Israel’s prolonged colonisation and military occupation of Palestine has given rise to a consistent form of resistance that is implemented in everyday life, yet rarely recognised. This form of subaltern politics is practiced daily by women who have to contend with impositions and restrictions ranging from stereotyped misrepresentation in the dissemination of their struggle to the absence of any representation at all in formal politics.
Dissecting the oppressive intricacies as regards Palestinian women’s activism, Sophie Richter-Devroe notes that “women’s everyday political practices reveal how closely interlinked economic, social gender and political struggles are in Palestine.” Her recently published ethnographic study, Women’s Political Activism in Palestine: Peacebuilding, Resistance and Survival (University of Illinois Press, 2018) identifies the dynamics of control, notably the outcome of the Oslo Accords and its aftermath, imposed upon Palestinian women which have led to diverse forms of informal political practices.
Richter-Devroe’s book navigates many complex trajectories and dispels the notion of understanding the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle from a Western liberal viewpoint. Women embody a major role in Palestine’s subaltern politics and resistance. It is through this framework that the author dissects the foundations of Palestinian resistance and protest which are not accommodating but challenge the entire spectrum of impositions and violations committed by the main actors in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords, namely Israel, the international community and the Palestinian Authority. All three have influenced Palestinian society and, in turn, women’s mobility and lack of visibility.
“Palestinian women’s subaltern politics is contained in and enacted through everyday life.” This statement requires more than an acknowledgment of women’s resistance in Palestine as a daily practice. Indeed, women’s marginalisation from conventional politics has resulted in an intense, everyday strategy that challenges colonial and complicit control but which remains obscured precisely due to its routine. Richter-Devroe sums up this dynamic thus: “I understand women’s acts of striving to maintain or re-create a normal life as a form of politics and resistance, because these acts directly target settler-colonial policies that seek to rid women of exactly that: their everyday normality, dignity, and ability to lead a regular, joyful life.”
In Palestine’s circumstances, everyday resistance is fundamental to resisting the compromised alternatives resulting from Oslo and its focus on peacebuilding, as well as funding of joint Palestinian-Israeli initiatives. The author’s detailed analysis shows how international control over activism seeks to implement boundaries that are acceptable to Western discourse, thus altering the Palestinian narrative and reducing its aims to mere solidarity and sympathy, even within Palestinians themselves. These have, in turn, been absorbed by the Palestinian Authority due to its structure being heavily dependent upon international funding. Within Palestinian society, the same strands controlling female Palestinian activism at international and local levels have also influenced generalised perceptions which are refuted by the activists themselves.
Understanding these dynamics and differences, Richter-Devroe writes, necessitates a shift in thinking and analysis “from scholarly focus to the everyday.” Away from the conventional, male-oriented politics of resistance, women have recognised that there is no separation between their everyday life and political dynamics. The resistance paradigm employed by Palestinian women is comprehensive yet selective, recognising the limitations imposed by the international liberal agenda and allowing space for debate and decision-making as to what constitutes resistance that is supportive of anti-colonial struggle. The latter emerges primarily as a result of external constructions of women’s roles in Palestinian resistance. As the external narrative of peace building and inclusion upon selective criteria gained tract in Palestine, notably through the Palestinian Authority after the Second Intifada (2000-2005), women’s activism and peace building had to navigate the normalisation imposed by UN Security Council Resolution 1325 which the author describes as “normalising certain forms of female political agency while delegitimising others”.
In the aftermath of the Oslo Accords, joint Palestinian-Israeli peace projects were funded by the international community which, in turn, prompted calls for boycotting such initiatives due to the associated normalisation of Israel’s colonisation. For Palestinian women, institutionalising joint activities without a clear distinction of the ultimate aim – anti-colonial struggle and liberation – instilled “fear that foreign funded non-violence projects might undermine the Palestinians’ legal right to armed resistance as a population under occupation.”
The institutionalisation of non-violent resistance also involved the re-conceptualisation of “sumud”, another widely practiced form of resistance which the PA exploited, in line with the international impositions on Palestinians. Richter-Devroe refers to earlier skepticism expressed about the PA’s agenda, described as “a conservative, elitist program of accommodation, not one for victory or change,” and shows, through her extensive research, how women’s implementation of sumud surpasses the political manipulation of the term which elevates the two-state framework.
The space which Palestinian women activists navigate is influenced by impositions, yet the everyday struggle has allowed new understandings to flourish. Israel’s colonial presence, international impositions, and PA acquiescence, all of which have had an impact on women’s freedom and mobility, have also contributed to an absence of political representation. However, women have utilised space as a platform for their informal politics.
In terms of freedom of movement, Richet-Devroe shows that women’s activism strives to “indirectly and quietly re-appropriate and redefine their colonised, fragmented and dispossessed spaces.” Geo-physically, coordinated resistance has become harder due to settlement expansion which has also contributed to a lack of unified strategy. In this way, the fragmentation of space is navigated in an oppositional manner which does shift power dynamics; the tenacity to act as part of a resistance collective through everyday life is an anti-colonial strategy. However, women’s activism through insistence upon crossing borders for various reasons, for example, including accessing their lands from which they are barred, cannot shift power relations on its own.
One particular quote stands out in this book; it encapsulates the responses given by the women interviewed for the purpose of this research: “Taking into account only the visible political activity means that we will miss the immense political terrain that lies between quiescence and revolt and that, for better or worse, is the political environment of the subject classes.”
The direct and indirect struggle, in particular when it comes to women’s activism, takes place within a space that is overlooked despite its centrality. Richter-Devroe’s research and in-depth interviews bring that space to the helm, reminding the reader that beyond all the narratives imposed on the Palestinians and their land, the power of the subaltern is, unfortunately, being regularly and unfairly dismissed to accommodate an imposed, Western framework that, like colonial Israel itself, has no foundations in Palestine.