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  • The Nuances of IslamEmpowerment and Agency for Palestinian Women in the West Bank
  • Anne Sofie Roald (bio)

The Occupied Palestinian Territories (opt)—the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—have to be regarded in terms of being in a “post-conflict” process in the sense that the region has recently gone through violent periods, both Palestinian-Israeli and domestic conflicts. Although the violence has formally ceased, it still occurs. It is thus important to study the region with this awareness in mind. Recent studies on Muslim women reflect the state-building nature of the opt as these studies to a great extent have dealt with the recent discussions on the development of a Personal Status Law in the opt.1 They have also addressed the practice of customary law, and Palestinian women’s political resistance to the occupation.2 After the second intifada (2000–2005) and after the Hamas election victory in 2006, researchers have focused more on Palestinian women’s role in Islamist activism. Jad, for instance, points at the strength of female Islamist activists in the opt in general, whereas Milton-Edwards and Farrell indicate a more passive role for Islamist women within Hamas, the Islamist movement they focus on in their study.3

Women have participated in the Islamic Revival (al-sahwa al-islamiyya) from its early days.4 Muslim women’s activism in the opt since the occupation started has covered both secular and Islamic issues. Rather than regarding the Islamic and the secular perspectives as binary oppositions it is important to see them as complementary.5 In Islamic movements many women have approached Islam in terms of a human rights perspective.6 Although this is also true in Islamic movements in the opt, the present study does not address this issue.7 Moreover, the particular situation in the opt, with women’s subordination due to a power structure with aspects such as military occupation, class, religion, and political party affiliation, might need a more profound analysis dealing with these factors. However, the aim of the present work is solely to investigate Islamist and Islamic-oriented women’s experience of “Islam” in the West Bank, particularly when it comes to female networking and the relation [End Page 1] between men and women.8 The empirical material for the present study is thus centered on these women’s perceptions of the role of Islam in their daily life. The empirical material is analyzed in view of the theoretical concepts of “empowerment” and “agency,” particularly using Kockelman’s definition of agency as meaning flexibility and accountability.

power, empowerment, and agency

The concepts of empowerment and agency are complex and multidimensional. Empowerment is linked to the concept of power. Persons or groups with no power or only a little are strengthened with more power, in the sense of getting a place or a voice in decision-making at one social level or several, mainly through their own agency; that is, through negotiation or resistance to the present situation.9 “Power” in this sense is linked to the Foucauldian understanding of inherent power relations in sociocultural discourses that are frameworks of established ideas and practices.10 In this context cultural and thus structural traits or discourses with written and unwritten rules, attitudes, social meanings, and accepted behavior frame the given power relations in time and space. Cheater, who builds her discussion of empowerment on Foucault, has observed that power is a “difficult, elusive concept, particularly when by definition it is hegemonically embedded in one or other cultural habitus.”11

As for empowerment, this concept tends to be used differently for the global North and for the global South. For the North empowerment as a technical term is mainly used in management, meaning how to strengthen employees in business companies.12 In the North’s conception of the South, on the other hand, empowerment indicates a bottom-up approach, a way for individuals or groups “to take steps to effect changes to improve their situation.”13 In this context Singh and Titi see empowerment as a concept that “goes beyond the notions of democracy, of human rights, and of participation to enabling people to understand the reality of their environment...


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