Captive Revolution

Former detainee Nahlo Abdo’s meticulous study reveals the hidden voices of Palestinian female political prisoners. Review by Ellen Graubart

Captive Revolution

Nahlo Abdo, Captive Revolution: Palestinian women’s anti-colonial struggle within the Israeli prison system (Pluto 2014), 264pp.

Nahlo Abdo shines a bright light on the invisible struggles of Palestinian women, the important part they have played in the Palestinian people’s fight against the occupation, and the cruel treatment the Israeli state has imposed on them. In her meticulously researched study Abdo reveals the hidden voices, stories, and histories of many Palestinian female political detainees, while at the same time raising international awareness of the plight of over five thousand Palestinian political prisoners who have suffered and continue to suffer torture and inhumane treatment in Israeli prisons.

By reflecting on and sharing her own detention experiences with female political detainees, she enabled them to speak openly and frankly in a situation free from the constraints of a power relationship between researcher and researched. Some of the discussions, especially stories related to sexual torture, required very sensitive approaches to elicit deep and valued personal information (p.2).

Abdo reaffirms the international character of female militant fighters and their experiences, both as fighters in outside society and in prison, as political detainees (ch.1). She also establishes the strong relationship between colonialism and imperialism as forms of oppression and women’s resistance to them. A common theme in all states is the presence of women who challenge, defy and resist the state.

Female political prisoners and international politics

The discussions with Palestinian women who were political detainees served several objectives, one of which was to highlight the significance of the global anti-colonial struggle that occurred during the three decades between the 1960s and 1980s and the important role that women played in resistance movements. During those three decades there was a high level of resistance to oppression world-wide by women, as the global atmosphere was conducive to political resistance as a right of the colonized or occupied.

Resistance was not limited to countries in the ‘Third World’ such as Latin America, Africa, and in Arab countries: women in Northern Ireland also joined in the struggle for national liberation and many women in the USA were involved in the civil rights movement (p.23). Although this was a time when the international community sanctioned national struggles for liberty (UN), the US resisted, fought and imprisoned freedom fighters, considering liberation struggles as terrorist and violent, while masking a much worse form of violence: state violence (ch.2).

The Palestinian women’s struggle also emerged during this period, as they recognized that they had common cause with other people living under repressive regimes; but although Third World countries were successful in ridding themselves of colonialism, when the British left Palestine in 1948, they were replaced by another settler regime – Israel’ (p.43).

Israel as a racist and colonial state

Abdo defines the Israeli state as settler-colonial racist, as it employs all the devices of racialization against its indigenous Palestinian population, which it considers a ‘demographic threat’ (p.14). Israel uses ‘military occupation, a racist legal system which includes the Law of Return, the Absentees’ Property Law, the Jewish National Fund Law and the law of agricultural settlement which bars the selling, leasing and owning of land by ‘non-Jews’ namely Palestinians’to subjugatethe Palestinian people (p.14).

Global complicity with Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians

There is a high degree of complicity with the violence of the Israeli state in the US, Europe and various Arab countries, and this is shared by the UN in its refusal to side with the victims of Israeli colonialism:

‘In February 2012, the UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon made a visit to Gaza. At the Beit Hanoun (Erez) checkpoint, he was met by a large number of women and other family members of political detainees in Israeli prisons; they came to meet with him and plead to intervene on behalf of their family members who were undergoing torture there. Ban Ki-moon refused to meet with them or listen to their pleas’ (p.124).

With the support of the West, Israel has expanded territorial control over the rest of Palestine as well as parts of other Arab territories in Syria, Egypt and Jordan (p.44). It continues to destroy Palestinian houses, stealing their land and building illegal settlements for Jews only.

After 9/11

The September 2001 attacks on the twin towers, and particularly the American imperialist onslaught on Iraq, changed the atmosphere in which political resistance could be expressed: the ‘war on terror’ began, and from then on resistance became terrorism, and democracy, dictatorship; the allies of the US became the ‘good’ and the critics of the US, the ‘bad’. This mentality permeated the general consciousness, including that of the victims of colonialism and occupation (p.71). 

The over whelming control of neo-liberal imperialism, which Abdo argues is simply a continuation of the ‘old imperialism’, was instrumental in silencing popular revolts and uprisings, especially against global organisations such as the World Bank, the WTO and the IMF (p.43). Since 2011 the suppression of political dissent by the establishment has resulted in the formation of other kinds of resistance such as the Occupy Movement.

Hidden history: Orientalism

Abdo’s discussions brought to light the important role that women have played in anti-colonial movements in revealing the relatively hidden history of their resistance activity in various parts of world.  They also revealed common and similar experiences shared with other women around world; for example the United States’ criminalization of the anti-colonial struggle resulting in the criminalization of individual women prisoners – whom they treated as terrorists.

There is a shocking absence of literature or interest in the subject of female political prisoners, elsewhere, either from academic or feminist institutions. This is in spite of the progressive leanings of such groups, who nonetheless often share a neoliberal/imperialist patriarchal ideology of Western Orientalism, Abdo argues, which depicts Palestinian women generally as ‘un-educated, anti-democratic and over-oppressed by their own culture and religion’ ( page reference intro. final para). Moreover, female Palestinian freedom fighters are treated as ‘terrorists, as ill-educated, as a burden on their families, and as women who committed shameful acts’. Even the ‘so-called’ suicide bombings are represented as being simply attempts to ‘cleanse the family name’ (p.132):

‘From Robin Morgan’s initial writing on freedom fighter Leila Khaled to Andrea Dworkin’s and her likes among Israeli and US imperialist feminists, Palestinian women’s freedom fighters have been depicted as terrorists, villains and lacking any agency. It is regrettable that feminism, which is supposed to work for and defend any and all forms of oppression against women, instead of doing its job, allies itself with the state and with imperialism and stands against some women’ (p.209).

All of the women interviewed by Abdo had strong personalities, were proud of themselves, cherished education and self-empowerment and were highly active in political sphere. Their decision to join the political struggle had been an independent one. All had close family and were respected by their community (p.128).

On the subject of suicide bombing, Itaf, who was not the only oneto express these feelings, had this to say:

‘We never, ever deliberately targeted civilians in our resistance. I never in my life thought of killing, nor at the time did I develop a clear vision or idea about the implications of my acts. All I was concerned with was executing my mission … All that occupied my thinking at the time was that Israel was occupying us, dehumanizingand killing us daily’ (p.135).

The women, all of whom had been arrested on charges related to organization and armed struggle, described themselves as mundelat, meaning freedom fighters. They had joined the resistance because they wanted to live on their own land in freedom, without occupation and oppression (p.128).

Women in prison

The study has revealed the extent to which the state through the prison institution attempts to control women. Palestinian female political detainees – as well as their male counterparts – confronted all kinds of physical torture, including beatings, black hooding and manacling, being forced to stand many hours at a time over several days. Other tactics included making female detainees watch male detainees being tortured in order to frighten and force them to collaborate. The women’s stories affirm the high degree of resilience and resistance shown by the women to their treatment by prison authorities, in spite of the violence dealt out to them, whether it was physical, mental, or psychological in nature, or involved sexual harassment or torture (chs. 4 and 5).

In one case the women‘turned the prison into a school, a university or an “academy” … producing more educated women and preparing them for a better future when released’ (p.210).They alsoheld discussion groups and reading sessions on subjects ranging from world politics to issues of resistance and organization, to social gender issues (pp.210-11).

Criminalization and the use of women’s bodies

Abdo argues that state patriarchy targets women’s bodies and sexuality differently from men, and controlling them becomes a means for controlling society: sexual harassment and rape are used to deter women from participating in struggle. Abdo demonstrates a shared character of all colonial, settler-colonial, or imperialist states, including Israel, as involving the ‘criminalization of political resistance and the use of sexuality and women’s bodies as an instrument of torture’ (p.3).

In chapter four, she discusses the experiences of individual Palestinian women as political detainees in Israeli detention camps and prisons, focussing on the cruel treatment they received at the hands of the prison officials, including the targeting of the women’s bodies as a primary goal, inflicting great harm in order to force them to submit. However, this use of women’s bodies as a site of oppression has not had the effect of subjugating them, nor has it been able to silence them. In chapters four and five, she demonstrates in detail the women’s own use of the sexualization of their bodies in challenging and resisting victimization by prison authorities. In response to prison tactics, the women ‘turned their bodies into a site of resistance, demonstrating to the occupier that they were aware of the former’s tactics and that they were willing to challenge and defy them’ (p211).

Women in prison can be more effective and powerful than outside in society:

‘I was aware of their means of torture, especially sexual torture. At the age of 17, I read Lea Tsemel’s book on the torture of Palestinian political detainees in Israeli prisons. I was also aware of the fact that they intentionally emphasized their use of sexual threats against us women, knowing we Arabs consider women’s sexuality a taboo. One of the interrogators sat me on a chair, opened my legs and put his legs between mine. He used to hold my hand in a sexual way. I never submitted and every time showed him he could not scare me(Iman, p.169).

Rich culture of the Palestinian people

The cultural dimension to resistance in the form of the spoken word is shared by people all over globe. Palestinian women as freedom fighters who participated in the discussions were familiar with international resistance culture, which they had read and studied. The Palestinians’ long history of national and anti-colonial resistance, beginning in the 1920s, has produced their own rich culture of poetry, music and stories. This culture has played a vital role in the Palestinian women’s commitment to the struggle against colonialist oppression, including involvement in the armed struggle (ch.3).

Most of the women interviewed were greatly influenced by Palestinian political and resistance culture, especially by the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and Tawfiq Zayyad. Ameena needed to ‘let the world know the just cause of liberating Palestine’, echoing Tawfiq Zayyad’s poem Faltasma’s Kulled-Dunia Fultasma’a in which he wrote:

‘Let the whole world hear

 We shall starve, go naked, be sliced into pieces

 But we shall never submit’ (Tawfiq Zayyad, p.134)

 It was the same for Itaf, who on the way to the court for her trial was chanting:

 ‘namoot waqifeen wa-la narka’s ma ddam lana fiflun yarda’s

[We shall die standing tall, and will never surrender] (Tawfiq Zayyad, p.134)


After summarizing the points covered in her extensive study, Abdo concludes with a final paragraph referring to the many disappointments the women suffered on leaving prison: they still had to endure occupation, colonialism and the expanding of Israeli settler colonial policies. The combination of the patriarchal structure of the Palestinian Authority – prioritizing men in general and male ex-political prisoners in particular – and the inability of the ‘free’ society outside to accommodate them, made it difficult for them to find jobs. Many of them went to live in exile other countries.

In her afterword she lifts the tone to a more optimistic level, in describing a week-long festival in 2013, celebrating Arab women who were involved in the anti-colonial armed struggle in their countries:

‘The message in this celebration, similar to the message of this book, became very clear: women’s revolutionary history, their history of struggle and resistance, no matter how much these women and their roles are silenced and removed from official history, it remains a constituent part of their people’s liberation and independence’ (p.212).

Ellen Graubart

Ellen Graubart was born in India of American parents and came to London from Virginia as a teenager to study art. She lives and works as an artist in Hackney. She is a member of Counterfire, Stop the War and Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign.