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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.4 (2003) 747-772
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Between Complicity and Subversion:
Body Politics in Palestinian National Narrative
I would like to begin this essay with two nonliterary narratives that exemplify the inextricable interconnection between gender and nationalism in the Palestinian context: The first is an intifada legend, 1 which, with slight variations, told of a stone-throwing incident that purportedly took place in a West Bank town in 1988 at the height of the first intifada/uprising:
Israeli soldiers chased a group of young Palestinian men and finally caught up with one. As the Israeli soldiers were dragging him towards their jeep to arrest him, a young woman with a baby in her arms rushed up, screaming in anger, at the young Palestinian man. "There you are! I told you not to come here! I told you there would be trouble! Now what do you expect me to do if you are arrested? How will I eat? How will I feed our baby? I'm tired of your irresponsibility! Here, you take the baby and try to feed her!" And shoving the baby into the arms of the dumbfounded young man, she fled. The soldiers, as shocked as the young man, suddenly had a baby to deal with. In a state of bewilderment, the soldiers shoved the [End Page 747] young man back into the street, jumped into their jeep and sped away. The man was left holding the baby. Finally, the mother reappeared from behind a nearby building where she had been hiding, went up to the grateful young man, whom she had never seen before, took her baby from his arms, and went home. 2
The second story was told ten years later, in the spring of 1997, by local newspaper reports in the West Bank. It was about a kind of chewing gum that allegedly was being marketed by the Israelis in the territories of the Palestinian National Authority. 3 According to the Palestinian Ministry of Supply, this was no ordinary gum; it was a "sexual gum" containing hormones. It was said to cause premature sexual activity in young girls, abnormal sexual appetite in teenage girls, and infertility in married women, but it did not affect men. The ministry, the reports assured the public, is doing its best to protect the citizens by cracking down on the local intermediaries who sell such harmful products to the public. 4
These two stories, which I will return to later, place women at the center of two different nationalist narratives belonging to different periods in the recent history of the Palestinians: in the first women are intifada activists, participating in the national struggle side by side with men. In the second, women are vulnerable to an enemy plot that seeks to harm them and the nation as a whole, but the institutions of their state, currently under construction, are protecting them. These narratives are part of a larger dominant discourse about gender, sexuality, and nationalism that pervades not only the popular media and overtly political propaganda, but also literature.
It is important to remember that these stories are interesting less for what they teach us about actual Palestinian women and men and more for what they reveal about a national discourse that uses women as fictional constructs and ideological signs. In this discourse, sexuality is an essential component that is usually ignored in discussions of Palestinian women and nationalism. Of course it is not surprising, for mainstream scholarship on nationalism has tended to ignore gender altogether. But recent works in feminist and postcolonial studies have shown that constructions of national identity are gendered; that meanings of "nation" are "permeated with notions of masculinity and femininity," and that idealized images and real bodies of women serve as national boundaries. Nira Yuval-Davis sums up the intimate relation between gender and nationalism when she says that women reproduce the nation biologically, culturally, and symbolically. 5 [End Page 748] The gendered national narrative is concerned with constructing, using, and disciplining the bodies of both women and men...