Abstract 5


University of Oxford

The neoliberal peace and the gender strife (from the point of view of a Palestinian cleaner of Israeli homes)?

Um Ahmad* interrupted the hanging of laundry in the yard of her house in Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, Palestine, to motion wearily towards her husband. Using my presence as a proxy, she teased him: “Find him another wife,” she said, implying that she had had enough of fulfiling the marital role. She had been working as a cleaner in Israeli homes ever since his health condition prevented him from holding a job.

Analyses of labour migration makes many interrelated problems – of international relations, of social inequalities – poignantly salient. And yet, the assignment of different economic roles according to gender – the sexual contract (Pateman 1988) which has informed the makeup of labour migration – has been mostly ignored in the analyses. Neoliberal theory analyses labour migration in terms of ‘rational choice’ of individual workers who seek better wages, sees remittances as the spreading of wealth that builds positive international relations – the neoliberal peace – and views cheap, abundant, and mobile workforce as a comparative economic advantage (Barbieri and Schneider 1999). This perspective is criticised as simplistic by the scholars of Dependency theory, who frame labour migration in structures of dependence and exploitation, but it still holds sway in many diplomatic corridors (Hout 1993).

The economistic debate seems to miss the point that migrant workers have not experienced their labour only as a comparative advantage or as economic exploitation but as a practice adapted to circumstances; circumstances which are being increasingly constrained by securitisation. Securitisation – at least in the Israeli-Palestinian context – is gendered, with particularly onerous constraints placed on younger Palestinian men, who in one version of the sexual contract would have been expected to be the main wage-earning agents in a wider communal economy that included unwaged labour (Jacobsen 2004). The resulting male unemployment and poverty in parts of the population such as Dheisheh refugee camp, means that the sexual contract has gained some fluidity (Farsakh 2005), which Um Ahmad perhaps captured in the repartee to her husband.

This paper will seek to incorporate gender in the core of the analysis of labour migration, with a particular interest in the effects of securitisation, using Um Ahmad’s case as an illustration. My ethnographic research comprised interviews with Palestinian workers in Israeli employment, and the proportion of men and women corresponded roughly to the official  statistics on the distribution of the sexes in labour migration: out of 52 workers interviewed, four were women. The particular paradoxes of house cleaning – which in one context is a job and in another is unwaged labour – can only be unpacked with the help of feminist theory (Treas and Lui 2013). By highlighting sections of Um Ahmad’s interview which addressed mobility, inequality, choice, security, international and gender relations, we shall see how her perspective linked political and macro-economic theories to practices. And she still had the laundry to hang.

*‘Um Ahmad’ is a pseudonym.


Barbieri, Katherine and Gerald Schneider. 1999. ‘Globalization and Peace: Assessing New Direction in the Study of Trade and Conflict’ in Journal of Peace Research Vol.36 No.4, Special Issue on Trade and Conflict (July 1999), pp.387-404.

Farsakh, Leila. 2005. Palestinian Labour Migration to Israel: Labour, land and occupation, London and New York: Routledge.

Hout, Wil. 1993. Capitalism and the Third World: Development, dependence and the world system, UK: Edward Elgar Publishers.

Jacobsen, Laurie. 2004. Educated Housewives: Living Conditions among Palestinian Refugee Women. Norway: FAFO.

Pateman, Carole. 1988. The Sexual Contract, Cambridge: Polity Press and Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Treas, Judith and Jonathan Lui. 2013. Studying Housework Across Nations,Journal of Family Theory & Review 5/2 (June): 135–149.