one closed box after another, boxes that I cannot always get through, that I need permission to enter and leave. I must navigate strategically, carefully. Unlike many of you, where I go and at what times is heavily restricted and policed. For Palestinian women, our everyday movements and our bodies are regulated by the complicated relationships and entanglements between colonial and patriarchal power. In the process, the boundaries between what is public and private space are shifting. Ironically, it is the very eating away of these borders between the home and public life that has become a new, although precarious ground, for women’s resistance and empowerment.
In trying to investigate women’s experiences, I have been interviewing Palestinian women prisoners for the past two years, collecting their stories of prison and post-prison life. As well as stories, I have become interested in visual images by Palestinian photographers, who are trying to show the small sensual and mundane effects of occupation. This is a different side to the sudden interest by Western feminists in Palestinian women as suicide bombers, following the second Intifada that began in 2000. As the feminist scholar Nahla Abdo has argued, such interest has often resulted in decontextualized snap-shots of women that fail to uncover the interrelations between colonialism, racialisation and gender. When so much of the Palestinian cultural archive – documents, art, film, radio and TV stations – has been destroyed, such images can become a vital part of ‘counter history and memory.
I began my research with a focus on incarceration. This has now broadened to take into account the ‘prison’ of Israeli occupation. I have become interested in how time and space are disrupted and can be reconfigured by the encounters that take place on, across and through women’s bodies. What happens when our ordinary un-thought habits are brought to the surface and made strange? What makes a mundane activity such as shopping, walking with your baby, or seeing friends, acts that threaten the body politic? As the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has argued, the body and bodily habits are crucial to understanding and uncovering the myriad ways in which power operates
It is because the body is (at different degrees) exposed, put into play, into danger in the world, confronted with the risk of emotion, hurt, suffering, sometimes death, and thus obliged to take the world seriously (and nothing is more serious than emotion, which touches on the innermost depth of our organic dispositions), that it can acquire dispositions which are themselves opening to the world, that is, to the very structures of the social world of which they are the embodied form.
For Palestinians, and especially women, our day-to-day life under Israeli colonialism is marked by confinement. The prison doors and bars have been replaced by identity cards, borders, house invasion and curfew. Palestine is a place of many checkpoints, barriers and walls that carve up the area of Palestinian Authority into small, circumscribed spaces, making even the most ordinary of movements, such as a trip to see relatives or friends or to buy food, fraught and difficult. The simplest of journeys becomes arduous and degrading. We can spend hours trying to circumnavigate checkpoints to reach a destination. Some of us now only go out when we have to. Why make yourself vulnerable to intimidation or danger? Our minds become limited, possibilities narrow, our bodies become vigilant, hypersensitive to threat and danger. Out of fear and insecurity, we impose psychic fences around our own movements before we have even encountered the cold steely metal and barbed wire of the checkpoint. We become suspicious about everything. We discipline and regulate ourselves without being conscious of it. This is the modern colonial reversioning of what Dubois called ‘doubled consciousness’ – the ‘sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.’
Israel’s segregation or ‘Annexation’ wall, that began to be built over a decade ago, extends like a snake over 450km. In some places the snake has slithered into the West Bank, cutting off Palestinian communities from vital social and economic resources. The route of the wall cuts off more than ten per cent of the territory of the occupied West Bank and more than 60,000 Palestinians between the Green Line and the wall. Palestinians in these areas are obliged to obtain Israeli permits, valid for up to a year, in order to keep living in their own homes. Many more Palestinians live on the other side of the wall but need to pass through it to access their land, jobs and family, as well as places of education and health facilities. Palestinians living on either side of the wall must obtain Israeli permits to cross through specific gates in the wall. The route of the wall also includes more than three quarters of Israeli settlers, concretising the link between the wall and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Such demarcations not only protect Israeli illegal settlements but are also a daily reminder of the precarious rights of Palestinians within their own land PDF – The Wall in the West Bank Implementation of ICJ Advisory Opinion November2006 (f). The wall and the flying checkpoints are continually moving. We do not know if or when ‘our’ land will slip out from under us. It puts you on edge. You feel insecure, watched, conscious and suspicious of all around you.
The image that you see below is of a woman crossing an electronic gate in Hwara. Her anxiety and fear in the tight cage of the checkpoint are written into her face; the hand that holds her baby is full of protective tension. It is the routinisation of these state-sponsored acts of terror that are the most disturbing. Palestinian women know all too well that there is no humanity at the checkpoint, whether you are with your baby or children, whether you are pregnant or even in labour. Research by Halla Shoaibi estimated that during the time of her study (2000-2007), 10 percent of Palestinian women who were pregnant were delayed at checkpoints on their way to hospital to give birth. More and more women are now opting to give birth at home, despite the increased risks.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1975) has described what he called the ‘panoptic’ gaze of ‘bio-power’, whereby the individual is under constant social surveillance. For Foucault, modern sovereign power does not so much exercise the ancient right to take life or let live. Its power is more diffuse, more sinister. It gets inside our heads and bodies. So while the walls and checkpoints are the material manifestations of Israel’s bio-power, what is much more insidious and alarming is the way Palestinians have learned to discipline our own minds and bodies, long before we have ever reached the walls or the checkpoint.
Military occupation in school, homes and hospitals – the everyday spaces where Palestinian women could move freely – has shaped the ways in which women are both subjected to and resist Israeli coercion and male power. Women’s bodies and lives have become a frontline, another boundary. The next image is again from the Hwara checkpoint. It shows a social layering of bodies – the Palestinian men who have their backs to the camera are in between the Israeli soldiers and the women, who are behind the electronic gate. This arrangement of bodies tells us so much about the challenges Palestinian women face when they participate in public life.
In Palestinian society, it is men’s responsibility to protect women and family honour. Family honour is very much entwined with women’s behavior, particularly in public. The military checkpoints, which are mainly operated by men, are laden with a dangerous tapestry of power for women, who often face racist-sexualised harassment at checkpoints. My own experience, as well the stories that women have shared with me, show how occupation and the increased policing of women’s movements in the occupied territories can impose limits on women outside of the home. They can worry about their reputation and family honor. At the same time, the private space of the home has begun to open to the public as a result of the occupation and resistance movements. Women have become involved in all aspects of political life, even in their homes, where they sometimes hide and protect others. They have become involved in neighborhood committees supporting people whose houses have been destroyed. They support and share the grief of the mothers and sisters of martyrs or prisoners. And they participate in political life by the simple acts of crossing checkpoints and living through the invasion and the curfews imposed upon their cities, villages and refugee camps.
The final image is from Balata refugee camp, the woman is a mother who has just heard that her son has been killed. All the women in the neighbouring households have left their homes to accompany this woman. It is a spontaneous, unthinking response to the pain of another. Some of the women are still in their pajamas and bare feet, the traces of the private insinuating its foot prints in the public world of colonial violation. This is the shaky, blood-stained ground on which women have become a part of public life in Palestine.
As we women take on roles in public activities such as at martyrs funerals, it is not only women from the same family or who have a personal connection to the deceased. Women are starting to participate in demonstrations and other political activities. Others are choosing to take part in military actions against the Israeli occupation. Latifa, a mother of seven children, spent 8 years in Israeli prison and was released in the prisoner exchange in 2011. Latifa responded angrily to my naïve question about what had motivated her to be a part of a resistance movement ‘What do you want me to do? Stand on the side and watch? They killed my dad in front of my eyes in the 80s, I could not stay in the house and do nothing.’
The roles women play in resistance to the occupation have been seen as signifying “Sumud” or steadfastness, defined as ‘Meari Sumud’, a Palestinian mode of becoming, passive resistance and orienting oneself in a colonial reality. PDF – Introduction to an Encounter. It is an act of day-to-day bodily survival and various affective coping strategies. There is a danger of romanticizing Sumud as the definining subjectivity of Palestinian women; something that feeds into orientalist thinking and myth-making about Muslim women. But there is nothing passive about Sumud. What is so important about Palestinian women’s resistance under Israeli apartheid, is that it is bringing to light the hidden layers and reach of the toxicity of colonialism and its varying impacts on men and women, family and community relationships.
In his forensic examination of the psychology of Israeli occupation, Edward Said drew attention to what he called ‘negative hallucinations’ : of not being able to see or recognise the existence of an other. These negative hallucinations are alive in the Western cultural psyche and in the media’s portrayal of Palestine and Palestinians. At the very least, Palestinian women’s diversifying roles in public life – even when these roles are associated with home and family – interrupt the hallucinations and rational detachments. They show us that the disassociations between the private and the public, the personal and the political are always misleading, always dangerous.
Samah Saleh a PhD candidate in the Sociology department (Goldsmiths, London). Her doctoral research is about the experience of Palestinian women’s incarceration in Israeli prisons. She is following women’s lives before, during and after imprisonment. As a women’s rights activist in Palestine she has also been involved in a research on violence against women and has worked on women rights issues in her position in An-Najah national university as a social worker and academic.
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- A Young Boy’s Journey Symbolises the Struggle of the Palestinian People (mdiadiversityuk.com)