- Agency and Gender in Gaza: Masculinity, Femininity, and Family during the Second Intifada by Aitemad Muhanna
222 pages. isbn 9781409454533
As Nicola Pratt notes in the foreword to this book, “Paradoxically, the increased international attention to the impacts of conflict on women has been accompanied by an increased silencing of voices of ordinary women living in conflict zones, except where they conform with liberal notions of agency or are victims of violence and patriarchy” (vii). Aitemad Muhanna’s exploration of how Palestinian women in poor and vulnerable families in Gaza adapt to “the masculinizing of their enactment and the feminizing of their selfhood” (163) is a major contribution to making such voices heard and to Challenging many of the liberal West’s assumptions about them.
Muhanna’s study covering the period from the start of the Second Intifada in 2000 until 2009 is based on interviews, life stories, and focus group material collected mainly in 2007 and 2008 in the neighborhood of El-Shujaeʾya and in Beach Refugee Camp. As she lays out, these years saw a huge shift in gender relations and roles in Gaza caused primarily by the economic impacts of Israeli closures and a 75 percent drop in average family income. Majority unemployment among men is set against increasing roles for women as breadwinners for their families either through paid work or as aid recipients. This in turn has influenced the decisions and choices men and women and their families make around marriage, education, places of residence, and work.
As Muhanna’s interlocutors make clear, however, the liberal assumptions of international donor agencies about women’s work and mobility constituting empowerment do not apply in this setting. Indeed, it seems that for many women the priorities imposed by such donors, by emphasizing female poverty and helplessness as criteria for receiving aid, create systems in which women are forced to humiliate themselves in return for aid, actually “create another layer of violence that operates in tandem with the violence of [End Page 258] Israel’s occupation and blockade” (viii). Although women apparently have more “freedom” to act outside the home and the family, Muhanna sees them as having to highlight their subordinate feminine subjectivity both to their families, so that they do not find themselves objects of suspicion, and to charitable groups, who measure their entitlement to aid according to essentialized ideas of gender. Ultimately, very few—if any—of these women are seen to aspire to greater public roles. Their main aspirations are to be properly supported by strong, working husbands confident and powerful in their own masculinity and therefore capable of both giving and bringing them proper respect as women, wives, and mothers.
In tandem with this reorientation of women’s work and feminine attributes comes a crisis of masculinity that derives from men’s inability to support their families in an environment in which many are also unable to assert their gendered power through public involvement in the resistance. In this complex, nuanced account, educated young men and those who had well-paid jobs in Israel are seen to be most likely to react to the situation with domestic violence and/or extreme apathy toward their children. Unable to meet the duties society assigns to them as men, those seen as having (or thinking they have) more to lose than men in lower-status jobs then adopt extreme measures of enacting their supposed masculinity while almost completely abdicating the associated responsibilities.
In analyzing the complexities of her interlocutors’ accounts of their lives and desires with their apparently essentialized notions of male and female roles, Muhanna insists on nonessentializing ideas of gender and gender identities. She draws particularly on R. W Connell’s emphasis on the potential for subordinate masculinities and ideas from Andrea Cornwall (based on Michel de Certeau) of tactical versus strategic choices. In so doing, she acknowledges that rather than creating a single hegemonic masculinity, gendered values and roles may subordinate and constrain men as much as they do women and that both genders may be forced to take...