Empire, gender and labour: women workers on archaeological excavations in Late Ottoman Palestine

In almost all historiography of pre-Mandate Palestine, the majority of the population, the peasantry, are a silent presence: this is doubly true of peasant women. Occasionally depicted rebelling against taxes or suffering from drought, they remain voiceless, the patterns of everyday life implicitly understood to be unvaryingly arduous. In Orientalist writings they are seen as the ragged, static relics of Biblical glories; occasionally when economic histories acknowledge (e.g.) the integration of Palestine into international cotton markets under Daher al-'Umar (1690-1775) we occasionally glimpse a peasant population with links and interests beyond their villages.

This paper challenges the assumptions of Orientalist and urban-centred depictions of Palestinian peasant life, and the tendency of scholars of Palestine to assume that there is no way that we might recover something of the voices of an illiterate peasant body. Gayatri Spivak alerts us to the colonial, racial and gendered ways in which the subaltern is silenced, but I argue that by reading against the grain of certain documents it is, in fact, possible to piece together a richer, more granular account of the lives of Palestinian women. Using daybooks, letters, administrative papers and other materials from European archaeological excavations in Late Ottoman Palestine, which include records ranging from rates of pay and absences, to on-site marriages and conflicts, a picture emerges of peasant women possessed of agency and energy, negotiating gendered economic and social roles. In doing so, I argue both for a changed image of the lives of pre-WWI Palestinian peasant women, and a reconsideration of the sources and methods available to study them.

Dr Sarah Irving, Lnu, Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies

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