The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Dwelling Within Political Violence: Palestinian Women's Narratives of Home, Violence, and Well-Being

Saturday, January 18, 2014: 4:30 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 002B River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Cindy Sousa, PhD, MSW, MPH, Assistant Professor, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA
Susan P. Kemp, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Mona el-Zuhairi, MA, Researcher Assistant, Palestinian Medical Relief Society, Ramallah, Palestine
Marah Hriesh, Research Assistant, Palestinian Medical Relief Society, Ramallah, Palestine
Purpose:  Modern warfare erases longstanding boundaries between the “war front” and the “home front.” Invasions and occupations routinely involve civilian environments, including family homes, which are subject to raids, surveillance, and demolitions. Globally, almost 90% of the victims of political violence are civilians, mostly women and children (United Nations, 2005). Almost half of civilians exposed to political violence experience PTSD, depression, or anxiety (WHO, 2002). Research on political violence links home violations with anxiety, depression, and poor subjective health (Giacaman, 2007; Qouta,1998). However, we have yet to understand fully “what it means to dwell within the context of warfare” (Brickell, 2012), particularly for women. Taking up this under-examined question, we used data from focus groups with women in Palestine to explore women’s experiences of political violence enacted within domestic geographies of home and place. Interpretations were informed by Giddens’ (1990) concept of ontological security; by research on the implications of threats to everyday environments while residents are in situ (e.g. Albrecht, 2007); and by feminist scholarship on gender and home.

Methods:Five focus groups were conducted in 2008 with women in Palestine (N=32) recruited by staff of a Palestinian healthcare NGO as part of an IRB-approved collaborative study between the NGO and a US university. The groups were co-facilitated in Arabic; women were asked about experiences within, effects of, and responses to political violence. Translation followed a multi-step process; two translations were provided and discrepancies discussed and collaboratively resolved. Transcripts were analyzed thematically. Initial coding was done line by line, and a coding matrix was constructed. Mind-mapping software was used to create “thematic network” displays to explore and refine codes and to build broad thematic categories.  To track analytic decisions, provide a reflexive process, and explore counterfactuals, procedures included memo writing and peer auditing with US university-based qualitative researchers.

Results: Threats to the privacy, control, and constancy of family homes – key dimensions of ontological security – emerged as central themes in women’s narratives. Chronic experiences of surveillance, invasions (including disruption and control of inhabitants and material objects), and actual or threatened demolitions of women’s intimate home environments provoked powerful feelings of humiliation, fear, grief, and anxiety. A source of particular distress for women who were mothers was feeling unable to physically or emotionally protect their children during assaults on the home. Yet a counter-theme also emerged, illuminating the ways in which women resiliently find ways to support and maintain their families and homes despite massive disruptions. 

Conclusions and Implications: Study findings underscore the salience of place violations in women’s experiences of political violence, and the important role of intimate environments in ontological security and consequent well-being among individuals and families. This study thus adds a new dimension to research on political violence and women's  health. Although more research is needed to fully understand the implications of women’s “psycho-geographical” experiences in the context of chronic war and conflict, findings illustrate the importance of attention to violations of place and home in practice with women experiencing political violence.