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A long history of coping with crisis

By Sally Bland - Jan 19,2014 - Last updated at Jan 19,2014

Agency and Gender in Gaza: Masculinity, Femininity and Family during the Second Intifada
Aitemad Muhanna
UK/US: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2013, 208 pp

After much effort by scholars and activists in the Middle East, long-held stereotypes of Arab women as passive victims have given way to recognition of their agency. This book goes further to examine the multiple dimensions and effects of women’s agency in times of chronic crisis and impoverishment, as experienced in Gaza during the Second Intifada. Having grown up in Gaza and engaged in feminist activism and research on women for over two decades, Aitemad Muhanna is more than qualified to address this topic. Indeed, she breaks new ground and challenges many prevalent assumptions.

 The study’s groundbreaking findings emerge from the in-depth interviews, life histories and focus groups which the author conducted in 2007-2008 with sixty poor and vulnerable women, aged 18 to 65, all classified as housewives, from Beach Camp and the El Shujaeya neighborhood, supplemented by focus groups with 36 men. Thus, Muhanna gives voice to those who are often the objects of research and statistics but seldom asked how they evaluate their own agency. She concentrates on the women as individuals and on their subjectivity — their self-image, desires, goals and coping strategies.

 The overall context is the chronic livelihood crisis caused by Israel closing its borders to Palestinian workers, and further exacerbated by Gaza’s subsequent international isolation. Coming in the wake of decades of Israeli measures to destroy and subordinate the local economy, the closure led to mass unemployment among men. Muhanna describes the resulting reconfiguration of gender roles and power between men and women, and between generations, asserting that this unleashed a crisis of both femininity and masculinity. The most obvious change was that women became the sole providers for poor families; at the same time, shrinkage of the local market restricted opportunities in the informal economy on which they had previously relied to cope with financial difficulties. As a result, providing for the family was most often achieved by women obtaining coupons and sometimes short-term jobs from community-based organisations. To fulfil these tasks, women gained more independent mobility, and due to their success in providing for their families, they acquired greater decision-making power.

 All the above fits into standard assumptions about women’s agency, but the surprise comes when the women are asked how they feel about their new role. Across the board, they find it humiliating to have to go out and seek coupons, and would prefer to return to former times when “men were men,” i.e., provided for the family, and women stayed home and cared for the house and children. Partly, their reaction can be explained by the wish to avoid the humiliation of poverty and depending on charity, plus the new situation overburdens women as they continue to be responsible for housework and childcare, but the recurring expressions of the desire for men to be in charge cannot be dismissed. As Muhanna puts it, the overarching question posed by her findings is: “Why are women in Gaza interested in maintaining the image of male domination despite the actual power that they wield?” (p. 30)

Muhanna prefaces the report on her own research by an analytical review of feminist literature about whether increased agency leads women to challenge the patriarchal system or only to bargain for a better position within it. She rejects this either/or approach in favour of intersectional feminism which views women’s agency and subjectivity as situational, changing and influenced by many factors, such as history, economics, politics, class, nationality and state policy, and not only patriarchy and Islam. “I would argue that the enactments of bargaining and compromise by women — including those based on internalising their gender oppression — are a reflection of their conscious assessment of the situations in which they live and of a prioritisation of their own interests and desires. Women resist change in certain contexts because they are conscious of the social and moral rewards of acting within the existing gender order.” (p. 52) In the case of the women she studied, connectedness to family and community rank higher than individual power and mobility as would be supposed by liberal feminists.

Besides gender issues, this book provides much  information on Gaza and Palestine’s history, the effects of Israeli colonialism, the function of family and kinship in Palestinian society, resistance to the occupation, and how the poor cope with prolonged crisis. While Muhanna warns against generalisations, it would be interesting to apply her approach to women’s agency in other situations, whether in the Middle East or farther afield.

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