Provincializing materialist feminism: gender, capital and reproduction in Occupied Palestine
In debunking liberal feminism as complicit in neo-liberal regimes of oppression, materialist feminism itself requires scrutiny. Its own underpinnings when discussed particularly in the light of the occupation of Palestine, finding it as guilty of reproducing colonial and racialized hierarchies argues Zainab Siddiqui.
Decades of academic scholarship and political commentary have exposed the structural role of liberal feminism within modern imperialist domination. Presently, consensus over the Eurocentric and ahistorical character of many mid-20th century accounts of patriarchy (and their contemporary ideological descendants) spans a wide array of academic disciplines and political trajectories. Myriad voices within Black feminist thought, post-colonial studies, and decolonial studies in particular have emphasized the importance of grasping the mutual imbrication of gender, coloniality, and race. Cognizant of such contestations, some prominent voices within Marxist feminism have sought to address the problem of historico-racial difference. These contributions, however, have underemphasized racial antagonism, citing the totalizing nature of the wage-relation as the basis for its waning significance (James & Dalla Costa 1972; Gonzalez 2011). The frequent theoretical erasure of coloniality and race, and simultaneous rejection of liberal feminism within materialist accounts of patriarchy raise important questions: Where do these two frameworks actually depart? To which kind of political praxis is (neo)Marxist feminism conducive, vis-à-vis dark bodies and anti-colonial subjects? Is a materialist account of historical-racial difference possible within its theoretical coordinates?
In this article I explore how the Zionist occupation of Palestine is an important site at which to evaluate the blind spots of materialist-feminist accounts of the family. Indeed, the Israeli settler-colonial project—sustained through genocidal technologies, practices of geographical displacement, widespread incarceration, and politically motivated killings—forcibly transforms the Palestinian ‘family’ into a precarious and unstable formation. Engaging critically with “The Power of Women and Subversion of the Community” by American autonomist feminist Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa, and more recent writings by communization theorist Maya Gonzalez, I argue that the homogenizing tendency of settler-colonialism—which constantly lays bare the immediate antagonism between colonizer and colonized—may disrupt formulations that posit sexual difference as the most fundamental division within a global underclass. I will argue that by obfuscating the originary violence of colonialism, assuming the wage-relation as its primary subject, and overlooking the racial logic of power in the current global order, particular trajectories within materialist-feminism not only provide an inadequate description of the colonized world but also remain ideologically complicit with the pacification and disembodiment of anti-colonial subjects.
Marxian Analysis and the Zionist Occupation of Palestine
Palestine—a site structured by the violence of colonial encounter—illuminates important contradictions between the broad tendencies of capital on one hand, and the logic of settler-colonialism on the other. Indeed, the generalization of the capitalist mode of production in Israel, a process dependent on the utilization of cheap Palestinian labor, has at times conflicted with the systematic marginalization and elimination of Palestinians central to the Zionist project. While the West Bank and Gaza grew increasingly integrated within the Israeli economy under the Labor Party, the ‘proletarianization’ of Palestinians gave way to the revival of pre-1948 calls for “Jewish labor only” (Kanafani 1980) following the Likud Party’s electoral victory in 1977. Despite the internal logic of capitalism, within which cheapest sources of labor are readily exploited, after 1977 the Israeli state systematically prioritized the hiring of Jewish workers over Palestinians, despite the fact that Jewish labor cost over twice as much on average (Tamari 1980: 91). Low and unskilled positions previously deemed undesirable by Jewish workers and held by Palestinians were increasingly relegated to dark, non-Ashkenazi Jews. This pattern demonstrates a disjuncture between the logic of capital and that of Israeli settler-colonialism, in which territorial expansion and the total marginalization of the Palestinian become more immediately consequential than economic exploitation or extracting the most value from workers in a given time.
The apparent divergences between the compulsions of capital and the racism of the settler-colonial state disturb the economic determinism foundational to materialist feminism. Early in “The Power of Women and Subversion of the Community,” James and Dalla Costa assert, “the way the ruling class robs the exploited of their labor is unique to each historical epoch, and all other social relations in the society, beginning with the family…reflect that form” (emphasis added). This class reductionist approach echoes the manifestos of Jewish settler-socialists in Palestine prior to the peasant revolts of 1936-1939. One such statement issued in 1920 proclaims,“[The Jewish workers] are ready to fight on your side against the capitalist enemy, be it Jew, Arab or British… the Jewish worker, who is a soldier of the revolution, has come to offer you his hand as a comrade in resisting British, Jewish and Arab capitalists” (Kanafani 1980). Though written prior to the establishment of the Zionist state in 1948, the manifesto makes no direct mention of the extant tensions between Jewish and native workers, rooted in nearly forty years of Palestinian displacement by settlers. By overlooking early colonial realities, this approach—and indeed that of James and Dalla Costa—fails to acknowledge how the mechanisms of colonialism may act in apparent contradiction with the totalizing tendency of capital.
Sexual Reproduction and the Palestinian Family
Perhaps the clearest point at which the Zionist occupation of Palestine troubles central claims in materialist feminism is with regards to childbearing and sexual reproduction. In “Communization and the Abolition of Gender,” Gonzalez details the significance capital assigns to differences in sexual constitution as she asserts, “Class society thus gives a social purpose to bodies: because some women ‘have’ babies, all bodies that could conceivably ‘produce’ babies are subject to social regulation. Women become the slaves of the biological contingencies of their birth” . While in Gonzalez’s formulation sexual reproduction becomes a compulsion of capital to be resisted, the narratives of Palestinian women, Palestinian nationalist discourse, and even Israeli state policies situate childbearing in relation a different set of questions.
To this day the struggle over land and bodies remains central to both the Israeli state project and Palestinian resistance to it. The constant enumeration of Palestinians and settlers by international agencies and internal actors alike reveals the terms of this competition: numbers. In her observations on pronatalism in Galilee, a territory within historic Palestine, anthropologist Rhoda Kanaaneh details this dimension of the anti-colonial struggle. She notes how despite the attempts of Zionist state agencies to use the depoliticized language of “family planning” and “crowd alleviation” to reduce the natural population growth rate among Palestinians, more than fifty years after the establishment of Israel, this rate remained twice as high as that among Jews. To this day Palestinians continue to have more children than settlers, despite restrictive Israeli state policies that aim to reverse this ratio. Zionist attempts to curb native population growth and achieve a Jewish majority in Palestine appear in the incentives the health care system provides for Jewish mothers, or policies like the prohibition of polygyny among Arabs. And indeed, it may not be a coincidence that heavy exposure to Israeli tear gas has frequently resulted in miscarriages among pregnant Palestinian women. These strict means of regulation attest to the Zionist state’s anxiety over the reproduction of the colonized Other.
Despite the growing trend among upper class Palestinians of birthing fewer children, an overwhelming number of non-elites continue to view childrearing as a defiant act. In Birthing the Nation (2002), Kanaaneh recalls her conversation with a Palestinian woman in Galilee who declares, “The Jewish doctor wishes he could tie all our tubes. I told him, ‘I’m going to have another baby and name him Muhammad and you can’t stop me’”. This politicization of reproduction reconfigures the resisting woman’s body as an asexual “military womb that gives birth to fighters,” shattering basic materialist feminist conceptions of gender. Contrary to Zionist narratives that frequently portray Palestinian women as passive bystanders in the national struggle, Kanaaneh notes that anti-colonial women were highly invested and involved in the popular resistance of the First Intifada – particularly at the level of “[outbreeding] the Jews” , as one woman in Kanaaneh’s work describes. The politicized character of childbearing under occupation remains indisputable, and perhaps impossible to divorce from a broader conception of the family as a potentially revolutionary unit.
Specific imaginings of the family have played a prominent role in both the Palestinian resistance against Zionism and the broader history of Third Worldist anti-colonial politics. In Fanon’s account of the Algerian independence movement in A Dying Colonialism, the colonized family represents the most basic cell of the anticolonial resistance. Fanon suggests it may be this family’s inherent instability—or perhaps impossibility—that recasts it as a site of struggle. He notes how the movement for national independence and the severity of its accompanying repression inflict “grave traumatisms upon the family group: a father taken into custody in the street in the company of his children…a husband arrested, dragged away, imprisoned”. In Palestine, a similar pattern of incarceration, home demolitions, and daily violence impact the intimate lives of countless Palestinians, rendering the family a deeply precarious formation. This fragmentation of the family unit echoes Fanon’s account of Algeria during the anti-colonial struggle, in which he describes the many “children scattered to the winds, innumerable orphans who roam about, haggard and famished.” He continues, “It is not possible to imagine that the Algerian family can have remained intact”. Fanon’s observations relate to occupied Palestine, where the objective dissolution of the family—spearheaded not by feminists but occupation forces—has been underway since the late 19th century. In this context, Marxist calls for the ‘abolition’ of the family appear ideologically complicit with the genocidal technologies of settler-colonialism.
The effort to preserve the family—or more precisely, to cultivate it—has been a central facet of anti-colonial struggle in Palestine. As in the case of anti-Zionist politics, even the language of the Algerian revolution relied upon an expansive notion of family that sharply contrasted with the predominantly nuclear model in Europe. Fanon notes how, through the fight for independence, “the young girl was replaced by the militant, the woman by the sister” He continues to describe the militant husband and wife in struggle as the “fertile nucleus of the nation” who are crucial to the anti-colonial resistance movement. In contrast, James and Dalla Costa conceptualize the family and home mainly as formations that naturalize and uphold the wage-relation, ‘imprisoning’ women within the role of reproductive laborer. They describe the domestic sphere as the “maternal cradle always ready to help and protect in time of need…the best guarantee that the unemployed do not immediately become a horde of disruptive outsiders”. Rather than a potentially revolutionary unit, for James and Dalla Costa, the family represents one of the most consequential obstacles in achieving freedom from capital. These contradicting accounts illustrate how the colonial encounter destabilizes foundational assumptions in the neo-Marxist framework. Perhaps even the most basic designations of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ misrepresent the reality of life under settler-colonialism.
While colonialism enmeshed with patriarchy impacts women and men in specific, often disparate, ways, the very category ‘gender’ may preclude an analysis of how settler-colonialism necessarily reduces the colonized into bodies, or mere economic units of labor. In her discussion of sumud (Sumud refers to the politicized concept of ‘steadfastness’ within the Palestinian struggle, particularly the practice of keeping silent during prison interrogations. Meari describes it as a “Palestinian mode of anticolonial being/becoming that constantly engages a process of de-subjectivation”) and rape as a colonial technology, anthropologist Lena Meari describes the Israeli interrogation room as an important site of resistance and sexual politics. Despite the gendered character of torture and other methods of political repression, however, the practice of sumudin the face of interrogators may in fact destabilize notions of the sex-body. One former political prisoner ‘Aisha explains, “I did not perceive my position as being a female. For me the interrogator was [not a man but] an enemy to confront”. Clearly, the harsh conditions of the interrogation room concretize divisions between colonizer and colonized, as they simultaneously blur those between ahistorical conceptions of ‘man’ and ‘woman.’ The feminist branding of the Zionist project and the prevalence of women serving in the Israeli occupation forces—and more generally, the woman-centered language of modern military interventions—further highlight the incoherence of colonizer and colonized uniting on the basis of shared sex. Indeed, the settler-colonial situation forces us to rethink key distinctions foundational to materialist feminist readings of sex, capital, and race. The materialist-feminist call for the ‘abolition of the family’ conceptualizes it as a historically specific social formation that facilitates the domination of capital over people. Within this framework, the nuclear family becomes a central site of consumption, reserve labor, and conditioning at which labor power as commodity is reproduced. The geographical coordinates of this family are rarely specified in neo-Marxist accounts of patriarchy, but the ‘freedom’ to bear children is generally framed as a compulsion of capital to be resisted.
Although neo-Marxist accounts of patriarchy may not be conducive to the same colonialist tendencies as liberal feminism, their central focus on the wage-relation understates how colonialism, white supremacy, and anti-blackness are structurally foundational to capitalism. James and Dalla Costa’s analysis instead stresses the absolute centrality of gendered divisions as they write, “when we say that women must…begin to move out of the home, we mean their point of departure must be precisely this willingness to destroy the role of the housewife, in order to begin to come together…reconstructing a real solidarity among women”. While James and Dalla Costa write specifically in opposition to the modern rise of the “privatised female,” their conception of solidarity—which appears reliant on liberal concepts of an undifferentiated global sisterhood—erases real differences between women; specifically, it denies white women’s ongoing role within the historical-racial structure of colonialism.
In his account of the Algerian revolution in The Wretched of the Earth, anti-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon suggests the structural impossibility of solidarity between female French settlers and Algerians when he refers to the colonizer and colonized as “two different species”. Fanon’s historical-ontological account of First and Third World subjects disrupts any notion of abstract solidarity based on the loose grounds of (reified conceptions of) sex. He writes, “The ‘thing’ that has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself” . In other words, it is only through revolutionary violence that ruptures colonial logics in their totality that it even becomes possible for the colonized to become ‘men’ or ‘women,’ i.e. (gendered) subjects. For Fanon, it is from this initial state of nonbeing and the economic structure that fosters and depends upon it, that new humans become possible. This historical-ontological dimension of colonization remains unaddressed in materialist feminist accounts of patriarchy.
Marxist feminism requires stretching, if not a radical rethinking to grasp the historico-ontological dimension of colonialism. Its central focus on the wage-relation as a mechanism that globalizes value forcefully positions non-white women in solidarity with white women, erasing the racial structure of colonialism, and revealing a blatant continuity between liberal conceptions of female solidarity and the ‘materialist’ unity posited by (neo)Marxist feminists. The universalizing tendency of liberalism undoubtedly resurfaces in such accounts of patriarchy—but in a modified form that references the propensity of capital to totalize, rather than the misogyny of dark men. Given that the economic structure and immediate realities of modern racial antagonism disrupt any possibility of solidarity grounded purely in sexual constitution, the politics of some trajectories within materialist feminism appears to be based on constructing such a unity. Indeed, its foundational logic not only dismisses racial-colonial difference, but relies upon its de-signification. The theoretical-political challenge of the present moment may not be the unfeasible task of reconfiguring materialist feminism to encompass questions of race and colonialism, but rather, to critique and dismantle the reproduction of coloniality in all of its forms.
Zainab Siddiqui is an activist and PhD student.