Written Work by Graham T. Baden
Away from the streets of Palestine, in the kitchens and salons of Palestinian families, the private lives of Arab women are hidden from the West’s imperial gaze. As interested in their lives as Western intellectuals seem to be, Palestinian women remain shrouded by a veil of Orientalism and concealed by the opaqueness of European ethnocentrism. In their poignant and stirring volume, Three Mothers, Three Daughters, published in 1996, Rafika Othman and Michael Gorkin seek to provide a glimpse past this Eurocentric curtain and into the individual lives of real Palestinian women. Through their interviews, oral histories, audiotapes, and careful translation, they seek to make more audible these women’s voices despite the din of the region’s nationalist and masculinist rhetoric. And even today, nearly ten years after the interviews were conducted, the voices of these three pairs of Palestinian women echo their memories, hopes, and the dream of peace and freedom in a land of continued turmoil.
This ethnographic study, though written for a Western, English-speaking audience, serves not only to provide a foundation for further studies of Middle Eastern women, but opens up a dialogue between the West’s Orientalist discourse regarding the Middle East and the quiet, almost hidden, history of women’s changing place in Palestine. It is not simply an oral history or an ethnographic study. It is not only a view of Arab women through an anthropological lens. It is an early benchmark, a model, or a first attempt to conduct a dialogue between Palestinian women and “the West.”
Its authors, Othman and Gorkin, met almost by fate. Gorkin, a Jewish American psychologist, became interested in Palestinian women during his study of a Palestinian family for Days of Honey, Days of Onion, published in 1991. Already at an observational disadvantage because of his nation of origin, ethnicity, and language, Gorkin sought the aid of Othman, a young Palestinian woman, teacher, and a native to the region, to help him learn Arabic, a third language for him. During the friendship that grew from their work together, and obviously influenced by their unique relationship as a male American Jew and a female Palestinian Muslim, Othman and Gorkin set out to conduct a generational study of Palestinian women from different regions, educations, and social classes. They sought to bring one region of Middle Eastern women into view, to highlight examples of social and political agency within their personal lives, and to show their ability to affect change within their society.
Another important goal of the book, to which Othman and Gorkin are owed great credit, is their success in providing an effective cross-section of Palestinian society. Though their sample group is small, a mere six women, they are varied enough, and their individual lives are outlined to such great detail, that the work serves to de-generalize a community of people too often oversimplified in the West. “Middle Eastern women,” Othman and Gorkin show, are as varied within a region the size of New Jersey as they are throughout the Middle East. Furthermore, by individualizing the women of Palestine, Three Mothers, Three Daughters serves not only to dissolve the oversimplification of Arab women but to highlight similarities between the West and the East. The commonalities of the mother/daughter dynamic, growing up as an oldest child, and of food—always food—extend beyond the limitations of regional difference, and through this, the work shines as an astounding transnational conversation about family.
To achieve this effective cross section, Othman and Gorkin chose pairs of mothers and daughters from three distinct areas within Israel and Israeli-occupied Palestine. However, like the pairing of Gorkin and Othman, these selections were decided more by fate than by choice. Few women in the region felt comfortable discussing their private lives, especially with a male Jewish Westerner, and it was only through the help of Othman, and a bit of luck, that the study ever gathered an appropriate sample. The three pairs, each distinct yet sharing many similarities, are outlined below. Through this, it is plain to see their similarities and differences, determined primarily by attitudes towards politics, women’s rights, and the shifting boundaries of tradition and modernity.
The first pair, Umm Mahmud and Marianne, lives in East Jerusalem, in a land at the heart of occupation. Within the Palestinian section of a divided capital city, they are at the center of the division between Israel and Palestine, and in many ways, this affects them deeply. Though neither Marianne nor her mother had much interest in politics, during their interviews, their environment elicited many telling remarks regarding their feelings toward “the Jews,” the West, and their relationship to the rest of Israel. Umm Mahmud, speaking of the “old days,” remembered the time before the 1948 incursion of Israel as “sweeter, much sweeter.” (Gorkin and Othman, 26) She could not understand why the British colonists had fled and spends much of her interview reminiscing about times that were better, even lamenting the shift of one colonizing force for another. Umm Mahmud is reserved when speaking politically. “Talking about politics just gives me a headache,” she says, but in reading between the lines, one can see her heartache, her humiliation, and her nostalgia for better times. At many points she seems filled with regret, but seems infinitely capable of adaptation and resigns herself at each moment to God’s will. “In the end,” she says, “God decides the fate of us all.” (Gorkin and Othman, 61)
Marianne, however, though she states that she does not like politics, as “politics leads to prison,” is opinionated and vocal about Palestinian nationalism and her place within Israeli society. (Gorkin and Othman, 71) To her, Palestine’s position within Israel is a tragedy, but she feels there is nothing she can do about it. Furthermore, she feels the Intifada (the Palestinian resistance) is a hindrance to her study and an annoyance to her style of life. Her interviews are similarly conflicting throughout. One thing the Intifada has brought, though, is an increase of Palestinian solidarity and the growth of nationalist representation. Hamas, she says, is the future for her state’s growing nationalism. “They see a return to religion as a way of finding themselves again, of being stronger, and of regaining our country.” (Gorkin and Othman, 74)
This is surprising through, for as a woman who is described by the authors as “animated” and “saucy,” who insisted she finish her college education, who, if she were in America might raise the hem of her Western style skirt “a tiny bit,” and who watches romantic television even when her mother declares it eib (forbidden), there is no way her style of life would mesh with the conservative ideals of Hamas’s fundamentalism. Her mother, having grown up in a traditional role as the eldest daughter and being betrothed to a man without having any say, knew nothing of education, women’s rights, or modern, Western ideals. Though she is capable of adaptation, she is steadfast in her adherence to traditional cultural habits. There is even a telling dialogue, the only one of its kind in the book, where Marianne, Umm Mahmud, and Rafika Othman discuss women’s roles in society as a trio, and their differing opinions are made plain. As shown by their extensive interviews, there is little doubt that Marianne and her mother’s local environment played a large part in influencing their mixed feelings about politics and their understandably conflicting statements regarding cultural change.
Similarly, and for obvious reasons, Samira and her mother Umm Abdulah’s personal outlooks and opinions about politics, women’s rights, and tradition are strongly influenced by their environment. Living in Camp Aida, a refugee camp for displaced Palestinians, their lives were undeniably altered by the 1967 war between Israel and Palestine. They are both active in the Intifada. Samira spent time in jail on four separate occasions and was even tortured, not by Israeli nationalists, she says, but by sadists. (Gorkin and Othman, 137) Though she did not come by it naturally, her mother is an adamant nationalist, too, and is deeply proud of her martyred and imprisoned children, protecting the rock-throwing children of her village from the onslaught of the military police. They belong to a family that believes in fighting for a free Palestinian state, as it seems all in their camp are, they believe in a future of peace, despite their violent involvement in the Intifada, and they both believe in a future decided by a more moderate government like the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization), rather than a religious and fundamentalist one like Hamas.
“I haven’t fought all these years, I haven’t gone to jail, to wind up in a Muslim fundamentalist state,” Samira states, making her views plain, “I swear, I’d leave.” (Gorkin and Othman, 134) Citing similar stories of women in the Algerian Revolution, who “slipped back into traditional roles,” Samira fears a future for women in a state ruled by religious conservatism. “I can’t stand religious extremists,” she says, “not Jewish nor Christian nor Muslim.” (Gorkin and Othman, 134) Even her traditional mother, who never received any schooling, and was the first-born daughter who did much of the housework, acknowledges she was too young to marry and chastises the practice of honor killing. It is obvious that Samira has had an important influence on the opinions of her family and her community.
The last pair, in a surprising but effective turn from the norm, shows a mother and daughter who lived almost outside the turmoil of war and displacement. Umm Khaled and her daughter Leila, living in a city within the state of Israel, identify strongly with the state of Israel. While Umm Khaled remains a “Palestinian Israeli,” Leila is in fact an “Israeli Arab.” Though it seems especially that Umm Khaled is tied intimately to her traditional roots, spinning tales of God’s grace and relying heavily on traditional medicines, this self-identification shows plainly the generational shift toward assimilation into the Israeli norm. Their section, while politically infused with talk of peace and harmony, “a mother is a mother whether she’s Jewish or Palestinian, all mothers hurt the same,” has the most distinct insinuations of imperialism and apartheid. (Gorkin and Othman, 202)
Though neither mother nor daughter received any education beyond high school, and Leila’s schooling is noticeably manipulated by the occupiers, “about the 1948 war here, how the Jews and the Arabs fought,” Leila says, “I can’t remember learning about it at all,” they do not seem to be bothered by this. (Gorkin and Othman, 186) Further, regarding their dislocated family, who fled the city during the 1967 war, they felt only annoyance at their need, rather than compassion. Even as they are forced to carry pass-cards to travel within the nation in which they live, they desire only peace. Is this realism and pragmatism, or is it assimilation and surrender?
As an historical document, Three Mothers, Three Daughters is a valid source in many ways, for it is complex and multi-layered. It is a primary source and an oral history of Palestinian women as well as an ethnographic study of its authors. It shows plainly both the authors’ and their subjects’ intentions, and it reveals their unintended ethnic and sexist biases. It provides a lens with which to study both the interviewer and interviewed, as both become subject to analysis. As well, it provides an excellent method of identifying and voicing the agency of Middle Eastern women, who go too often unseen. In comparison to another study of women within a changing society, consider the similarities to Cherifa Bouatta’s “Feminine Militancy: Moudjahidates During and After the Algerian War.” In both works, the authors bring to light the agency of women to affect real change within their societies through oral interviews. Contrast this, then, with the work of Ellen Fleischmann, whose “The ‘Other’ Awakening: the Emergence of Women’s Movements in the Middle East, c. 1900-1940” is impartial and detached. Though an oral history can provide a more definite voice to its agents, and can be more compelling, a sweeping objective history such as Fleischmann’s does not fall victim to the variances of subjectivity. Both methods, it seems, can be used to find the similarities and commonalities between the East and West and break down the perceived “culture clash” that divides us.
Additionally, it is fascinating to read this book from the present, considering the increased difficulties between Israel and Palestine of late. The Islamist swing within Palestine, led by Hamas, and increased militancy of Israel, led it seems by dreams of lebensraum, provide an interesting backdrop for the reading of this nearly ten-year-old study. It is interesting, as well, to view the authors’ intentions, their unintentional biases, and their roles as agents within their own study, falling victim to the same ethnocentric biases they fight.
Gorkin and Othman’s work is well organized and effective. It is poignant and beautiful. Their goal, to contribute to the dream of peace through greater understanding, is shown plainly, especially in the introduction and epilogue, and the dialogue between the West and East is highlighted even through the authors’ disagreements. One finds himself sighing as he closes the book, wondering at the state of Marianne, Samira, and Leila. Do they still live in Palestine, and how do they feel now about their state? And has, indeed, the conversation between men and women in the West and the Arab world continued to progress towards a point of mutual understanding?