The street was tense, as the residents of the neighborhood awoke to find a new military checkpoint had been constructed between their homes and school. Israeli soldiers and border police, armed with rifles, were patrolling the area in large numbers. Sharihan and I walked as we had done many times before, conversing with people in the early morning hours—parents, children on their way to school, neighbors—and observing interactions on the street. We made our way to the girls school, where the teachers and school girls were expecting us. For the past several weeks we had been working with teachers and parents to collect hand-written letters from the girls.  We asked them to reflect on their experiences as girls growing up in Jerusalem. What was it like to be a Palestinian girl in Jerusalem? What did justice mean to them?

-Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian


On December 5, 2016 at Columbia Law School, Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian presented the findings of a new research report, In the Absence of Justice: Embodiment and the Politics of Militarized Dismemberment in Occupied East Jerusalem.  Supported by UN Women under Sawasya, the UNDP/UN Women Joint Program on “Strengthening the Rule of Law,” this was a follow-up to an earlier report called Access Denied that examined the socio-political and legal context of access to justice for Palestinian women in the occupied West Bank.

Maria Noel Vaeza, UN Women Director of Programming opened the public event co-hosted by the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School and Columbia’s Center for Palestine Studies and Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality.

Shalhoub-Kevorkian, who was the lead researcher of a team from the Women’s Studies Centre Jerusalem and is the Lawrence D. Biele Chair in Law at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, then presented devastating first-hand accounts of the daily lives and trials of East Jerusalemite women and girls and an analysis of justice that challenged the standard solution of strengthening the rule of law. The report describes how Palestinian women are denied access to justice in Occupied East Jerusalem through a regime of intersecting legal systems. East Jerusalem exists in a liminal space after 50 years of occupation. The intersecting legal systems create a complex machinery of bureaucracy, law, and justice systems that result in a deeply unjust environment for Palestinian women and their families. Policies that limit women and girls’ access to protection, education, healthcare, basic services, adequate housing, adequate standard of living, economic prosperity, freedom of expression, movement, right to family, right to mourn and provide a dignified burial for the dead, and much more are part of the mundane, everyday violence of occupation. As the report details, the violence and oppression these women and girls face are carried out through the law, including through a system of ID cards and residence permits.

The researchers of this study also asked their subjects to define what “justice” and “access to justice” meant to them. Rather than imposing a definition of justice upon women and girls, participants were asked to recount their experiences in a series of interviews, letters, and group discussions. Shalhoub-Kevorkian presented a heart-wrenching ethnographic moment experienced by school children and the women in their lives. Amira, a 10-year old in the fourth grade was shoved to the ground and injured by a soldier on her way to school:

Can you see justice? Did you see how they pushed me and pushed us all? …As if we are trash, or animals. And they built this checkpoint between my school and my home, a five-minute walk. And we have a checkpoint…this is justice? My leg hurts me…they pushed me with a lot of force. I flew, I am in pain…

Amira’s 8th grade neighbor, Nour, described the letter she wrote for the study about justice:

Yesterday they (the Israelis) invaded our home, at night. They scared us a lot, they came at 2:00 AM, with dogs that terrified us…they broke our world…they messed up our house…and our house was about to be demolished anyway. Yes, we have a demolition order and they arrested my brother.

Amira interrupted Nour:

“Look, look! That is my mother…over there!” she said, pointing to a woman arguing with the soldiers. “She is telling them that we are children, and must reach our schools without all this fear. My mom is very clever. And my poor father, my father is hiding at home. He doesn’t have an ID card. All his life, he hasn’t had one. He was born in our house, here…but, he doesn’t have a Jerusalem ID. This is justice in Jerusalem. Look! my mom is talking to them, and they are scaring her with their weapons…look…she is not scared! She is still arguing…” Amira then shouted in a loud voice: “Yamma, Yamma…Mom, I have a math quiz today, tell them! I have a math quiz…Yamma, my leg is hurting…

The report describes the embodied, gendered, and social body politics and blockages facing women in Occupied East Jerusalem as “the politics of militarized dismemberment.” Such blockages sever and “amputate” women’s ability to proceed in accessing justice.  Yet the report also details how women attempt to “re-member” the self and the social body through daily acts of survival and the creation of countermaps to access justice. Personal accounts showed how women and girls consistently attempted to open up new spaces of resistance, whether through the use of E-resistance (Facebook, WhatsApp, and more), music, writing and dancing, or through their religious beliefs and spiritual practices. A woman whose house was demolished by settlers described her experience:

It’s not about justice, but about us women coping with the injustice with all we have.  So, we use the law if we can and if Sharia law or the Israeli law does not stand by us, we use our connections if and when we can, use our money, our bodies, and our education, all we have just to maintain our ability to survive, to stay in our houses, to prevent its demolition, to protect our children from being arrested or shot….  It is our sumud, our survival, and not the availability of a justice system.

In her remarks after the presentation, Lila Abu-Lughod, Joseph L. Buttenweiser Professor of Social Science and a faculty member of the Columbia Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality, noted that this report could serve as a model for thinking about women’s rights, gender violence, and the limits of the law, and not just for Palestinians: it was granular rather than generalizing; gave substance to what is often lauded as “intersectional” analysis; and did not shy away from the ugly bodily, psychic, emotional, socialת and moral effects of, in this case, Israeli legal-bureaucratic and militarized technologies of rule and surveillance, including settler violence. But it did not reduce the objects of rule to victims to be pitied or saved.

Focusing on the final chapters of the report about schoolgirls, she pointed out that the “girl child” has emerged as the most high-profile object of empowerment and subject of rights in the last decade. The remarkable convergence of public/private international concern for girls especially of the Global South is apparent in such statements as UN Women’s 2014 Statement on the Girl, which frames the problems as cultural or religious, leaving out political violence. In contrast, The Absence of Justice offered a vital intervention by concentrating on the impact of political violence on girls and women.

As the report reveals, Israel’s militarized power is performed through a matrix of technologies of violence—spatial, social, political, economic, legal—which, taken together, strip away Palestinian women’s power and limit their access to justice.  The political situation, which leaves Palestinians under military occupation in a vacuum without political representation and legal recourse to protection, enables the persistence of patriarchal powers, further hindering women’s access to justice.

Katherine Franke, Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School noted how the report documents the ways in which occupation has a gender, and the denial of rights to sovereignty and safety have gendered consequences.  The subjects’ accounts of life under occupation in East Jerusalem illuminate how the overlapping fabrics of governance enable a wide variety of gendered violence against Palestinian women: the occupation amplifies their vulnerability to private violence in the home and their community; it exposes them to official violence and exploitation by Israeli forces; and it creates the conditions by which their safety can only be purchased only at the expense of becoming a traitor to their people and families.  We learn from the report of the double — if not triple — binds that Palestinian women endure.  Rights, to the extent that they have any, sometimes become forms of entrapment rather than tools of liberation.

Franke engaged the report’s method and findings in several ways.  Most prominently, she noted how the occupation not only imposes special or unique burdens on women and girls, but is itself a gendered project, gendering all it seeks to govern.  The masculinity of the Israeli state, exemplified by the armed warrior serving in the state uniform, enforces a particularly gendered notion of security, and governs the occupied population through forms of violence and coercion that have the effect, if not the intent, of containing and pacifying a people and ultimately eliminating their identity as Palestinian. Men are always already a threat to security, their inherent violence ingrained into what it means to be Palestinian under this grid of intelligibility – almost as if they were born with a rock in their tiny hands.

A lively discussion followed the presentation, picking up on some key points in Franke’s question “What does it mean to highlight gender violence?” Audience members asked about men, the “boy child”, and LGBTQI Palestinians. One question was whether “In the Absence of Justice,” with its stories about women’s and girls’ experiences, takes for granted a heteronormative gender division. Shalhoub-Kevorkian explained that the report was a reflection of the subjects’ self-identification as women and girls.

When asked why the experiences of boys and men were not included in this report, Maria Noel Vaeza explained the UN Women mandate is for women; they do not have the resources to conduct studies on men as well. Asked who they intended the audience to be for research reports such as this, she argued that the goal of the UN is to raise the awareness of member states so they can best address injustice.

For full video of the presentation, click here.