Opinion

Permission to narrate Palestinian feminisms

If digital platforms continue to have the power to dictate the terms of the conversation we can only expect a further restriction of what Palestinian scholar Edward Said called “permission to narrate”. As Palestinian feminists, we know the stakes of this moment all too well.
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On September 23, 2020 the corporate digital platform Zoom blocked an online open classroom featuring Palestinian freedom fighter Leila Khaled. The panel, titled “Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice, and Resistance: A Conversation,” was co-organized by Professors Rabab Abdulhadi and Tomomi Kinukawa and co-sponsored by the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies Program (AMED) and the Department of Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University. Part of AMED’s Teaching Palestine: Pedagogical Praxis and the Indivisibility of Justice series, the webinar was the first of a two-part series focusing on gender and sexual justice in Arab, Muslim and Palestinian communities.  The incident became a shameful display of the role that technology companies can play in the larger landscape of racist, patriarchal and Zionist repression of Palestinian speech. In particular, it illustrates ongoing attempts to silence Palestinian narratives–and specifically, Palestinian feminist narratives–that elevate not only the voices of women who have played a foundational role in our historical struggles for liberation, but more generally, a gendered analysis of our ongoing struggles for freedom from patriarchal violence and the machinery of settler colonial dispossession.  

From our standpoint as Palestinian feminists who confront Israeli colonial occupation and dispossession, we assert that the voices, experiences and narratives of Palestinian women have long been surveilled, policed and targeted as part of the same structure of violence that targets our bodies, sexualities, lands and lives.  We understand that the attempted devaluation and erasure of our narratives as Palestinian feminists is intimately connected to the attempted erasure of our indigenous history and presence in our homeland. When writing or speaking out about the injustices facing our people, including histories of gender and sexual violence that continue to inform the present, many of us have faced Israel’s violent attempts to silence our voices and in doing so, discipline us into erasure, with punitive ramifications politically, professionally, and personally.

We also recognize this incident as a continuation of a wider context of censorship on Palestine in the United States, a litmus test for other marginalized communities who speak out against repression and injustice.   In December 2019, Donald Trump signed an executive order directing government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education, to consider a distorted definition of antisemitism designed to further censor free speech on Palestine, after failed attempts to pass similar legislation in Congress. This order has emboldened Israel’s allies to further attack  scholars, students, institutions and others engaged in speaking out against Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights.  Zoom, and later Facebook and YouTube’s rescinding of their services to SFSU after thousands of Zionists lobbied the platform cannot but be understood in relation to this heightened context of surveillance and repression of Palestinian speech in the United States.  Indeed, this move sets a dangerous precedent for the extension of recent policies of repression into virtual spaces not only for Palestinians but for other subaltern groups as well.

As we increasingly rely on digital platforms to engage broader publics, and especially as the space for face-to-face engagement has narrowed in the wake of COVID-19, we know that this kind of suppression will be weaponized to silence any and all marginalized communities using digital spaces to voice opposition to the oppressive systems under which we live.  While we are acutely aware of the systemic logics of racism inherent in digital technologies for racialized communities, digital platforms also produce opportunities of sociality in the face of erasure. If digital platforms continue to have the power to dictate the terms of the conversation, and if we continue to have to ask for permission from massive technology conglomerates to share our vital histories, we can only expect a further restriction of what Palestinian scholar Edward Said called “permission to narrate” (1984). As Palestinian feminists, we know the stakes of this moment all too well.  

Further, the censoring of AMED’s “Whose narratives?” webinar is a stark example of the weaponization of the language and hegemonic narrative of the oppressor to silence our histories of resistance. To justify denying its services to the panel, Zoom stated that “in light of the speaker’s reported affiliation or membership in a U.S. designated foreign terrorist organization…we determined the meeting is in violation of Zoom’s Terms of Service.” This patterned logic relies on the designation of what constitutes terrorism. As an imperial power in the region, the U.S. continues to provide Israel with unequivocal financial, ideological, military, and diplomatic support. To paraphrase Khaled’s own powerful words, it is not terrorism to resist the occupation and colonization of one’s land and people. The true terrorism is Zionist occupation itself.

Colonial powers have historically instrumentalized the meaning of terrorism so that it is associated with particular actors rather than actions, thereby delegitimizing the resort to force, irrespective of targets or tactics of certain actors and absolving the violence of the most powerful states. This process has invoked civilizational tropes in order to frame the use of force by Indigenous, Black and Brown combatants as barbaric, savage, and beyond the bounds of regulated warfare. While the international community has recognized the right of all peoples, including Palestinians,  to use force “against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of their right to self-determination,” Israel and the United States have refused to recognize this right and have continued to frame any use of force by non-state actors as criminal and terroristic. Simultaneously, the United States and Israel have framed their force as defensive and legitimate, even as their forces have targeted schools, hospitals, electricity plants, agricultural fields, funerals, graduations, and weddings. 

As a collective of Palestinian feminists based primarily in the U.S., we understand it as part of our duty to confront hegemonic colonial and orientalist Zionist imaginaries that construct Palestinians, and in particular, Palestinian women, as monstrous, terrorists, racialized “Others” outside the realm of the human.  We recognize current attempts to pervert and dismiss histories of struggle as “terroristic” as part of an ongoing legacy aimed at achieving our indigenous erasure. We are aware that attacks on Palestinians are often the gateway to broader attacks against emancipatory movements and thus, both far from exceptional and a matter of general concern. As Palestinian feminists, we honor and claim Leila Khaled, as we claim all of the Palestinian women, in the homeland as well as in exile, who have fought to ensure that current and future generations of Palestinians do, and would, exist. We are honored to continue this legacy through our unwavering commitment to the Palestinian liberation struggle. 

Noura Erakat, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies, Rutgers University

Dr. Sarah Ihmoud, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, The College of the Holy Cross 

Dr. Hana Masri, Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication, University of Pennsylvania

Maisa Morrar, Physician Assistant and member, Palestinian Youth Movement

Dr. Loubna Qutami, Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies, UCLA

Basima Sisemore, Researcher, Othering & Belonging Institute, UC Berkeley 

Randa M. Wahbe, Ph.D. Candidate, Anthropology, Harvard University

Yazan Zahzah, MA in Women and Gender Studies, San Diego State University

Leena Odeh, J.D., The Decolonizing Race Project

On behalf of the Palestine Feminist Working Group

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The topic here is the censorship of Palestinian voices. The Intercept just ran a piece on just this: https://theintercept.com/2020/10/04/israel-palestine-blacklists-canary-mission/  Few of the high-profile public intellectuals who have staked claims on the militantly free speech side of the national debate have highlighted the incredible degree of suppression on speech supportive of Palestinian rights — particularly among ordinary people lacking access to elite platforms…Firings and censorship relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict long ago became common in both academia and politics.… Read more »