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Fatma Kassem Review - Lentin

Fatma Kassem Review - Lentin

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Published by Ronit Lentin

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Published by: Ronit Lentin on Sep 03, 2011
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03/03/2013

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1
Palestinian Women: Narrative Histories and Gendered Memory,
Fatma Kassem, London: Zed Books,2011, 264 pp.Ronit LentinWhen Fatma Kassem submitted her PhD proposal, Yigal Ronen, the director of the Kreitman Schoolof Advanced Graduate Studies in Ben Gurion University required her to make a series of changes.Unless she removed
the term ‘Nakba’
, the discussion of the Hebreicisation of place names, the term
‘first generation since the Nakba’ (‘
first generation
apparently refers only to the Holocaust), andeliminated the claim that life stories convey broader socio-cultural understandings
 –
she would beunable to pursue her PhD. Under the guise of scientific truth, Ronen
 –
and the university
 –
not only
doubted Kassem’s competence as a researcher
, but also humiliated her as a [Palestinian] citizen of Israel, questioning her right to name her world in her own words.Ironically, BGU is home to several radical Israeli (Jewish) scholars, including Neve Gordon, Uri Ram,and K
assem’s supervisor Lev Grinberg. It is al
so home to the
‘new historian’ Benny Morris, whose
studies of the 1948 Nakba exposed the atrocities (though not the deliberate Zionist Plan D, detailedlater by scholars such as Ilan Pappe, to ethnically cleanse Palestine). The anti-Zionist Pappe wasforced out of Haifa University into exile in Exeter, where he continues to produce politically-committed scholarship about Israel-Palestine. However, the Zionist Morris, despite his importantrevelations, refutes ethnic cleansing or the existence of a Zionist plan to evict the Arab population,and has repeatedly said that he regrets the Nakba was not more complete; had Ben Gurion, hewrote in 2008,
‘carried out a full expulsion
- rather than a partial one - he would have stabilized theState of Israel for gene
rations’.
 Into the thick of this heated debate, steps Fatma Kassem, one of a handful of Palestinian academicsin Israeli universities
. Despite Ronen’s instructions, Kassem
did not give up, but she found herself doing exactly what the women whose life stories form the basis for her in-depth analysis of thegendered narratives of the 1948 Nakba did:
they made a commitment to self-enforced silence as aresult of their disastrous experiences in 1948 in order to survive and rebuild their families and
homes’ (79
). However, though seemingly agreeing to the terms set by her university, Kassem usedher research as a subversive act, chart
ing the women’s knife
-edge position between oppression andresistance to both ongoing Israeli colonisation and patriarchal Palestinian society, where women,while fulfilling their assigned gendered roles, stage acts of potent everyday resistance.
 
2
Kassem’s perceptive and ground breaking book can be read in
several ways. On one level I want toread it as a triumph of the feminist life story methodology, aiming not to reproduce gendered powerrelations in Palstinian society but rather to dismantle these structures (63), enabling both researcherand researched to embody the tensions between acquiescence and resistance, living as they do ascolonised subjects in a patriarchal society. Although Kassem tells her family story, this is not really anauto-ethnography, but rather a perfect example of what feminist writers call
‘situated knowledge’.
The end result is also what Foucault calls
the ‘i
nsurrection
of subjugated knowledges’ –
 
insufficientlyelaborated knowledges: naive knowledges, hierarchically inferior knowledges, knowledges that are
below the required level of erudition or scientificity…’ (Foucault, 2003: 7
-8). As active agents, thequoted narratives of the women Kassem interviewed make a valuable contribution to knowledge,
‘specifically in terms of 
the ways in which they remember and seek to commemorate historical
events’, despite their absence from
most Nakba histories (239). But it is not only the women, butalso Kassem herself who makes a crucial contribution to knowledge not only through steeping herown family in Nakba memories, and through straddling between citizenship and outsiderness, butalso through her commitment to what Le
s Back calls ‘sociology as the art of listening’ (2007),
assisting her in
excavating the women’s life stories for a multiplicity of meanings.
Thus on another, perhaps more crucial level, the book must be read for the astute analysis of thenarratives of these elderly women, first generation to the Nakba, living in what Kassem calls the
‘contested’ rather than ‘mixed’ cities of Lyd and Ramleh.
Carefully mining her narrative data,
Kassem excavates the women’s stories around three main themes. The first focu
ses on the use of language, which, in its quotidian use (the women are mostly illiterate or of low levels of education),provides gendered meanings, spanning the private, the political, and the subversive. The secondtheme is the focus on the body. Here women speak of the vulnerable, victimized male body, hanged,expelled, imprisoned, killed, and ultimately signifying failure in the public sphere, not being able toprotect families and gain access to the political arena. The female body, on the other hand, is spokenabout as a site of memory and resistance, a strong body of survival, even though none of the womenspoke explicitly about rapes during the 1948 Nakba, also silenced by the Israeli side, though fordifferent reasons. This is a particularly fascinating chapter
 –
as the women memorise historical
events through ‘body times’ –
maidenhood, pregnancy, childbirth
 –
charting feminine patterns of memory and denoting both suffering and strength. The third theme is home, which the womenspeak of in complex and sophisticated ways, linking home and homeland, loss and at time re-gaining.To me Kassem;s analysis of her data is always compelling, perpetually surprising, evokingmultilayered meanings which illuminate the gendered experiences of the Naka.

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