SUBORDINATION OF WOMEN
Palestinian Women: Patriarchy and Resistance in the West Bank, by Cheryl A. Rubenberg. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001. ix + 262 pages. Glossary to p. 268. Bibliography to p. 308. Index to p. 371. $59.95 cloth.
Reviewed by Julie Peteet
Cheryl Rubenberg’s book is a welcome, although ultimately depressing, addition to the body of scholarly literature on Palestinian women. She deftly captures the historic period of the 1990s, the post-intifada period when the Palestinian Authority (PA) arrived and the elements that rendered women subordinate were reinforced in new ways. Most important, she raises provocative questions about the nature of social change in the absence of a state structure.
Since the beginning of the Palestinian women’s movement in the 1920s, rural, peasant women (and later refugee camp women) have been targets of mobilization by the urban-based women’s movement, but rarely have their voices been heard. In this book, the author explores the understandings West Bank refugee and rural women have about their social worlds, the production and reproduction of gendered relations and identities, and the heavily restricted socioeconomic worlds in which they live. Rubenberg identifies the strategies these women use to resist repressive patriarchal practices and illustrates how they also accommodate and reproduce them as well. It is a sad and shocking book because the litany of abuse, repression, and generally wasted potential she presents is an indication of the state of Palestinian society at the turn of the century. Statelessness and living under a particularly brutal occupation have meant that family and kin structures have remained the dominant principle of social organization, belonging, and identity.
Rubenberg’s methodology is quasi-ethnographic: semistructured interviews of Palestinian Muslim and Christian women of various ages; quantitative data; and a loose form of participant-observation. Her statistics on women’s status are chilling and cause for serious concern: 50 percent of girls drop out before completing twelfth grade, and women are no more than 14 percent of the labor force (p. 17). Fifty percent of married women reported having been abused physically by their husbands (p. 42). Girls’ knowledge of their bodies and sexuality is negligible. In other words, this is a society in the throes of extreme and continuing underdevelopment compounded by a generalized social crisis of paramount proportions. The author states: “Women’s lives have become immeasurably more restricted, confined, and isolated than in earlier periods of Palestinian history” (p. 65). Her research underscores the absolute necessity to historicize analyses of Palestinian women. With respect to more recent developments, Rubenberg contends that both the intifada and the 1994 arrival of the PA, which dampened grassroots democratic organizing and principles, were harmful to women. It would have been helpful to compare these indicators with those of Palestinians in other areas of the Middle East and in previous periods.
Rubenberg locates women’s oppression in the structures of kinship and their identities in the webs of kin relations. She claims that the PA’s revival of tribalism to maintain loyalty and distribute rewards has strengthened patriarchal controls over women. Families that function as political units tend to place intensified controls on female sexuality, mobility, and public life.
The author cleverly intertwines internal and external elements, patriarchal relations, and ideologies in conjunction with the occupation and the presence of the PA to arrive at an understanding of the parameters of women’s subordination. With the enactment of masculinity challenged daily by an occupation that deprives men of the sources of their gender identity—land and the ability to support and defend their families—women’s status as markers of family honor and respectability has been enhanced. A culture of shame and control, ranging from gossip to honor killings, and the subsequent and corresponding internal constraints, serves to keep women isolated and vitally aware of the consequences of the minutest aspect of their behavior.
Rubenberg astutely notes that religious affiliation, Muslim or Christian, counts for little in matters of honor. Indeed, the issue for women is not Islam but tradition, a rebuke to the contemporary scholars and analysts who daily contend that Islam is the source of women’s subordination. For example, girls are socialized into obedience and deference to fathers and brothers. They sometimes forgo their rights in Islam to reject a marriage partner in order not to displease their parents.
One of Rubenberg’s most interesting observations concerns the solutions women posed to solve their myriad problems. They understood that their lack of rights to education, to work, to mobility, to choose a marriage partner, to be free of domestic violence, and to inherit resided in the family itself. The “concept of working together with other nonkin women as a means of resolving common concerns was essentially unacceptable” (p. 148). The women she interviewed “overwhelmingly believed that independent (between a husband and wife) solutions to problems are preferable to anything involving female organization, solidarity, social groups, or the like” (ibid.). Furthermore, these women believed that laws to protect and promote women’s rights would be “useless” because the government should not interfere with the family (pp. 149–50). These attitudes do not bode well for the development of Palestinian quasi-state institutions and indeed are in sharp contrast to the Palestinian women’s movement, urban and middle and upper class, which for decades worked to mobilize women to act in unison for the nation and the rights of women. Rubenberg’s research raises provocative questions for the future. If a state were to emerge, what would the relations between kin and state look like? What is the meaning of citizenship and nationalism in a kin-based social order?
Although the author forefronts patriarchy and a kin-based society in explaining women’s subordination, she also frequently reminds the reader that statelessness, occupation, lack of a national educational system, the absence of the rule of law, poverty, and isolation act together to reinforce kin ties. Where access to resources is mediated through kinship networks, rights and obligations inhere in these relationships.
Finally Rubenberg points to the failure of the Palestinian women’s movement to advance its cause. She astutely locates this failure in the lack of a systematic analysis of patriarchal power in Palestinian society and the inability to confront and work to reform patriarchal relations and ideologies. Occupation confounds these problems through policies that promote and strengthen familial and male control over female sexuality. What makes patriarchy so persistent is the interconnectedness of social institutions, ideologies, roles, morality, and so on that has generated a system for reproducing female subordination in which women themselves are active participants. Women themselves have voiced little desire for a fundamental transformation of the family or society. Citing the failure of the women’s movement and the hopelessness of the PA, its corruption, authoritarianism, and revival of tribalism, and noting the association between economic and social development and changes within the family, she comments that “impoverishment and the continuing economic problems in West Bank society militate against such trends” (p. 260). So how will change occur? This has been a persistent question in studies of Palestinian women and has been posed by women themselves. In the absence of a state, how much directed change could be accomplished? Can women be agents of transformation on the ideological front and in their personal and familial relations without any accompanying transformation in law, the political realm, and the economy?
is chair and associate professor, department of anthropology, University of Louisville, Kentucky.