Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh,University of California Press, 2002

Reviewed by Anuradha Saxena

As Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza move from revolutionary movement to statehood in their quest for national identity, Kanaaneh’s work provides a valuable insight into how, and in what contexts, ‘nation’, ‘modern’ ‘progressive’, ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’, amongst other notions of identity, are defined and negotiated by Palestinians who are citizens of the state of Israel, and live within its 1948 borders, in Galilee. Building on Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp’s assertion that “reproduction, in its biological and social senses, is inextricably bound up with the production of culture,”* Kanaaneh identifies “five interrelated fields of meaning and power in which reproduction is caught up and constructed (in Galilee): nation, economy, difference, body, and gender” (p. 2).

Drawing on empirical data and individual narratives, Kanaaneh skillfully illustrates that reproductive measures, such as the perceived difference in the number of children, the spacing of births, and parenting techniques, are critical markers by which the Israeli state and the Palestinians negotiate and redefine their personal and collective identity, and relationships of power in these five spheres. She asserts that the increasing relevance of reproductive measures as cultural tools for negotiation in discourse is set in the following contexts: Israeli state population policies; the state’s insertion into a global capitalist economy; and the recent rapid medicalization of bodies, all of which may affect women’s sexuality and reproductive choices (p. 106).

The dominant Israeli modernization discourse, then, creates reproductive stereotypes and stigmas, which are linked with notions of a certain household economy, the body, and reproductive practices. Specifically, it associates being modern with being advanced, rational and exercising reproductive control. The small, couple-centered family, in which women have to ‘remain attractive to sustain the marital relationship’ and in which the household economy and ethic are focused on providing new ‘luxurious necessities’ (computers, Coca-cola, modern furniture, brand name clothes and shoes) and an enculturation into their use to a smaller number of children, exemplifies this stereotype. Conversely, being reproductively backward is equated with irrational and instinctual ‘reproductive efflorescence’, characterized by a large family unit, in which women are prone to making reproductive ‘mistakes’ by having unplanned or unwanted pregnancies. In this stereotype, even if the outward markers of modernity are acquired, the right patterns of consumption do not accompany them. Hence, women’s decision to limit or not to limit the family size becomes embedded in a larger web of family planning and consumerist decisions. Kanaaneh notes that the effects of these decisions and the reproductive ranking associated with them are also felt in tangible ways when applying for a job, conducting business, seeking marriage alliances, and in the treatment of one’s children at school by their teachers.

The collective identity of Palestinians is judged as being backward ‘failed objects of reproductive modernization’ in the official Israeli discourse. Yet ironically, Palestinians too appropriate parts of this dominant discourse to define themselves in terms of their fertility, using reproductive control as a sign of modernity, or alternatively in their counter-discourse using a large family perspective as a mark of Arab authenticity. This reproductive framework imbues not just their strategies to subvert Israeli domination, but also negotiations of their identity vis-à-vis the internally varied avenues to wealth or power that exist in diverse Galilee, such as city-village-Bedouin, clans, and religion (Christians, Druze and Muslims).

Kanaaneh captures this inherent dialectic in identity politics – that of resistance mimicking power – particularly well in her representation of the Palestinian strategy of ‘nationalist framing of reproduction.’ Produced in part as an opposition to state population policies and Israeli attempts to ‘Judaize the Galilee,’ she notes that the ‘nationalist framing of reproduction’ also becomes an important component of family planning and reproductive decisions in Galilee. In this strategy, women are cast in the role of mothers of the nation and their bodies ‘inscribed as a locus for nationalist contest.’ Their bearing of ‘Palestinian’ children comes to be perceived as the ‘right thing to do’ for one’s community and nation. Uniquely, in this context Palestinians use both the large family and small family perspectives to justify their resistance to state, the former in terms of a competition of numbers, and the latter in terms of resisting with ‘quality’- producing fewer, but better educated children, an equal challenge to Israeli domination.

As a critique of the development literature that depicts Third World women as passive victims of globalization and modernization, and as instinctual, ‘ignorant and irrational’ beings with regard to control over their sexuality and reproduction, Birthing the Nation provides a vital voice for the strategic meaning women (and men) ascribe to the reproductive decisions by which they make sense of themselves in relation to others, and the changing world around them. The centrality of reproduction in Kanaaneh’s argument, though, constrains her exploration into women’s motivations to negotiate their personal and collective identities in ways other than as mothers or wives, even in instances where her examples demonstrate their active engagement in extra domestic spheres, and depict them as ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’ beings in their consumption patterns and reproductive choices.

Theoretically rich, Kanaaneh’s work is an important addition to feminist literature as it expands the definition of gender by highlighting the role of reproduction in the negotiations of cultural identity, and by situating it in the national and economic context. Birthing the Nation is an excellent book for graduate students interested in a feminist and anthropological inquiry of identity politics and the politics of reproduction, as well as for scholars of the Middle East.

*Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, p. 2, and quoted on p.1 of Birthing the Nation: Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel.

A social anthropologist, Anuradha Saxena conducted her doctoral research in Colombia on the dissonance between the ideology of gender and its practice, and the contexts that allow women and men to negotiate the gender terrain in their daily life. While there, she was actively involved with local NGO’s and community projects, an interest that continues to guide her projects as a consultant to international and local non-profits in the Bay Area.

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