Palestinian Women’s Resistance Movements: Past and Present

By Joanna Abdulhamid

In histories and narratives on Palestine beginning in the late 20th century, women are said to have played a large and successful role within the first intifada. Proponents of this belief in the mass political mobilization of women are among the harshest critics of today’s “NGOization” of the Palestinian women’s movement (Abdo 2010:239), which began after the first intifada. The debate between those who believe in the good work current NGOs are doing within the Occupied Palestinian Territories and those who long for the political mobilization of the past represents one of the largest themes among scholars invested in the status of women in Palestine. Using Foucault’s notion of governmentality, I argue that these two seemingly opposite movements in fact share some common characteristics. In constructing women’s agency, including political agency, differently, each movement also works to constrain women’s identities and freedoms. After outlining the use of governmentality and its applicability in the current case, I analyze each movement in turn to show how they result in constraints and limitations on women’s identities and agency. Following this, a brief look at the ways which NGOs construct alternative ways of resistance; this will give some insight into ways this seemingly dead-end can carry forward and allow for a continuation of the fight against all forms of violence and repression.

Defined by Tania Li, governmentality “is the attempt to shape human conduct by calculated means” (Li 2007:1). In his essay on governmentality and development, Michael Watts conceives of govermentality as: “… the emergence of particular regimes of truth concerning the conduct of conduct, the ways of speaking truth, persons authorized to speak truth…of the invention and assemblage of particular apparatuses for exercising power…they are concerned with the conditions of possibility and intelligibility for ways of seeking to act upon the conduct of others” (Watts 2003:9). It is important to note that the aim of these structures and processes is not one absolute goal but a “whole series of specific finalities” (Li 2007:2) which are to be achieved through “multiform tactics” (Li 2007:2). In understanding both the political mobilization during the first intifada, as well as the more recent proliferation of NGO’s as structures and dynamic processes which aim to achieve a set of goals, the framework of governmentality can be applied. Furthermore in each movement’s construction of regimes of truth they prescribe certain conducts, outline certain ways of speaking the truth, and uphold certain representatives which are authorized to speak these truths. These processes result in the selective shaping of women’s identities and a constrain of their agency.

Critiques of the NGO model of action today are often embedded within a romanticization of the previous nationalist political movement, particularly, the first intifada. Without doubt, Palestinian women played large and important role in sparking and mobilizing the intifada, which started in 1987 and lasted until 1993 with the beginning of the Oslo Accords (Amireh 2012:438). Women were an integral part in mobilizing peasants and other women in the resistance movement, largely defined by civil disobedience (Amireh 2012:438). They also organized consciousness-raising campaigns, and literacy campaigns which were instrumental in strategizing national boycotts of Israeli products. Utors, which were the women’s sections of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) extended services to remote villages and refugee camps, helping to politicize women and provide alternatives to traditional women’s organization characterized by charitable associations of upper class women (Abdo 1999:44-42). However, the transformational effect this had on Palestinian society and institutions has largely been exaggerated (Amireh 2012:439). The widespread mobilization of women happened almost completely within prescribed gender ideology (Amireh 2012:439), and did not challenge the patriarchy embedded in the nationalist movement or its parties, including the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU), one of the primary local coalitions. A “prioritization paradigm” (Amireh 2012:438) characterized both the broader secular nationalist movement, as well as the women’s movement which worked within and alongside it. This paradigm meant the goal of national liberation was of the highest priority, and any other oppressions and resistances were largely characterized as “social” issues which would be resolved once or after national liberation was achieved (Amireh 2012:438). This paradigm and its actors worked as governmentality does, to construct certain knowledge and truths with the purpose of shaping the conduct of Palestinians, including women. The result is a constraint on the freedoms and rights of women and a denial of integral parts of their identities.

A closer look at events and moments of the first intifada illustrate how despite widespread participation of women, it was a movement still rooted in patriarchy. In the 1970s in Gaza the rise of the Mujama al-Islami as well as other Islamist groups resulted in increased social pressure on women to don the hijab to cover their heads (Hammami 1990:25). It is important to note here that up until this time there was a wide variation among Gazan women regarding religious wear and the hijab’s use or non-use depended on class, regional background and age, among other things (Hammami 1990:24-25). During the first intifada, this social pressure turned into an active campaign to force women to wear the hijab (Hammami 1990:25). Islamist groups campaigned to give the hijab new meanings, ascribing it political and nationalist values and asserting that women who did not cover their heads were anti-nationalist (Hammami 1990:26). This construction took multiple forms. One was that occupying soldiers would not kill women wearing the hijab (Hammami 1990:26). As the occupation dragged on, and by the time of the intifada, it was clear that soldiers had begun not to discriminate on whom they killed based on gender, and women wearing a hijab were no less of a target; indeed women activists who resisted wearing the hijab were made more of a target for occupying forces as they could identify them as such (Hammami 1990:26).  The campaign for the hijab escalated into violence as verbal assaults as well as stones were thrown at uncovered women in public by young groups of men either actively a part of the Islamist parties or not (Hammami 1990:26). By 1988, only one year into the intifada, it had become almost impossible in Gaza for women to walk in public without some form of head covering (Hammami 1990:25). Another argument purported throughout the campaign was that women who were killed by soldiers while covered would not bring shame upon their families; political crimes against women being transformed into sexual ones (Hammami 1990:26) is a noticeable trend throughout the intifada and the nationalist movement.

The UNLU waited a year and a half to finally respond to the violent hijab campaign, much to the frustration and dismay of many women and activists (Hammami 1990:24). In their issue of bayan #43, the UNLU condemned the campaign, asserting that violence against women was against the nationalist cause, and threatening punishment for anyone caught harassing women in the street (Hammami 1990:27). The statement had an immediate impact, making it safer for uncovered women to walk around (Hammami 1990:27). For many women however, this was too little and came too late. The leaflet did not even mention the word “hijab” (Amireh 2012:439). It also conceded to the Islamist movement by requiring modesty from both men and women, ignoring the gendered implications of modesty as patriotism, and thus cementing women’s vulnerable position in which their bodies are policed by the nation and seen as a symbol of it (Amireh 2012:440). Many women were upset at how long the response took, asserting that such a change in atmosphere was irreversible, and even speculating that there was tacit support for the campaign within the UNLU, most notably by the Fatah faction (Hammadi 1990:28). The motivation of the UNLU in their response is quite clear. Silence like this is often justified by the fact that such religious issues are too divisive and will harm the united nationalist movement if they are taken on before liberation (Hammami 1990:28). Implied in this argument is the fact that such issues, continued oppressions against women, are secondary to the ultimate goal (Hammami 1990:28). This prioritization paradigm is illustrated in the way that the hijab campaign was continually blamed on occupation forces; this denial of responsibility equates to an unwillingness to see and self-criticize factions within the united front for their support of the campaign ((Hammami 1990:28). It is clear that the bayan’s goal, in accordance with the priorities of the UNLU was not to combat the oppression of women but to eliminate disunity caused by attacks on women (Hammami 1990:28).

The control of women’s bodies and sexuality is seen elsewhere in the intifada in the hysteria surrounding collaboration throughout the West Bank and Gaza (Amireh 2012:440).  Fear that Palestinian women were using sex to recruit Palestinian men as collaborators with Israel was widespread and articulated by all political groups, nationalists, Marxists, and Islamists, who extracted confessions by men that had supposedly been seduced into sex by women and then blackmailed into collaborating with occupying forces (Amireh 2003:758). The campaign caused an atmosphere of paranoia in which women were the main suspects and men were safer in the street, “a place of fraternity and solidarity” (Amireh 2003:759) than in private women’s spaces such as homes and hair salons (Amireh 2003:759). The nationalist movement’s unwillingness to discuss sexuality is illustrated in the silence surrounding the rape and sexual harassment experienced by Palestinian men by Israeli prison interrogators (Amireh 2003:760). Amireh (2003) asserts that male fears of violation and victimization were displaced onto women’s bodies through the collaboration scare and ensuing fear of women’s sexuality. It is important to contextualize these movements within the historical progression of a long and violent occupation.

The collaboration scare also expressed Palestinian anxiety about fluid and porous borders that were shifting and left people vulnerable (Amireh 2003:765). In order to protect potential male victims as well as the nationalist revolution, women were pushed out of public spaces and into the patriarchal domestic sphere (Amireh 2012:440). This redomestication was accompanied by a militarization near the end of the intifada (Amireh 2003:760), further ascribing it to the domain of men.  Alongside this was also a renewed and vigorous campaign regarding the hijab in 1990, which shifted to an imposition of the jilbaab, a full length dress, on women. This marked a return to the rhetoric that women must dress a certain way to not be considered anti-nationalist, anti-Palestine, and anti-Islam (Hammami 1990:28).

In her critique of the modern women’s movement and the evolution of NGOs in the region, Eileen Kuttab (2008) argues that the latter have depoliticized gender and women’s rights, implying that these were politicized during political and national mobilization in the intifada. Far from this however, it is clear that women’s rights were not politicized and were delegated to the private sphere as non-priorities that did not involve the political movement. The gendering of the nationalist narrative does not equate to the politicization of women’s rights. In considering these patterns, it is hard to deny that intifada ideology at once saw women’s sexuality as a threat, as well as used gendered and patriarchal idealizations of women as symbols of the nationalist movement. The redomestication of women and the coercion to veil themselves expresses the anxieties of the movement about the visibility of women in the resistance and more generally in public life (Amireh 2012:440).

Despite efforts to counter Islamist movements and the hijab campaign, the women’s movement within the nationalist resistance also played into the broader prioritization paradigm. In the first years of the intifada, it was clear that women also believed their rights would stem from national liberation, and that this political goal be prioritized before attending to private rights regarding gender (Fleischmann 2003:138). This stems in part from women’s constructing of their identities, formulated in large part as a resistance to physical occupation and political oppression (Fleischmann 2003:139) rather than predominantly by gender, as many western liberal feminists do. The prioritization paradigm adopted by the nationalist and women’s movement also regulated religion to the private sphere, relying on what Amireh calls “lazy secular essentialism” to assert that the state and the movement were naturally secular and therefore did not have to deal with issues of religion (Amireh 2012:440). This was yet again part of the attempt to avoid disunity and maintain the strength of the nationalist movement. It also, however, left the field of religion an open vacuum for Islamist movements, which did not ascribe to the prioritization paradigm.

The Islamist movement, characterized by multiple parties but whose leading factions evolved into Hamas, saw religion and social issues such as women, gender and sexuality as integral to the movement (Amireh 2012:440) and offered people of Gaza and the Westbank a political and nationalist project that spoke to these important issues. In their intention to stay away from the topic of religion, the women’s movement failed to deal with the parties and beliefs that most sought to bring about regressive policies against women. For example, at a conference held in Jerusalem in 1990 by progressive Palestinian women, they were careful not to center religion, despite the fact that the reason for the conference was the Islamization of the national movement and Palestinian society (Amireh 2012:440).

The nationalist movement operated as a governmentality does, to construct certain regimes of truth, most prominently the prioritization paradigm, which influenced and shaped the conduct of Palestinians, including women and the women’s movement. Governmentality operates not by force or violence – although this certainly played a large role in some of the campaigns against women – but rather through an investment and belief in the regime of truth, which continued to shape the actions of both men and women activists within the movement and of the Palestinian public in general. The resulting depoliticization of women’s rights and sexualities meant that they were always regulated to the private sphere. Resistance to patriarchy became a hindrance to the nationalist movement rather than an integral part of it. This separation of the public movement and the private sphere is seen in the differential treatment of men and women protestors. Both were politically active in demonstrations but while men are celebrated for their contribution to the cause if they are injured, women are often seen as damaged goods by their families and undesirable by men for marriage (Amireh 2012:439).

The result of this governmentality is a limiting of women’s agency, over their own bodies, over their movement, their visibility and political participation. As the intifada went on, even women’s mobilization efforts and participation became caught up in the fear surrounding their sexualities and the threat they presented to the nationalist cause. It also resulted in a constrained and selective allowance of women’s identities. In the public sphere, as political actors, they were to be seen not as women – for women were gendered, sexual and threatening – but as nationalists and Palestinians. The redomestication of women then turned this around and attempted to limit women’s political identities, relegating them to idealized but passive symbolisms of nationalism, not active political participants.

In her critique of the Arab Human Development Report 2005(AHDR 2005) Hasso articulates that such policy-oriented projects are uncomfortable to criticize from an academic perspective, because they are governed by specific mandates, political logics, time constraints, methodologies and of course, funding structures (Hasso 2009:64). She maintains however that such projects are still embedded within philosophical and political assumptions which have material consequences for the lives of populations intended to be the beneficiaries of transformation (Hasso 2009:64). It is these philosophical and political assumptions within which the transnational feminist movement represented by the AHDR 2005 and other UN and NGO initiatives are embedded, and which must be problematized and critiqued (Hasso 2009:64). Having learned from the intifada experience that the prioritization paradigm of the nationalist agenda alone would not uphold their rights, women activists focused on developing a “rights” approach following the Oslo Agreement of 1993 (Amireh 2012:441) This led to the beginning of the NGO movement, headed by the activists of the first intifada (Amireh 2012:441). The NGO movement at this time focused on legal reform including the change of personal status law, working against violence against women, and lobbying for greater political participation (Amireh 2012:441).

Their actions were met with a lot of resistance. Many dismissed women’s activism as pointless as long as the occupation continued. Here was an opportunity for activists to assert that rights such as freedom of movement and protection from violence were not just individual rights but collective ones too, and finally link the nationalist movement to women’s rights, thereby politicizing them (Amireh 2012:441). However the women’s movement’s discourse remained limited in that it continued to recycle the nationalist patriarchal ideology when it came to women’s bodies, rights and sexuality (Amireh 2003:765). For Internaitonal Women’s Day in 1999, banners hanging in West Bank cities read: “Woman makes up half of society and gives birth to the other half” (Amireh 2003:765). Up until just before the outbreak of Aqsa Intifada (the second intifada), Palestinian women’s activists argued the need “to exploit the moral symbolism of motherhood to better mobilize Palestinian women against the occupation” (Amireh 2003:20). The women’s movement continued to rely on the patriarchal rhetoric of the nationalist resistance, assigning women’s bodies as symbols of nationalism and upholding the value of women to the revolution in their reproductive abilities.

The legitimacy of the women’s movement was severely challenged, especially as its lack of progress saw more and more organizations turn from grassroots activism to gender and democracy workshops, from the national to the local, from general to individual causes (Abdo 1999:48). The structures of these NGOs themselves play a large role in actuating the transnational feminist movement. The directors of these Palestinian NGOs are upper-class, English-speaking professionals who must have the verbal capacity and status to communicate with western donors (Abdo 2010:244). Abu-Lughod (2009) who also criticizes the AHDR 2005 asserts that this has led to a “globalized elite” (Abu-Lughod 2009:94) in post-Oslo Palestine, one characterized as urban, professionalized, politically moderate, and informed by global feminist agendas which aim at “equity” (Abu-Lughod 2009:94) and “empowerment” (Tadros 2010), rather than the practical needs of everyday women. This contributes to an isolation and a class divide of the majority of peasant and working class women from the employees and directors of NGOs who are supposed to serve them. Consequences have included a marked decline in women’s participation in such organizations as compared to previous politically-oriented organizations (Abdo 2010:244).

This professionalization of the women’s movement is a part of the growing neoliberal nature of Palestinian NGOs (Abdo 2010:244), which compete for funds from wealthy foreign donors or governments and privilege apolitical and imported tools like training workshops (Abu-Lughod 2010:94). Indeed some of the most prominent NGOs, including the Women’s Affairs Techinical Committee (WATC) which was focused on lobbying and advocacy, the Women’s Studies Centre, which focused on teaching and research, the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counceling (WCLAC) which provided legal assistance to women, all became involved in gender and democracy training. That NGOs are dependent on foreign donors largely constricts their sphere of action as most foreign organizations will have specific criteria and goals they intend to fund (Abdo 2010:244). This means that while many NGO employees on the ground are politically motivated and sympathetic to the struggle of Palestinian women under occupation, they are constrained to follow the mandate of their donors.  For example, following the Oslo signing and later, the US launch of the War on Terror as well as the 2005-6 election in which most Palestinians voted for Hamas rather than US backed secular forces, secular and Islamist groups which have opposed the Oslo Accords have been labeled as “terrorists” (Abdo 2010:245). This puts NGOs in a position to either reject political affiliations and acquiesce to this enforced depoliticization, or to forego potentially vital income sources.

An obsession of the Western feminist development discourse, the topic of “honour killings” in the Middle East, especially in Palestine, has formed significant part of the activism of NGOs and international human rights organizations there. Though undoubtedly a form of ongoing gendered violence, the way in which it is emphasized and dealt with by the transnational feminist governmentality is indicative of the kind of intervention and ideals this movement aspires to. There has been a large amount of written work and donor money funded towards this cause, and NGOs in Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) have been some of the main recipients. In dealing with this issue, many NGOs as well as international human rights campaigns and organizations (ADHR 2005) have taken a culturalist approach, representing an Orientalist belief in the inherent violence of Arab and Islamic society towards women. The topic of honor killings is extracted from its regional, social, political and economic contexts by Western media and politics, and has become a reason for intervention in Palestine (Abdo 2010: 248). The attempt to deal with this kind of violence has been individualistic and depoliticized. In tackling honor killings, of which 27 women died in 2013 in the OPT (ICAN), while staying silent on political violence such as the December 2008 attack on Gaza by Israel which killed hundreds of women in a span of 23 days (Abu-Lughod 2010:17), certain NGOs make a clear statement about the kind of violence they deem unacceptable and the causes they deem worthy (Abu-Lughod 2010:22). Women are transformed therefore into apolitical suffering bodies, ones who are victim to the backwardness of their traditions, religion, and men, while the political and economic violence which takes so many lives, and in which honor killings are situated, is ignored.

Through these processes of individualization, depoliticization, and the Orientalist, culturalist approach that characterizes much of NGO activism in the OPT, certain regimes of truth are constructed. These are embedded in liberal feminism and neoliberal logic which define and defend definitions and ideals of women’s freedom, rights and empowerment. The value of self-reliance, entrepreneurship, and the belief in the inherent backwardness of Islamic society come to characterize much of the knowledge, and therefore truth, associated with women’s status and struggles in Palestine. The prioritization of cultural violence over political and economic oppression, then, is a discourse that many feminists and actors in the Western world take part in. The creation of these truths, accepted by an international audience fuels further investments, interventions, and development projects based on these frameworks.

This has large impacts on the lives of Palestinian women. In adopting this depoliticized vision of the women’s movement, room for political mobilization is made even smaller (Ferguson 1994). Hasso states that such Western international organizations and the “global women’s rights” discourse “selectively authorize subjectivities, freedoms, and transformations” (Hasso 2009:68). Through the truths they create, these organizations construct and prioritize women as individuals and as sexual beings, identities the national movements of the intifada repressed. They obscure and even deny women as political beings, as being influenced by and living under economic and political repression of physical occupation.

However, the slow progress in the status and rights of women cannot be solely attributed to the faults and constraints of women’s organizations. The Palestinian National Authority, established as a result of Oslo was unenthusiastic at best to these women’s organizations (Amireh 2012:442). Another major factor of resistance was Islamist movements who were opposed to challenges to the status law; although these movements, and Hamas in particular, were not homogenous, they did have sway among certain regional populations, especially in rural areas and among the poor (Abdo 1999:49). The perceived illegitimacy of women’s organizing and NGOs was fueled by political smear campaigns by Islamist and secular nationalist parties. Accused of receiving funding from US and European donors, women’s organizations were later framed as attempting to import foreign and imperialist agendas and undermine Islam and Palestine (Amireh 2012:443).

Despite the repression and backlash women’s NGO’s have seen from both Islamist and secular nationalist groups, there have undoubtedly been some significant successes and improvements. Unlike some scholars who largely conceive of NGO-ization as occurring similarly across the Middle East, in places like Egypt and Palestine (Abdo 2010), Abu-Lughod points to the importance of situating these movements within their political, national and economic contexts. She asserts that women’s NGOs and their employees and activists have largely been involved in self-criticism about NGO’s depoliticizing effects, the consequent rise of professionalization, and diversion of energies to funders’ mandates for training and reports (Abu-Lughod 2010:17). She describes how Palestinian feminists within the NGO framework have always, and continue to pay attention to the larger political situation and that this remains clear in their work; they must negotiate and balance their situations as committed to women’s rights, the contact with transnational feminism and western liberal feminists, as well as a consciousness of the political context of occupation (Abu-Lughod 2010:17).

An example of this is the work of a group of Palestinian NGOs, including WCLAC, that put together an alternative report in 2005 regarding Israel’s implementation of policies of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in the Occupied Territories in opposition to Israel’s own self report (Abu-Lughod 2010:20). Arguing against Israel’s denial of responsibility in the territories, the report asserted that as the occupying power it must implement the UN agreement there (Abu-Lughod 2010:20). The report points to the multiple human rights violations enacted by occupying forces against Palestinian women and how these have led to a decline in the quality of education and reproductive healthcare, and have increased of poverty, among other things (Abu-Lughod 2010:20). Abu-Lughod sums up the position of women’s NGO workers and activists well when she comments on how they continue to position large structural features that affect women’s lives, even though they participate in transnational women’s rights institutions and networks that are silent on these political aspects (Abu-Lughod 2010:21). Newer bodies of activism and work in Palestinian Queer movements have taken on these challenges from a radically different perspective, rejecting the prioritization paradigm and “the idea of political hierarchies” (Amireh 2010:644) outright.  Organizations such as Al-Qaws are redefining the struggle and advocating for the importance of accepting both sexual and political identities simultaneously, without privileging one over the other (Amireh 2010:644).

Analyzing, through the framework of governmentality, the nationalist movement of the intifada, as well as the more recent NGO-ization of the women’s movement, allows for an insight into how similar they are, in terms of their constraints and oppressions. Both movements, in constructing regimes of truth and shaping the conduct of Palestinian women, resulted in the erasure of their agency and their identities. In moving past these limited conceptions of justice and women’s rights, we must look toward organizations and movements intent on truly politicizing gender and promoting identity-inclusive frameworks of resistance.


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