By

Dr Nof Nasser Eddin

PPCspine22mm

 Muhanna, Aitemad. Agency and Gender in Gaza: Masculinity, Femininity and Family during the Second Intifada. Ashgate, 2013

Agency and Gender in Gaza by Aitemad Muhanna provides rich material based on prolonged fieldwork in two disadvantaged sites in Gaza city, the Beach refugee camp and in El-Shuja’ya urban neighbourhood. The research aimed to draw comparisons between both communities in terms of gender relations during the second Intifada (uprising), and the siege on Gaza imposed by the Israeli occupation. The book stands out as a great contribution to feminist theory, and provides an anti-orientalist description of the situation of women in Gaza, which counters the view of Arab women as oppressed and passive victims of patriarchy. Whereas the book discusses the specific case of Gazans, some of the theories can apply to other communities. Her argument is based on an intersectional approach that acknowledges differences between women’s experiences, and suggests that gender relations are fluid, and they can be reconfigured to resist, and that women have an agency that is in constant change depending on the context.

Muhanna’s book focuses on how the change in the political situation affected gender relations within both communities. In other words, the siege on Gaza and the occupation affected people economically, socially, politically and psychologically. Prior to the siege, the constructed gender order was operating according to the male-breadwinner/female-carer model, with men working mostly as wage labourers in the Israeli occupation’s capitalist market. However, the siege left men jobless and families started relying heavily on humanitarian aid. This change led women to start seeking income generating activities and search for humanitarian organisations that provided help for Gazans. The change in the gender order, also implied a change in women’s agency and roles, and constituted a disturbance in the constructed conventional model of gender relations. Muhanna argues that women perform as strategic actors within a system that subordinates them. In other words, women can act consciously and unconsciously making choices that help them in achieving their goals within socioeconomic and political constraints. Moreover, she argues that poor and vulnerable Gazan women resist and/or accommodate not because they want to change the structure of male domination but to achieve goals to help the family survive economic austerity and political restrictions.

The research is very solid and well thought methodologically, Muhanna used a variety of methods and collected very rich data that took into consideration both men’s and women’s perspectives through interviews and focus groups. In accordance with feminist epistemology, the book looks at women’s experiences and takes their subjectivities into account, and considers women’s voices as a source of knowledge. The author also shows that women are not passive victims of the intersecting systems of oppression. This framework suggests that women are not a homogenous group and thus have different experiences. For instance, she looked at how age difference and household composition affects women differently. This intersectional approach allowed Muhanna to demonstrate how women gain and lose power depending on their position in society, the family and their age.

Muhanna’s rich data, however, could have benefitted from more in-depth analysis of the social conditions that face women because of prevalent patriarchal structures. For example, she fails to draw attention to the implications of certain performances carried out by women, and does not explain them through sexism and patriarchal gender structures. This lack of analysis of patriarchy has also failed to demonstrate the relationship between the occupation and patriarchy, especially that both systems of oppression reinforce each other. Despite the fact that women seek income outside their households, this does not necessarily mean that patriarchy and the gender order change significantly, as due to the occupation domestic violence for example increased, and men retained a superior status to women. On the other hand, the author’s analysis did not show that women either resist or accommodate to patriarchal structures, instead she argues that the exercise of agency changes depending on the overall situation and the goals that they want to achieve. She argues that under certain circumstances women accommodate to the socially constructed gender structures by emphasising male domination to protect their children, while other times they resist for the fact they need to seek the family’s survival. Muhanna does not explain that this change is still placed under the overall structure of patriarchy and does not necessarily disturb it.

This book is a massive contribution to post-colonial feminism, as it counters the stereotype of Arab women being oppressed and subordinated to male-domination and as passive victims to their men specifically and patriarchy more generally. Therefore, it can lead to a deeper understanding of gender relations, within western academia. This book does not only provide an original contribution to women’s studies and feminist theory, but also a comprehensive historical account of the situation in Gaza specifically, and in the occupied Palestinian territories more generally. It also shows how Palestinian economy is vulnerable and unstable and prone to the repercussions of the constant political instability, and how this instability affects women’s exercise of agency.

unnamed

Nof Nasser Eddin obtained her MA in Race and Ethnic Studies, and PhD in Sociology from the University of Warwick. Her PhD focused on the women and agency in Amman Jordan. Nof’s research interests include, but are not limited to, women, gender, class, refugees, sexualities, masculinities, femininities, the labour market and economic activities. Nof has worked on several research projects as a consultant with UNIFEM, AFDC and Freedom House. Nof’s experience extends beyond the academia, as she has also worked on the ground with local and international non-governmental organisations. She carried out work for an EU-funded project in Jordan where she managed a group of case workers to assist people at risk due to conflict, and vulnerable groups. Additionally, she took on some voluntary work in several local NGOs in Palestine.
Nof is currently the director of the Centre for Transnational Development and Collaboration (CTDC), and has the capacity to share her experiences through consultancy services, and through providing policy advice in her areas of expertise.