Women’s Bodies on the Border: Modesty, Gossip, and National Subject Formation in Early 20th Century Palestine

By Caroline Kahlenberg
Submitted to Session P6128 (Territoriality and Contested Borders, 2020 Annual Meeting
Gender/Women's Studies;
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This paper examines how women’s bodies became an important site for conceptualizing Jewish-Arab difference in late Ottoman and British-mandate Palestine (1908-1948). Specifically, it explores how Palestinian Arab nationalists mobilized narratives of Jewish female sexual immorality through newspapers, literary depictions, and gossip, in order to 1) establish difference between Jewish and Palestinian Arab women; and 2) resist Zionism. I first investigate Palestinian portrayals of European Jewish immodesty in dress, behavior, and sexuality. I then turn to Palestinian portrayals of “Eastern” Jewish women in Palestine. I argue that ideas circulating about Eastern Jewish women’s increasingly immodest clothing and behaviors created a discursive gap between these Arabic-speaking Jewish women and their Christian and Muslim counterparts. Therefore, we see that the Jewish-Arab national boundary in Palestine solidified not only through colonial policy and ideology, but also through ideas and gossip that circulated about women’s bodies.

This paper takes up Wilson Jacob’s call to explore affective matters and body cultures as part of the history of nationalism and colonialism. It also takes up Sherene Seikaly’s call to study Arab-Jewish relations in Palestine that goes beyond a narrative in which “the Jews act, the Palestinians react.” In reality, Palestinian Arabs took an active role in shaping Jewish-Arab difference, and mobilizing anti-imperial resistance, through their portrayals of Jewish women. The ideas about Jewish sexuality that circulated were both top-down (spread by nationalist actors) and ground-up (spread, e.g., by Palestinian Arab women at social gatherings). I seek to make three broader contributions. First, this paper both builds on, and complicates, historical analyses of the European colonial sexualization of indigenous women. Second, it complicates our understanding of what constitutes “Palestinian resistance.” Finally, the paper seeks to theorize “modesty” as a relational concept. I engage with photographs, memoirs, oral histories, literature, magazines and newspapers, and colonial government documents.