Palestinian Women in Israeli Prisons: Motherhood, Body Resistance and Education

Malaka Shwaikh11. marca 20212035

Slovak version

The violent ways in which the Palestinians are held and treated in Israeli prisons illustrate legacies of colonialism, repressive regime tactics, and actions that are questionable in human rights terms. Palestinian women prisoners are active in resisting both the Israeli settler-colonial project and the Palestinian patriarchal society. In Israeli prisons, their sexualities and gender are used to exert more pressure to comply with Israeli authorities, which lead them to use their limited repertoire of resistance including their bodies as sites of resistance, all as part of a broader dynamic of their Palestinian struggle against Israeli colonization. Inspired by anthropological accounts of Palestinian women prisoners, this article starts with a brief introduction into Israeli violence against women in prisons, before moving the focus on the women means of resistance against Israeli violence, especially through education, with a concluding section on the contentious links between the oppressors and the oppressed, using a conceptual framework that centres the oppressed rather than the oppressors.

Israeli Prisons as Spaces of Power and Violence

In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel seized control of the parts of Palestine which had not been occupied in 1948: Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There is hardly any documented record of Israeli imprisonment of Palestinians before 1967. Ever since 1967, the detention of Palestinians in Israeli prisons has become an ongoing and increasing reality. The reality of imprisonment becomes a rite of passage for over 1,000,000 Palestinians, all under Israeli military orders in the occupied territories. According to Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association Addameer, an estimated 10,000 Palestinian women were held in Israeli prisons between 1968 and 2018. According to Charlotte Kates of the National Lawyer Guild, there are “no Palestinian families” that have not been “touched by the scourge of mass imprisonment”, used as a mechanism of “suppression”, making arrest “a fact of life” for Palestinians.

As soon as the Israeli military forces imprison Palestinian women, whether from their homes or while in the street, at midnight or in the day, they will be mostly transferred to interrogation rooms. In these spaces, everything can be violated including women’s bodies not only by physical violence such as beatings and being tied in stress positions but also by sexual assaults and methods targeting them because of their gender.

In July 1979, the story of Aida Saad was highlighted in the PLO Information Bulletin Magazine. While interrogated, Saad was put under psychological pressure, including threats of rape, by the Israeli interrogators to force her to confess. In another instance, she recollected,

They asked me to take off my clothes before him [a male Palestinian prisoner], as casually as if they were asking me to have a candy. I refused. The young Palestinian male prisoner shouted, ‘Leave her!’ I knew then that they had threatened him. ‘If you do not confess you will be made to have sex with her in front of everyone’.

Clarifying how socially unacceptable the situation she was put in was, she continued, “You know, due to our environment, our respect for our customs and traditions, and the respect our men feel towards women, he was ready to tell many lies so as not to do what he had been asked to”.

Regardless of the social or marital status of the women, the societal pressure is constantly exploited by the Israeli prison forces. Palestinian woman prisoner H. Y. relayed to me in an interview in 2017 that the Israeli interrogator told her while embarking on a hunger strike, ‘You will never get married. You will never get pregnant. Your body will be destroyed. Your society will abandon you.’ For the Israeli interrogator, H. Y. is de-feminizing her body and putting it at risk of damage, simply stressing the patriarchal gendered stereotypes of fragile women bodies that are not masculine (strong) enough to embark on hunger strikes.

Neve Tirza prison in Ramleh is the only Israeli prison that has specialized women facilities but only serves to hold Palestinian women for short-term detention and during transfer. It was the only female-designated prison inside Israel until 2014, yet designed by men, it failed in meeting any gender-specific needs of women prisoners. Due to criminal prisoners frequently attacking Palestinian political prisoners in Neve Tirza, the latter were then relocated to isolated sections in HaSharon, originally designated for male prisoners. Today, women are usually held in two prisons in Israel: HaSharon and Damon. The Damon prison used to be a storehouse for tobacco and cigarettes before Israel was created in 1948 and it would be unsuitable for sheltering animals. But today, women prisoners are held there in a small two-room building, suffering overcrowding, humidity, extreme heat in summer and harsh cold in winter.

Conditions in HaSharon aren’t any better. Women are confined in overcrowded cells often filled with insects and dirt and lack of proper ventilation and natural light. Unfair treatment includes poor diet, solitary confinement and constant beating, not only during interrogation.

The extent to which women prisoners are abused on the hands of Israeli prison officers is difficult to write about. One example here is from Mona Qa’dan who was first arrested in December 1999 when she was subjected to 28-day of torture, in which several methods were used against her including the infamous “shabbih” which involves,

tying the detainee’s arms and legs to a chair and completely blocking the person’s vision with a mask. Very loud music is played, causing sensory disorientation. Most interrogations occurred during the night, and her windowless isolation cell was brightly illuminated around the clock, interrupting her natural sleep patterns. She was often deprived of showers and forbidden to change her clothes.

In 2011, Qa’dan was held in solitary confinement, winning a communal cell 16 days after her hunger strike. Qa’dan story is one of many, much of which we often read very little about. In the meantime, the Israeli prison authorities continue to enjoy immunity world-wide.

Beyond this, both HaSharon and Damon prisons lack any gender-sensitive facilities. Health and hygiene needs are hardly addressed, even when women are pregnant. Children visiting their mothers are searched repeatedly and allowed to spend very little time with them. Often, their journey to the prison takes around ten hours (due to Israeli restrictions on freedom of movement of Palestinians, not a long distance), only to be allowed to spend half an hour with their mother. During the visit, they are separated by a big glass divider and cannot touch each other, just speak through telephones. The maintenance of ties between prisoners and families is at the hands of the Israeli Prison Services (IPS).

Women Resisting: Turning Bodies into Resistance Sites

The violence placed on women’s own body at the hand of colonial authorities leads them to use those same bodies to resist, using all means possible, from disobedience to last-resort hunger strikes. In Israeli prisons, Palestinian women continue to co-lead the way in resistance. In the second half of 1969, ex-prisoner Rasmiya Odeh pioneered to challenge the prison’s necropolitical matrix of power by resisting the way the IPS wanted her to live and die. She initiated one of the first hunger strikes with other women prisoners, clearly stating that it is up to them to decide how to live and die, claiming authority and agency over their own bodies and lives. The hunger strikers demanded better treatment, increase of visitors to more than once a month, allowing books, medical care, better food, more than one hour of exercise in the prison courtyard, and to be treated as political prisoners instead of criminals. In response, the Israeli authorities force-fed them, with tubes through their nostrils. Two girls were hospitalized, but what made this hunger strike unique was its outcomes. A week into the hunger strike, prisoners were allowed to have books and a newspaper regularly and to receive three adult visitors once a month.

Of the first individual women hunger strikers were Etaf Elayan and Mona Qa’dan, both being the only individual hunger strikers since Israel’s full occupation of Palestine in 1967 until 2004, inspiring many more to put their life on the line to regain their dignity and reclaim ownership of their bodies and lives. What such examples of resistance by Palestinian women prisoners show is their refusal of passive role and acceptance of the possibility of death as preferable to submitting to a life without dignity under continuous incarceration. They transform their body from a site of subjection to a site of resistance. The act of instrumentalizing one’s own death as a counterconduct to the administration of life was developed by political theorist Banu Bargu as necroresistance.

To achieve this, there is a need to have a profound level of willpower and persistence. This form of confrontation exercised through the body is unique since it severely affects the physical body, putting it at risk of irreversible damage or even death. Thus, a hunger strike is practically the last means of resisting. This willingness of hunger strikers to sacrifice their own body exemplifies the harshness of the violence exercised over them in Israeli prisons. In the Palestinian context, necroresistance is a part of a broader dynamic of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli colonization. Confronting Israel’s violence towards Palestinian prisoners sometimes requires the employment of the body as a means of resisting and reasserting control over their own body, as well as making a political statement. Refusing to feed one’s body is a tangible action of defiance in which the hunger striker rejects the violence by jailers, prisons and the whole political system.

Not only are Palestinian women prisoners active agents of anti-colonial gendered resistance but they are not passive victims of their society or ones who cannot embark on body resistance for – as their patriarchal society would claim – not having a masculine [strong] enough body. In the process of reconstructing this history through testimonies of Palestinian women political prisoners, it is important to challenge the normalized hegemonic Orientalist perspective depicting colonised people’s resistance as terror, which then justifies state terrorism in response, and calls it a means of spreading “western values of democracy”. Nahla Abdo’s approach challenges imperialism and orientalism at once by re-defining the notions of “democracy”, “individual rights” and “human rights”, as concepts that continue to be used by Israel to camouflage atrocities against the Palestinian population while it expands its colonial interests. It is equally important to challenge the narrative that objectifies women who are part of resisting the Israeli occupation, calling them uneducated, fallen or, as those who “dishonoured their families’”.

Turning Prisons into Schools

In addition to embarking on hunger strikes and transforming their bodies into sites of insurgencies, women also challenge the colonial system and its continuous violence in other ways. In the words of Palestinian woman prisoner Khalida Jarrar,

In prison, we challenge the abusive prison guard together, with the same will and determination to break him so that he does not break us…Prison is the art of exploring possibilities; it is a school that trains you to solve daily challenges using the simplest and most creative means, whether it be food preparation, mending old clothes or finding common ground so that we may all endure and survive together. For Palestinians, the prison is a microcosm of the much larger struggle of a people who refuse to be enslaved on their own land, and who are determined to regain their freedom, with the same will and vigour carried by all triumphant, once-colonized nations.

Palestinian women also transform the violent prison structures to schools and universities where they teach and learn from one another, even without a structure in place by the Israeli authorities acting in a clear contravention of international legal frameworks (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms) that declares everyone has the right to education, including those in prison.

Just as interrogation finishes, the first days of detention are the most difficult – women would be haunted by the fear of the unknown. In prison, daily life may have nothing special but the women tend to keep it busy by teaching one another, conversing, doing embroidery and knitting – all are means to escape the prison’s harsh conditions. Women’s prison resistance is not performed individually but as part of a coordinated anti-colonial movement, defying not only the colonial power but also patriarchal nature of the Palestinian society. Education in prisons is a means of resistance. Here, numerous women prisoners use their time in prison to learn and write. All prisoners, regardless of their age, take part in these education sessions, ensuring especially younger women prisoners receive education from other women prisoners.

The 12-year-old Dima al-Wawi, the youngest prisoner in 2016, spent seventy-five days in Israeli prisons. She noted as she was released that she was taught by prisoner Lina al-Jarbouni, the longest-serving Palestinian woman in Israeli detention before her release in April 2017 (she was imprisoned since 2004 and spent fifteen years behind bars), while in prison. Similarly, Ahed Tamimi, a 17-year-old teenage girl spent eight months in Israeli prisons for slapping a soldier after he entered Tamimi’s yard and shot one of her relatives in Nabi Salah village, where Tamimi family resides. As she was released, she said that she and other Palestinians in her all-women prison unit would sit for hours and learn legal texts. ‘We managed to transform the jail into a school’, she said. Even when the Israeli prison authorities do not provide education opportunities for women prisoners (as it is nowadays), women prisoners are not passive during their detention periods and use their skills, time and limited resources to learn with each other.

Towards an examination of power from the periphery

When we try to understand the resistance of Palestinian women in Israeli prisons, we have to keep in mind that it reflects the injustice placed upon them and is part of a wider anti-colonial resistance that is integral to the everyday life in a colonised society. Examining power from the perspective of those holding it won’t be sufficient. In line with the view of Cynthia Enloe who argues that studying power from its centre is illogical as it ignores the multiplicity of power relations in society and how they work together, we need to examine the relation between women prisoners and Israeli prison authorities from different perspectives, also by studying the effects that such power has on the subjected groups. It is the concept of power structures that makes it worthwhile to consider Palestinian women as subjects; such power relations affect them and lead to their resistance. Suppressing the resistance and neglecting prisoners’ demands (and, actually, demands of the oppressed population as such) by the colonizers strengthens resistance as the priority in their everyday life. Examining these non-state levels of struggle leads to a better understanding of the reasons for embarking upon them. The use of resistance tactics by sections of the oppressed society continues to grow more widely, since violence and injustices are intensifying. In the meanwhile, the battle for justice in Palestine continues, behind Israeli bars and beyond.

Malaka Shwaikh

The author is an associate lecturer i​n Peace and​ Conflict Studies at School of International Relations of University of St. Andrews, Scotland, focusing in her work on prisons as spaces of power and resistance


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