Captive Revolution: Palestinian Women's Anti-Colonial Struggle Within the Israeli Prison System

By Nahla Abdo
Pluto Press, November 30, 2013, $36.95

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“Among Palestinians, jail is a very normalized part of life — as normal and as common as school, as babies, as olive oil and thyme,” proclaimed Palestinian lawyer Noura Erakat at a recent discussion (with Angela Davis) on mass incarceration in the United States and Palestine.

Indeed, since 1967, Israel has incarcerated around 800,000 Palestinians — approximately 20 per cent of the Palestinian population of the occupied West Bank and Gaza. A significant number of those criminalized and imprisoned for their political activism have been women.

According to Palestinian prisoner support association Addameer, there are currently 19 women political detainees in Israeli prisons. And yet, these women activists have been largely marginalized in both national histories and academic studies, invisibilizing them into ghosts or distorting them into monsters. 

Nahla Abdo’s Captive Revolution: Palestinian Women’s Anti-Colonial Struggle Within the Israeli Prison System enters into this void, filling it with the vivid voices, stories and experiences of Palestinian women political fighters and ex-detainees from the 1960s to the 1980s: a period marked by high levels of women’s participation in anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and national liberation movements globally.

“The phenomenon of women’s political resistance and detention,” Abdo reminds us, “is as old as colonialism, imperialism and the capitalist state (and indeed is older).”

The opening chapter of Captive Revolution situates Palestinian women’s political activism and detention in this broader, international story of women’s militant resistance.

From Northern Ireland to the United States to Algeria — important differences in context notwithstanding — female political detainees have experienced similar forms of control, humiliation, and torture (both physical and psychological): “the use of women’s bodies and sexuality by the colonial state, and especially by its prison institutions, represents a prime tactic, or rather strategy, of control used against women’s political activism.”

Methods of resistance wielded by women against such abuses include hunger strikes, refusal to leave cells, disobedience of orders, and “dirty protests” (the use of bodily refuse to express opposition to prison officials). Against violent state efforts to instrumentalize and dominate their bodies, women detainees use their bodies as sites of resistance: a leitmotif running through the stories of Palestinian detainees presented.

If incarceration and torture have long been staple technologies of colonial assertion of power over subject populations, their current employment by states like Israel and the United States is (just) one salient vector of continuity between the colonial past and neocolonial present.

Tracing these continuities Abdo argues that “a proper understanding of the Palestinian anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle requires a comprehension of the imperialist and colonial context within which the Palestinian struggle has unfolded and continued to unfold … [I]nsofar as the Palestinian women’s struggle was/is concerned, the imperialist context within which they were/are viewed has been largely one of an ideological nature … that was and has remained characteristically Orientalist and racist in essence.”

Mired in Orientalist logic, dominant Western representations of Palestinian women activists — including by ostensibly feminist scholars — portray them as nothing more than victims of patriarchal Palestinian society, driven by “shame and dishonour” (as well as rabid anti-Semitism) to engage in acts of “terrorism.”

As Abdo points out, these representations not only completely discount the political agency of Palestinian women, but also erase the context of colonial violence which produces their resistance — instead fixating on the supposed pathologies of Palestinian culture.

Abdo also focuses on the Palestinian culture of resistance engendered by colonial violence: novels and poetry, songs and cartoons, theatre and films. While the works of male luminaries of resistance — Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish, Tawfiq Zayyad — shine bright in the constellation of anti-colonial cultural production, women’s contributions and experiences (particularly during the period covered in Captive Revolution) have received less attention.

In contexts where “textuality becomes the male tool of expression while women’s voices, words and contributions are expressed in oral forms,” the recovery and integration of women’s oral testimonies into histories of resistance is a vital component of the anti-patriarchal, anti-colonial project — and this is Abdo’s undertaking in Chapters 4 and 5.

These final two chapters are devoted to the narratives of the Palestinian women political detainees interviewed by Abdo: their histories, their motivations for becoming politically active, the horrific violences they experienced in detention, their resistances to these violences.

Abdo’s snapshots of these women thoroughly “defy Western feminists’ perceptions of Arab/Palestinian women” as simultaneously victim and villain: almost all were well-educated and had close, healthy relationships with family members, including fathers and brothers.

“Women joined the resistance and struggle not because they wanted to live in heaven, but because they wanted to live on their land in freedom and without occupation and oppression.”

Abdo never lets her readers lose sight of the agency of her interview subjects. Even while recounting the harrowing incidents of torture experienced by the women in Israeli detention — an exercise which runs the risk of dehumanizing the tortured as passive victims — Abdo highlights their persistent refusal to submit.

“For most women political detainees, the prison was deemed to be a site of resistance: a walled living space” in which the women continued their anti-colonial activism — including by using their imprisonment as an opportunity for education and political consciousness-raising.

And the struggle did not cease with liberation from the “walled and contained” prison into the “large open-air prison” of the occupied territories: even after official release, women continued to be subject to the carceral regime of Israeli colonial power, as well as a patriarchy exacerbated by colonialism.

For decades, colonial exercises of oppression have been rationalized using a narrative constructed around three stereotypical figures: the imperilled and abject Muslim/Arab woman; the irrational and fanatic terrorist; and the civilized and humane colonizer. Nahla Abdo’s Captive Revolution is a powerful and valuable challenge to these tropes which continue to operate in the present to justify imperial violence.​


Azeezah Kanji is a recent graduate of University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, and Programming Coordinator at Noor Cultural Centre.