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Ferdoos Alissa,
Assistant Professor, Bethlehem University, Palestinian Territory

Women between political and social violence in the context of settler colonialism: A Social Work Perspective.

Social work has ethical standards that aim to enhance well-being and promote change in the social and political structures that oppress and cause injustice to the most vulnerable groups. In some contexts, where justice is absent, the goals of social work are minimized to individual intervention, humanitarian aid, services, and crisis intervention. The focus becomes on alleviating the symptoms of oppression rather than changing the social and political structures that produce injustice.

For over 74 years, Palestine has been under a settler colonial regime combined with continuous waves of violence, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of men and women being abused by the aforementioned regime. Women were the most affected party by systematic colonial policies. They were subject to direct oppression and discrimination, including imprisonment, killing, and sexual abuse (Alissa & Beck, 2020). Furthermore, and further increasing the discrimination against women, the colonizers empowered the patriarchal structure of the society, which already discriminated against women.

Under these multiple layers of oppression against Palestinian women, social workers confront an ethical dilemma regarding which discourse to adopt: the liberation discourse to dismantle the oppression's political and social structure or the limited role of individual interventions or services that will not actively contribute to the steadfastness of women and society. This paper deals with three key issues: 1) The history of colonial violence, including sexual violence against women in Palestine; 2) The colonial structure and its role in strengthening the patriarchal structure as a form of feminist oppression; 3) Social work as a liberation discourse and practice.

History of colonial violence, including sexual violence against Palestinian women

Since the Nakba in 1948, women have been targeted by all forms of violence, including medical neglect torture, detention, and sexual violence (Shalhoub-Kevorkian, et al.2014). In 1967, the rest of Palestinian land was occupied, and since then, 16 thousand women have been detained and tortured. In 2015, 200 women were detained (Al-Araby al-Jaded, 2020). Currently, there are 23 women detained in Israeli prisons, including a girl who has not reached the age of 18 (Addameer Foundation for Prisoner Care and Human Rights, 2022). Rape and sexual violence are considered core components of the ideology of Israeli settlers. Based on this ideology, they considered women of "others" (non-Israel’s) available for their men, which permitted them to commit sexual crimes against Palestinian women during and after the Nakba.

Amnesty International reported the story of a 24-year-old woman from the Nablus area who was forced to strip naked on the main street while still giving birth after soldiers from the Hawara checkpoint near the city of Nablus on the northern side of the West Bank killed her husband and wounded her father-in-law. Ms. Maysoon, the women in question, says that what makes the experience even more difficult is the humiliation she felt when the Israeli soldiers forced her to strip naked in front of passersby and her father-in-law.

Another example of the policy of controlling the life and death of Palestinians is the detaining of the dead body of the persons who were killed during resistance actions by the Israelis, whether they are men or women. Occupation forces often detain their bodies either in refrigerators or in a particular cemetery called the "cemetery of numbers" often until the completion of the period of "administrative detention." This act prevents family members from having normal mourning for the loss of loved ones.

These methods are meant to punish Palestinians even after their deaths and to collectively punish their families. Daher-Nashif (2016) argued that Israel uses necropolitics and biopolitics to control the death and life of Palestinians. The colonizer determines when, where, and how the colonized dies.

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image: alaraby.co.uk

The settler colonial regime empowered the patriarchal structure in Palestinian society

Using collective measures of oppression against the entire Palestinian society reproduces waves of social and familial violence by imposing systematic political violence against husbands, fathers, and brothers. The kinds of violence include arrest, torture, and denial of free movement to reach the workplace. This causes frustration that manifests as social and familial violence, in which women are the most vulnerable group to the effects of this violence due to the patriarchal structure of society. This empowerment of the patriarchal structure of society by the regime increases the discrimination against women (Abu Bakr, Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Oweida, & Dabit, 2004). On the other hand,Seniora (2003) mentioned other ways of maintaining the patriarchal structure of society. She refers to Israel's exploitation of the prevailing concepts of gender and honor in society to oppress Palestinian women and their political activity, causing them social isolation and social ostracism. In the eighties of the last century, the bodies of Palestinian women were exploited to create collaborators with the occupation to suppress the Intifada and resistance and to create a state of distrust and suspicion among the resistance fighters, not to mention the shame that befalls the collaborators and their families.

Furthermore, the occupation promoted the idea that the motives behind Palestinian women's involvement in resisting the occupation are to escape social pressure and wash away their shame for committing a sexual act. Najem (2011) showed that the negative view of women subjected to arrest led to the suffering of the captive women from poor economic conditions and prevented them from obtaining a job, which exacerbated their social and economic problems.Borrowing from Frantz Fanon, "violence within colonial societies increases as the violence of the colonizers' increases, and the two forms of violence overlap, balance, and share, which makes it difficult to separate them, just as in our Palestinian reality, where the overlap between colonial political violence and social violence is so continuous that it is impossible to separate them."

Social work as a liberation discourse and practice

From the beginning of the occupation in Palestine and during the two uprisings (Intifada) until today, social workers have reacted to renewed waves of political violence by adopting a crisis management intervention model. They mostly provide psychosocial support on an individual and group basis. This approach was criticized by a group of social workers and other mental health practitioners due to the limitations of this role. They argued that the ethical standards of social work aim to enhance well-being, promote social justice, and enable the steadfastness of societies suffering from oppression.

Additionally, some Palestinian feminist social workers reviewed the theories and practices of their domain critically. They argued that social workers should adopt the discourse of liberating the oppressed and to meet the aims and ethical standards of social work (Shalhop-Kovirkian, Wahba, & Alissa, 2022). This discourse means that social workers and social work institutions should view women's social liberation as part of Palestine's national liberation.

Also, liberating social work has more challenges due to the lack of emancipatory-oriented educational curricula, as most curricula have a Western source. As for intervention models and direct practices, they are also often culturally insensitive, so they meet with societal rejection, especially some programs that tackle feminist issues.

One example relates to the initiative taken by some women's institutions. They drafted the family protection laws 15 years ago. So far, the law has not been approved by successive Palestinian governments, which has exacerbated the crimes of social violence and honor killings due to the absence of legal deterrence. This proposal was met with numerous criticisms because it was not implemented due to a lack of societal referendum or collective societal debate, making it easy to dismiss and accuse it of being a Western product or violating Islamic law (Shareea).


In a settler colonial context, such as in Palestine, multiple levels of political violence led to social oppression against women. Social work should consider adopting a critical and liberating discourse that admits the right of oppressed people to dismantle the colonial regime and patriarchal structure of society. To achieve this, social workers and feminist movements worldwide should provide support and solidarity. Furthermore, different actors, including social workers, social work institutions, and academics, should consider the uniqueness of the Palestinian context, which will prevent conflicts with the customs and values of the society to avoided been rejected. This must be done to enhance the capacity and impact of social work in this context rather than abandon its fundamental principles and ethical values.

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