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Women’s Work, Political Violence, and Palestinian Embroidery: Between Precarity and Cultural Continuity
Embroidered products, particularly embroidered gowns, are a significant cultural artifact for Palestinians in historic Palestine and the diaspora. Embroidery serves as material expression of Palestinian experience, history, and identity. It serves multiple purposes: a source of economic self-sustenance, creates an invisible (ironically through vibrant and colorful materials) historical and cultural connection shared by Palestinians across the world, and enables cultural preservation and cultural continuity in the face of settler colonialism, erasure, fragmentation, and dispossession. This paper builds on the established literature on the political economy of Palestine (Tartir, Dana, and Seidel 2021, Turner and Shweiki 2015) and explores the ways in which Palestinian women use embroidery to support their families while living under the political violence produced by Israeli settler colonialism and occupation that on the one hand, restricts their freedom of movement and access to employment, and on the other hand, prevents them from having a stable sovereignty that can produce laws and regulations to protect its citizens. Through interviews and participant observation, I have discovered that these women are embroidering the very cultural materials that hold up a nation and a fragmented people. The women who embroider the pieces that carry Palestine all over the world work at home and silently, but their work is the backbone of Palestinian culture and heritage. This reinscribes the traditional role of women as the preservers of culture, but paradoxically it is also an act of resistance since it ensures the cultural continuity of Palestinians. However, they experience a certain level of precarity because they not only experience Israeli political violence, but they also operate in an unregulated and saturated market with no protections, often receiving low payment for the painstaking work they do. Development agencies, particularly Palestinian charity organizations, have dedicated embroidery units and sell products to raise funding for their activities, but women say they do not pay enough given the amount of work it takes to produce a product. For example, an embroidered gown, or thob, can take two to four months to finish. However, embroiderers are between a hard place and rock because it is more difficult to work on one’s own and working for an organization provides more of a guarantee of steady income (low as it may be).
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