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Orly Benjamin and Sarit Sambol

Surviving Spatial Oppressions Over Time:
Israeli Working Poor Women's Glocalized Resistance


Moghadam (2004) describes the process through which feminism became a transnational movement exploiting globalization both for international transmission of women's rights legislation and policies (Berkowitz, 2002) and for the spreading of feminist NGO's and the forms of resistance which they facilitate. Thus, forms of feminism often embed the journey they traveled: a global structure of action, a local symbolic and cultural specificity and the glocal nature that had developed from the encounter of these two. Economic empowerment workshops is a form of traveling feminism which existed in various forms of feminist banking and micro-financing since the early 80's mainly in the USA and in the Third world: areas where NGO's attempt to replace consistent failure of governments to apply decommodification either through welfare or through the labor market.
Up until 1985, the year in which globalization was formally adopted through a vast economic reform, decommodification was central to Israeli employment arrangement and welfare policies alike. Thus, poverty takes a local form to which growing gaps is central but some access to social rights, still exists. Among the citizens, Israeli-Palestinians, benefit of the most limited access to social rights. Immigrants from Arab countries (Mizrahi) and their children and sometimes grandchildren, follow them in their limited access to social rights. And finally, immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, are often trapped in poverty while making efforts to enter the local labor market with its current neo-liberal non-standard shape. Further, those living in the periphery of the country in what is called development towns, as those in slam neighborhoods, face limited opportunity structures. Women in these categories, both, primary and secondary providers, bear the scars of their spatial oppressions, those shaped in the context of immigration and the national conflict, in their biographies.
The feminist movement in Israel have rarely managed to recruit members among these categories. The indigenous feminism have been mostly indifferent to issues of poverty and working conditions focusing rather on equality, violence against women and sexual harassment. Consequently, the Feminist movement in Israel had found itself trapped in small circles. Several organizations benefited of a relatively homogeneous composition which meant that Israeli feminists had found it difficult to cross boundaries of ethnic, religious, political, class and national identities.
The economic empowerment workshop is unique in that respect. It really managed to get in touch with underprivileged women who are rarely seen in feminist activities and gatherings. Interestingly enough, the hybridic form of feminism which is practiced by the economic empowerment organization maintains a complex relationship with feminism as a world view. The first interpretation that we raise in our discussion is that we failed to trace the foot prints of a feminist discourse in our interviewees' ways of talking. In no case we encountered in our analysis a feminist slogan or statement. The footprints that we did encounter are those of the self-development individual growth discourse together with individualistic understandings of one's own responsibility for poverty. This finding is consistent with existing feminist criticism of micro-finance programs.
Traveling forms of feminism in our case, produced hybridic cultural formations of indigenous feminism which could easily live side by side with local neo-liberal discourses. Hence, the resistance we traced left social structures and their relevant ways of shaping biographies outside the ongoing discussion along the workshop. The economic empowerment workshop became a feminist project of the hybridic type of being directed at women working together to resist their economic faith. Clearly, it had been localized by an enhanced spirit of women supporting each other. However, in its encounter with local multi-generational forms of power and poverty those which survived over time and political changes, this feminist project lost some of its global spirit. Particularly the move between individual working alone to collectives working together, was dismissed. Rather than encouraging women to enter collaborations with other women, the program is designed to encourage individual projects. Other, separate feminist projects, targeted recently and generating cooperatives of working women for example for cleaners and for food catering, but the economic empowerment organization didn't undertake to develop ways of adopting this specific challenge to local power structures. In this sense, local mechanisms of isolation were left unchallenged.
Following Bettina Aptheker's (1989) view we found in our interviews stories of resistance that were scattered along women's life stories. Resisting local authorities aiming at separating them from their children repeatedly emerged. Smuggling under conditions of scarcity was described my one interviewee and a few described forms of political activism. This clarified the extent to which resistance is always relative to the tools and resources women have available" (1989: 180). The economic empowerment workshop's strength however, was facilitating the accumulation on interactional and individual resources. It supported participants' ability to tackle the internalized fears of being and acting themselves. In enabling women, to meet each other, to tell each other their stories of resistance as well as sharing their fears and inner doubts, these women were able to resist the power of isolation. In this sense too, Aptheker's view sheds light on women's struggles vis a vis the power structures that shape their lives.
We found that women's resistance has been "about creating the conditions necessary for life, and it is about women expanding the limits of the restrictions imposed upon them" (169: 1989). If isolation is a restriction that is imposed on poor women, then resisting isolation has a political significance which challenges the disparity between the personal and the political of resistance. Following Aptheker's view we raised an empirical question: to what extent traveling forms of feminism are able to maintain their commitment to women working together, vis a vis spatial and temporal oppressions? Unfortunately, it emerged that the temporal dimension of women working together is central to the understanding of the workshop's ability to facilitate resistance of spatial oppressions. Our interviewees clarified in their account the enormous surge of energies and positive empowering ways of thinking which they had experienced in the primary stages of meeting with the other women. A powerful spirit of women working together was remembered by the participants. However, the temporal dimension was more powerful in that once the workshop was over, women hardly remembered, could hardly connect to this spirit and were unable to draw power for themselves from it. In this sense, it seemed to us that maintaining additional aspects of feminist action could nurture a wider ranger of resistance practices. Namely, the specific blend between the global and local feminism which was generated by the economic empowerment organization would benefit of encouraging participants to join and become active members in a local organization that would have had a continuous nature. One that would escape the temporal fragmentation of experience that had happened under the structure of 20 meetings that, naturally, stopped occurring after a while. Local forces of isolation were thus combated only for those women who maintained relationships with women whom had gone through the workshop with them. Either in their community activities or on the level of friendly interaction, such relationship continued to enable women's resistance primarily in ways of talking and thinking. Others, for whom such temporal continuity was not maintained, could vaguely remember what was there that felt so good.
Focusing on women's resistance which emerged in our interviews, we attempted at clarifying the spatial and temporal dimensions of agency and resistance. The spatial dimension refers to the ongoing negotiation which consolidates our identity within the specific localities in which we operate. Our interviews told various stories which reflected their on going negotiation with authorities and family members. Their negotiation with others was primarily aimed at reducing the prices of poverty to a minimum for their children and for themselves. The temporal dimension refers to the potential process through which we are able to accumulate knowledge, develop awareness and undergo transformations in terms of our daily behavior, thought and talk. We found that several of the women's stories reflected this temporal development particularly in their rejecting of poverty related shame and lack of confidence. The temporal dimension was also important in reflecting the widening of social circles and activities. Both the spatial and temporal dimension were crucial for the reinforced possibility to reject hegemonic frameworks of meaning and resist them. Thus, we argue that the economic empowerment workshop facilitated resistance as part of a resisting chain which is central to women working together. This form of resistance cannot be understood as either personal or political. Neither it can be understood as either global or local. It is a relational resistance and at time, if the chain of resistance persists, it may even posit a challenge to institutional, interactional or individual mechanisms reproducing hegemony.