Since the Israeli occupation of Palestine in 1948, Palestinian women’s bodies have served as a battlefield of clashes between existing powers – indeed, even becoming the conflict itself. On the one hand, the national, patriarchal discourse uses their bodies as a weapon both against the enemy and against the women themselves. On the other hand, Israel aims to conquer Palestinian women’s bodies as a way of controlling all Palestinian people and break their resistance against the occupation.
An example can be found in the national Palestinian discourse, which limits the role of women to being a factory for giving birth to fighters. The occupation, in turn, takes advantage of the Palestinian “culture of honour”, according to which any contact or rumour about contact of women’s bodies with male strangers would put the honour of the community at risk. Israel often threatens both men and woman with their honour in order to limit their resistance against the occupation. As to Palestinian women, they also use their bodies as a weapon and as a narrative both to confront the restrictions of their own patriarchal society and to resist the occupation.
Transmitted Through Generations
Through their life narratives, Palestinian women’s bodies regain their space vis-à-vis both Palestinian society and Israeli occupation. In their life stories, documented in published interviews, documentaries and autobiographies, important historical moments are intertwined with the personal history of their bodies. The narratives of rape in Israeli prisons – which challenge the “culture of honour” – would be a case in point.
The stories of Palestinian women have been told and transmitted in a matrilineal form through generations, yet their stories have not been widely heard. As Ahmad H. Sa’di & Lila Abu-lughod, specialists in Arab and Palestinian studies, say, powerful nations have not wanted to listen. Palestinians need powerful, political lips in order to make themselves heard over the louder, hegemonic story.
“Life Objects” as Text
The second generation of exile has continued the Palestinian women’s tradition of maintaining the Palestinian narrative and identity alive through life stories. They have managed to reconfigure the tradition in new frames, using new languages. They make use of artistic products which work as what the anthropologist Janet Hoskins calls “storytelling devices”, creating new autobiographical objects as a strategy to make their story heard and, above all, thinkable. By using what I call “artistic life-stories”, they weave art out of their bodies and from this art they tell the history of their own life, as a resisting narrative of their double silencing.
One good example of the bodily artistic life-stories is „Measures of Distance“ (1988), a video installation by the exiled Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum, who was born to a Palestinian exiled family in Lebanon, and was herself re-exiled to London after the civil war. In this work, Hatoum uses “life objects” as text in this piece, which is itself an autobiographic object. She reconstructs her and her mother’s life-stories using photos of her naked mother in the bathroom with a transparent veil made of the Arabic script of her mother’s letters to her. These images are juxtaposed with sounds: Hatoum’s voice reading translations of these letters sent from Beirut and, in the background, a recording of a very intimate conversation between the two women , mainly about their bodies.
Escaping the Patriarchal Control
In this work Hatoum manages to shake the territories of masculine and colonial power. There are several borders imposed on her mother’s body: her husband’s control (he considers his wife’s body to be his own territory) as well as the one implemented by the occupation and the war. Hatoum’s mother mentions her previous paradisiacal life in Palestine before they were forced to exile. She also explains how now she hardly gets out of the house fearful of the war, and laments over and over how the bloody war took her daughter away from her.
However, both women manage to escape the patriarchal control of their society and the colonial control of the occupation over their bodies. Hatoum’s mother allows her daughter to use her naked photos publicly. The intensity of her encounter with her daughter is fulfilled through this work. Hatoum manages to resist the colonial representations of Arab women, by recreating a life narrative of their own, away from the controlling patriarchal narrative and away from the hegemonic occupation narrative of Palestinian women and war.
The continuity of the notion of a Palestinian resisting body in art can be observed in other works by Hatoum, such as „Over My Dead Body“ (1988), Keffieh (1993-99), as well as in the work of other Palestinian female and male artists such as Raeda Saadeh’s „Crossroads“ (2003), „Who Will Make Me Real“ (2005), „Mona Lisa“ (2007), Mary Toma’s „Homes for the Disembodied“ (2000), Sharif Waked’s „Chic Point“ (2003) and Amer Shomali’s „Icon“ (2011).
When asked why she had never told her story about Nakba – the 1948 year of the Palestinian exile – an elderly Palestinian woman replied: “How can those without lips whistle?” But if Palestinian women don’t have lips to whistle, perhaps they can use their whole bodies to tell the story. Perhaps they can dance.