Gluck: An American Feminist in Palestine and Sharoni: Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Many observers have remarked upon the highly visible participation of Palestinian women in the intifada, often with thinly disguised surprise. Women demonstrated in the streets, threw stones at Israeli soldiers, staffed medical and relief committees, worked in alternative agricultural and craft projects, and were often the mainstay of their neighborhood committees. Their presence, not only as bodies swelling popular protests but also as organizers who often ran the show and transformed the popular political landscape through their indefatigable activity in the many women's groups, certainly has contributed to our view of the intifada as an inclusive and progressive era in the history of the Palestinian movement.
Both these books take up some of the important questions posed by such a high female profile. How do we understand Palestinian women's political and social roles? Does feminist theory imported from the West equip us to explore Palestinian women's experience, or does it inevitably distort and mislead? Can the study of Palestinian women shed light on the ways in which the Palestinian question in general has been shaped by gender structures in the two societies, Palestinian and Israeli, that have been locked in conflict?
Sherna Gluck and Simona Sharoni are both "outsiders" to Palestinian society, but they bring personal experiences of political engagement in feminist politics to bear on their encounters with Palestinian women. They have written their books in very different styles. Sharoni, an Israeli-Jewish feminist and peace activist, takes a fairly scholarly approach to her topic, structuring her discussion of women's political activism with explicit reference to, and exposition of, theories of feminism, nationalism, and the gendering of international politics. Gluck, an American feminist of Jewish background, writes a reflective personal journal narrating her experiences in Palestine on a series of short visits during the intifada years. They are united in their focus on the activities and evolving identities of women and in their supportive and sympathetic tone. The differences between these books go far beyond questions of style, however, and suggest rather distinct agendas.
As an Israeli feminist, Sharoni has a dual focus: She analyzes the political activism of both Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish women before and during the intifada, with an eye to exposing the obstacles both groups must contend with in their own societies and, above all, to assessing the prospects for an alliance that could turn the tide. Her account is necessarily somewhat disjointed. Sharoni herself is quick to point out that Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish women live across an enormous divide, and that it is only the naive who would expect that understanding, much less cooperation, would come easily. She has few illusions about the constellation of forces on the ground: Like it or not, Israeli-Jewish women inhabit the world of the occupier, of the powerful. They may protest their government's policies and lend their support to Palestinian women in significant ways but, at the end of the day, they return to the safety and security of their world.
The differences between these two groups of women emerge starkly in the chapters devoted to detailed discussion of ideology and practice. The Palestinian women's struggle is deeply embedded in the politics of national liberation. It is through their identification with the nation and their activities directed toward national liberation that Palestinian women have defined their social and political selves and contronted the tensions between the nationalist and feminist agendas. Sharoni provides brief but accurate overviews of the history of women's activism before and during the intifada with an emphasis on institutional history; there is solid information here on the emergence of various women's groups, centers, and projects. However, we hear much less about the complexities and changes in gender definition in Palestinian society and discourse, but that is, I suspect, an inevitable limitation placed on the "outsider" author.
Indeed, Sharoni's parallel account of Israeli-Jewish women and the meaning of gender in Israeli society is both more detailed and more nuanced. She explores the ways in which the "national security discourse" in Israel permeates gender definition, glorifying the aggressive male and reducing the female to the role of reproducer and object of protection. She deconstructs formative Zionist ideology and exposes the myth of gender equality in both the early Jewish settlements and in the Jewish state. In her discussion of the development of the Israeli women's movement, she is alive to the strong influences of western varieties of feminism which immigrated along with their mainly North American propagators.
In terms of social and political context, as well as dominant ideology, these two groups of women activists who find themselves in such close proximity inhabit, by Sharoni's frank admission, different universes. Their ability to overcome differences and work together toward peace is her central concern, and she devotes a final chapter to the history of their alliances. Despite considerable good will and bravery on both sides, the results seem rather modest: some dialogue, a few joint conferences and projects. There is little, however, to support Sharoni's guardedly upbeat conclusion that future alliances between these two groups have transformative potential.
Sherna Gluck's book is much more of a personal odyssey. By her own account, she first formed the idea of visiting Palestine and observing the intifada in order to be a more effective critic of the Israeli occupation, but she gradually came to realize the significance of her journey at a more personal level. As she takes us with her on her trips to visit Palestinians, particularly women, in the towns of Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah, and Hebron, as well as in a number of refugee camps and villages, we slowly become acquainted with her anger, her excitement, and her discoveries about what she shares with and the ways in which she differs from the people she is encountering. As the book's title suggests, Gluck is self-reflective to the point that she realizes that the book is ultimately not about the Palestinian women of the intifada as much as it is about herself. The various strands of her own identity--as a Jew, as a feminist, as an antiwar activist--are woven throughout her narrative of women's participation in the many activities of the intifada. Her palpable dismay about the brutalities of the Israeli occupation and her heartfelt identification with other women who are struggling with questions of personal and community identity lend this book a confessional tone. In the end, she also comes to realize, or rather to experience, the limitations of her views and approaches, shaped as they are by Western feminist understandings:
My experiences with both Palestinian women and Palestinian men have profoundly reshaped my thinking about how we define a women's agenda. I no longer know whether men and women must share equally all the work of a society in order for women to achieve liberation; whether maintaining different, but complementary, roles necessarily means inequality. Learning to appreciate the communal nature of Palestinian society--in contrast to my own highly individualistic one-- and the way the aspirations of women are joined to their national aspirations has led me to think differently, too, about the varieties of feminisms in the United States as well. (p. 225)
On the way to this realization, Gluck, who is an accomplished historian with expertise in oral history, recounts numerous stories of the lives of women she met and the ways in which they responded to her as an interviewer and as a person. She has, within the limitations imposed by the need for translation, a knack for allowing us to hear their voices. Her own background and sensibilities ensured that she tried to pay close attention to the nuances of difference, not just between her experience and that of Palestinian women, but also in the context of the difficult relationship between Jewish-Israeli women, whom she discusses only very briefly, and Palestinian women. This nuance is further apparent in her careful attention to the varieties of Palestinian experience as well and her purposeful inclusion of the stories of camp and village women, as well as the more prominent and accessible middle-class activists. Although she focuses in the main on tales of political activity, she is also interested in and observant of the realm of personal relations.
Both of these books suggest the complexities of the role women are playing in Palestinian politics and society as well as the difficulties involved in fully apprehending Palestinian women's experiences from the vantage point of Western feminism. The conclusions of both authors are appropriately modest as they eschew grand pronouncements about Palestinian women in favor of reflections about what the Palestinian experience might have to teach those of us in the West. They offer no definitive answers to questions about the meaning and import of Palestinian women's participation in the intifada, but they make honest and very engaging attempts to come to terms with the differences that inform the feminism of today.
Judith Tucker is a professor of history at Georgetown University.