At the Doors of Paradise, by Franke

VOL. 46


No. 1
P. 71
Recent Books
At the Doors of Paradise, by Franke

Based on the author’s PhD dissertation, this book aims to provide an understanding of istishhadiyyat—Palestinian women who carried out martyrdom operations after the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000. Through an analysis of the group’s encomiums, Lisa Marie Franke explores the differing social discourses surrounding female martyrdom operations. She situates istishhadiyyat in relation to the Palestinian women’s movement. In so doing, Franke deals with some prevailing assumptions about Palestinian women in the national resistance and the place of istishhadiyyat. Focusing on gender roles, she explores whether the istishhadiyyat “aspire to take up a masculine position in society, if patriarchal structures and values are reinforced by this shift in gender,” and whether istishhadiyyat “evoke a gender modification or whether they are a new group of female participants in the nationalist discourse” (p. 21).


Concluding that “the surrounding circumstances of desperation and disappointment play[ed] a major role” in the emergence of istishhadiyyat, Franke explains that these circumstances influenced the group’s production of texts. These texts “heroise martyrs” and “mythologise the individual” (p. 255), providing purpose and belonging for istishhadiyyat. Furthermore, Franke argues that the group evokes religious, political, and cultural rhetoric to “better justify the position of the organization by corroborating it with widely known and powerful discursive elements such as language, symbols, and myths” (p. 256).


In analyzing the Palestinian public’s ideas about istishhadiyyat, Franke examines what she calls complementing discourses, those supportive and oppositional to martyrdom operations. To gather such data, she interviewed a variety of Palestinians, including families of the istishhadiyyat, journalists, politicians, militants, and women’s organizations. As a rule, istishhadiyyat did not disclose their involvement to their families. Franke’s interviews showed that if families had “received information about the operation prior to it being carried out, they would have done everything in their power to stop it” (p. 256).


While Franke accurately portrays the divide in Palestinian opinion on the validity and sustainability of this form of resistance, there are some points that need more examination in order to fully contextualize the act of istishhad (martyrdom). The author describes the act of these women as a form of resistance, as is well-indicated in their testimonies proving their agency and independent decisions to sacrifice themselves for the liberation of their homeland. However, Franke also concludes that male resistance leaders use istishhadiyyat to “justify their function as dispatchers of self-sacrificing martyrs” (p. 256). The author goes on to argue that the women’s femininity was not regarded by militant leaders as a “disadvantage but as an appreciated asset, useful in the resistance struggle, since women can often meander more inconspicuously through the streets and checkpoints than men” (p. 257). She later critiques the larger militant resistance movement by concluding that “women in this case are only telling the story in their testament, the whole glorification machinery is organized by men who literally established a trade with emotions. . . . Thus, resistance here is not just an altruistic activity, but one that serves the resistance propaganda and that justifies and perpetuates the need for militant organisations” (p. 258).


However, Franke fails to address the question of what triggered the existence of these militant organizations in Palestine. Contextualizing Palestinian national resistance within the colonial Zionist project is necessary for a fuller understanding. Palestinian militant organizations are not a “parasite” scheming to perpetuate their presence through the “propagandistic” use of female martyrdom. Rather, members of such organizations are sacrificing their lives, freedom, and homes for the sake of their national liberation, and all members are victims of the same colonization. Additionally, resistance tactics have changed through history. For example, more recently we do not hear or see the songs or posters that have typically glorified martyrs; we instead see women and men coming out of their homes with kitchen knives to resist their colonizers. 


Including the writings of Frantz Fanon to theorize resistance and violence in the context of colonized and colonizers would have provided readers a more nuanced perspective. Instead, the book relied heavily on James Scott’s analysis of everyday forms of peasant resistance in a village in Malaysia (p. 80). This might not be the most suitable theoretical frame to understand the forms of violence that Palestinians face on a daily basis, how Zionist propaganda depicts Palestinians as inhuman killers and insane terrorists, or how a Palestinian body, dead or alive, is treated as an object on which to afflict all forms of violence and humiliation. Such an analysis of violence would be more helpful in understanding the diverse forms of Palestinian resistance.


Franke’smeticulous efforts in data collection make her book an important addition to the archive of the history and activismof Palestinian women. She is well familiar with the region, its culture, and its language, which enabled her to transcend the dichotomies often imposed on Arab women by Western scholars. These binaries include the divide between the public sphere and the private (the gendered space) or the depiction of Muslim women as victims of their religion and culture. Franke is able to approach self-sacrificing operations as more than simply acts of terrorism. However, there exist instances when she equates the violence of the occupier with that of the occupied, disregarding proportionality. For example, she writes that “both sides started to use extreme forms of force during the Intifada,” (p. 17) and goes on to describe Israeli air strikes on Palestinian civilians and Palestinian martyrdom operations (p. 18). In conclusion, without understanding the particular colonial context, its structures, and the circumstances under which Palestinians live, it is difficult to understand why Palestinian men and women would use their bodies as a site “to kill yourself in your enemy.”


Islah Jad is assistant professor of gender and politics at Qatar University. She is a founder of the Women’s Studies Institute at Birzeit University and is an activist in the Palestinian women’s movement.