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Women’s Activism in Palestine

From the Disappointment of the First Intifada to the Hope of a New Movement

Women took an active role in the Palestinian struggle in the First Uprising ‘Intifada’. Nonetheless, after the signing of the Oslo agreement in 1994, women’s role has diminished. Seventeen years later, a new generation of Palestinian women rose stronger than before.

The First Intifada started on December 1987. It was the first mass uprising since the revolution of 1936 that is based inside the borders of Palestine. In previous years, especially since 1965, the struggle was commanded from outside the Palestinian land in neighboring countries. From 1965 until 1987, the Palestinian struggle was dominantly militarized. The situation in the neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, allowed an easy involvement of Palestinians in the military factions. And so was the case for the Palestinian women. But despite that, the Palestinian political leadership remained dominant by men.

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The first Intifada witnessed the shift of the struggle from abroad to within Palestine. And since it was a popular unarmed resistance, the women had a greater role to play. “Women participated in all activities including, organizing demonstrations, hurling stones, painting wall graffiti, distributing statements and leaflets, and sewing flags,” said Fadwa Al-Labadi, a woman leader in the first Intifada and a former DFLP member.

These popular committees worked hand in hand with the Unified Leadership of the Intifada to implement the monthly program,” said Amal Wahdan, a former member of DFLP. “The women were the pillars of the neighborhood popular committees.”

The role of women grew greater than the past especially their role in the 1936 revolution. Their role was affected by the social developments. Despite the social restrictions of the Palestinian society especially in villages, the women succeeded in breaking the cycle and taking an active role in the popular uprising.

“Palestinian women had great effect on the national activities during the First Intifada to the extent that the Israelis opened a new jail for Palestinian women political prisoners in Abu Kbeer near Jaffa along with Israeli criminal prisoners,” said Ms. Wahdan. “Palestinian women were subjected to all sorts of punishments and harassment.”

Although these punishments failed to push women off the field, they added to the social obstacles that women managed to overcome at the beginning of the uprising. “Two years into the uprising, and after many women being arrested, families started to fear for their daughters especially when reports started spreading of an increase in sexual assaults and rape cases practiced by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF),” said Fadwa Al-Labadi. “The biggest obstacle that challenged women’s participation later on was the evolvement of Hamas as a political power on the street. They used to prevent women from participating in the actions of the uprising unless they met several standards of decency.”

At the late years of the First Intifada, women’s participation slowed down and started disappearing by the intervention of “political leadership abroad, the beginning of negotiations and the institutionalizing of the Palestinian struggle”. Pressure from the political leadership started diverting the women activism into the local social work controlled by funded organizations.

“The major defeat for the Palestinian women is in its ‘women leadership’ who betrayed not only the women’s issues but also the national issue”, said Ms. Wahdan, currently the editor of Arab Gazette Online. “When the leadership of a people is dedicated to seek its own interest at the expense of its people then the role of all classes of society, including women; is destined to failure.”

Due to their absence in the political leadership, the role of the women, after the end of the First Intifada and the signing of the Oslo agreement, almost disappeared. When the Second Intifada started in late 2000, the women were not capable of contributing much. “After the militarizing of the Second Intifada, the women role disappeared because she was not qualified to take part in a military struggle”, said Ms. Al-Labadi.

The second Intifada ended shortly after the death of PLO leader Yasser Arafat. As the political leaders became more involved in the political process, the Palestinian people suffered more from settlement buildings, occupation practices and the amplifications of the Israeli “apartheid laws”. New popular committees were formed in several villages in the West Bank that organized weekly peaceful demonstrations to protest against the occupation in its different forms.

Nabi Saleh Protest January

The real rising of the new youth movement was influenced by the Arab Spring in the early 2011. Women had an active role in this new movement. As it remains currently not politicized, the movement has attracted large number of women. On the street, it was the women’s role that was more dominant than the men’s role this time. The chanting and demonstrations were led by young female activists either against the occupation or against the local leadership. The new generation of women seemed more determined to challenge the social restrictions of the Palestinian society.

The biggest challenge I face, and the most serious I would say, is getting the approval/blessing of my parents,” said Linah Al-Saafin, an activist in the popular resistance. “Somehow, I managed to break their tight resolve on banning me from going to protests in the West Bank villages.”

Every week in the different villages of popular resistance, you can clearly see the women standing in the front line of the demonstrations. Most of these young women leave their houses secretly to attend these demonstrations.

Being a woman, a 48-Palestinian and person with disability has, in many ways, imposed extraordinary difficulties on my political activism in general,” said Budour Hasan, a law student and woman activist. “The biggest challenge I continue to face is the staunch opposition of my family. My family’s opposition means that I have to carry out the bulk of my political activities under the radar.”

In the organizational meetings of the new youth groups, the numbers of women are mostly larger than those of the men. With the dominant role of women on streets, women have an equal role to that of men in the decision making within the new youth groups. Nonetheless, many challenges remains, and the fear of the repetition of the scenario of the first Intifada exists.

I haven’t had any problems in the protests themselves,” said Ms. AlSaafin. “There may have been some underhand sexism from the guys around me at the beginning, such as telling me to stick with a group of women, but the more we got to know each other in the tight circle of activists the more we were treated as equals.”

As women, we face patriarchal patterns also through activism, as in society in general,” said Abir Kopty, a woman activist and former elected member of Nazareth local council. “I’m active in the struggle because it is my duty to my people, and I want to be a full partner. Palestine is witnessing the revival of women’s activism and leadership in the popular resistance. When more and more women join, we will make a change in women’s status.”

Women’s involvement in the youth movement is not just merely a trend of the new Arab Spring as it is more prominent among men. It is a window of opportunity to prove that they can be an equal partner in a society that still to a large extent discriminates against them.

The liberation we Palestinian women are fighting for is not just national liberation,” said Ms. Hasan. “We believe that through popular resistance, we can also challenge gender subordination and entrenched stereotypes.”

I am involved because I want my people’s rights,” said Ms. Kopty. “I cannot ignore the injustices I see every day, and it will not end if I stay home.”

When speaking to those women putting their lives at risk in the front line of the resistance, you sense the determination that is not likely to despair. “Our strong presence in civil society and the frontlines of most demonstrations is a cornerstone for full, inclusive liberation,” said Ms. Hasan. “What keeps me going is the incessant drive for dignity, freedom and justice that every Palestinian and oppressed person has.”

The men involved in the popular resistance tend to coordinate more with the young women than the men. “They are very active and you can depend on them,” said a 25 years old activist, a Fateh member who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Their courage in weekly demonstrations makes us respect them and trust them.”

Despite the big role women activists have acquired in the recent youth movement and struggle against occupation, the road remains long for a large-scale mobilizing of women in the Palestinian struggle. Many social restrictions remain to be broken. But the year of 2011 certainly took the role of women in the Palestinian struggle to a new level. For the first time, women decided to act equal rather than seek permission for an equal role.

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One Response to Women’s Activism in Palestine

  1. Somoe April 16, 2012 at 9:45 pm #

    An beautifully positive story about the spirit of Palestinian women. They are incredibly courageous and strong, shaped no doubt by the humiliation and horrors they witness regularly. I salute their will, courage and compassion for their people that drives them to participate as equals in the movement for change. It is no small thing to face down power-crazed, gun-toting sociopaths (which are what one gets the impression the IOF is full of) with nothing but pure willful presence and spiritual fire.

    It is interesting that overcoming family opposition to their participation in the protest movement was the greatest challenge facing many female activists. In a way it’s not really that surprising their families fear for their well-being, considering the harsh and unjust treatment the IOF metes out at the slightest hint of dissent, but sad nevertheless, that these women are forced into sometimes having to conceal their activism from their families/parents, but clearly not even that will stop them from doing what they believe to be the right thing to do, for all their people.

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