Occupation, War, and Feminist Perspectives The Case of Palestinian Women

  Occupation, War, and Feminist Perspectives  The Case of Palestinian Women




Ghada Hashem Talhamii, Ph.D.


Professor of  Politics [i]   




     In the age of globalization, Western social theories, particularly those articulating the concept of feminism, seem to have taken over the world.  Today, the women’s movement everywhere is being explained and theorized in terms of gender conflict targeting the patriarchy, irrespective of differences of time and place.  Women in advanced industrial societies are said to be facing the same obstacles as women in areas struggling against imperialism, economic disparity, war-time conditions, and alien cultural invasions. Even the UN-sponsored Decade for Women conferences were premised on the commonality of forces impeding women’s liberation and progress.  American, European, African and Asian women were expected to focus on issues of gender discrimination in the work-place, in education, and in the economy despite the specific conditions afflicting women in societies suffering from foreign occupation and war.  In other words, the woman’s question was to be divorced from the national question in favor of a liberation paradigm which ignored the consequences of international inequality, military occupation, racism and war. 

Theoretical Differences

          Some experts on the condition of Third World feminine struggles reject the “feminist” label altogether.  Recognizing this label to be the product of over-emphasis on an individualist, Western, liberal approach to the feminist question, several African-American writers in particular, like Alice Walker, have created the term “womanist” as a more accurate description of a movement dedicated to the survival of an entire people, in its female and male sectors.1 Elizabeth W. Fernea, an American writer, took this idea a step further by defining what really distinguishes the women’s movement in the Middle East from that of Western feminists.  She wrote:

If one tries to pinpoint the most striking contrast between Middle Eastern women writing here (in her edited work: Women and the Family in the Middle East) and much similar material from the pens of Western women, it seems to be that Middle Eastern women do not see the existing problems as exclusive to themselves.  Over and over again, they say in different ways that the ‘feminine condition’ cannot be separated from that of men, the family and the wider society.  Self-identity is becoming important, but identity is still contextualized.2

Indeed, the Qur’an refers to women as “the sisters of men.”  In the view of  Cheryl Johnson-Odim, Third World women see a relationship between racism, imperialism, and gender discrimination.  These women, therefore, reject Western feminism as being too narrowly defined as a war against gender-based discrimination, whereas it should address issues of concern to their own national experience.  Within their own societies, women, men and children are victimized by racist regimes and world forces of economic exploitation and control.  Johnson-Odim, thus, concludes that Third World women normally achieve their liberation through political struggles in a manner not dissimilar to the battles fought by Western women during the early part of the twentieth century.  Non-Western women appear to be more concerned with the survival of their family and community than with individual liberation.  Third World women’s heightened awareness of the need to achieve auto-liberation is itself a by-product of their political engagement and the conditions of their own lands.3 Bell Hooks (a.k.a. Gloria Jean Watkins), on the other hand, asserts that Western feminism is undisputably a white, middle-class ideology which focuses primarily on male oppression of women.  According to this perception, Western women should view all males as the enemies of women.  This ideology, furthermore, views the institution of the family as the instrument of women’s oppression. 

But to Third World women, the family unit is an indigenous institution which is absolutely essential to the survival of men and women.4 Yet another Third World writer, Vandana Shiva, confirms that Third World women have declined to focus on gender as the most pertinent definer of women’s oppression.  Instead, these women continue to emphasize such factors as race and class in their domestic and international contexts.5

     This dichotomy of views led to an open confrontation between Palestinian women and members of the US delegation to the UN Nairobi Conference on Women in 1985, when the former group insisted on placing the subject of Palestinian women on the program’s agenda. The subject was finally listed in response to a General Assembly recommendation calling on the conference’s planners to take note of the condition of Palestinian women living under ‘racist or colonial rule’ in the Occupied Territories.  This was a follow-up to an earlier emphasis on the subject of Palestinian women under occupation made at the Copenhagen UN Conference on Women.6 Much of the debate during the Nairobi Conference, as a result, turned into a heated argument between the Palestinian and South African women on one hand, and Western women on the other, over the relevance of pursuing a feminist agenda focused primarily on individual liberation. 

Forging an Identity

           Few would question the fact that the identity of Palestinian women was forged in the crucible of war and revolution.  Unstable and volatile political conditions in post-WWI Palestine led to the involvement of women in the nation’s political struggles.  Not surprisingly, the earliest women to be so mobilized were upper-class and elite women whose male relatives were often heavily involved in acts of resistance.  But as conditions in Palestine deteriorated and the loss of life and property mounted, involuntary political mobilization deepened, reaching eventually to peasant women who were the least informed or formally educated segment of the population.  There were massive women’s demonstrations on the occasion of every major national crisis, such as the Wailing Wall Riots of 1929, resulting from Jewish efforts to widen their use of areas facing the Wailing Wall.  The women’s movement at the time was encouraged and promoted by the Arab Executive, one of the earliest Palestinian national organizations during the British Mandate system of government.  From that point on, Palestinian women were regarded as a valuable reservoir of mass protest, which soon led to the emergence of the Arab Women’s Executive Committee.  The participation of women in the activities of the Arab Executive, even as a separate group, was seen as a reflection of the modern outlook of the male leadership group.  One of the AWE’s first duties was to communicate the nationalist version of the Palestinian narrative to its affiliated female groups. It should also be noted that the early female leadership group of this organization and several of its branches was made up of Muslims and Christians, mirroring the secular nature of the Palestinian national movement itself until the recent Fateh/HAMAS divisions.  Rather than being viewed as simply a branch of the male organization, these early female formations should be seen as training grounds for future leadership roles.  The AWE should be credited also with performing a modernizing role by reaching out to village women and teaching them how to improve the conditions of their children and families while at the same time inducting them into new nationalist roles.  Eventually, several branches of AWE emerged in various Palestinian cities, including Haifa, where an affiliate under the name of the Arab Women’s Union was led by the very radical Sadhij Nassar who served time in British jails.  The unlady-like behavior of this unit, whose members engaged in violent activities like the smashing of store windows in order to force compliance with strike days, eventually caused a split from the main organization.  Women in these coastal towns not only challenged views of the male national leadership, they also devoted great efforts to the assistance of political prisoners and their families. 


     As the Arab Revolt of 1936 loomed on the horizon, women of the Jerusalem-based AWE devised novel ways of instructing the general population in the merits of national unity.  Thus, during demonstrations protesting the 1931 visit of General Edmund Allenby, who drove Ottoman troops out of Palestine in WWI, a Christian female leader, Matheil Moghanam, was designated to give a public talk at the Mosque of Omar.

A Muslim leader, Tarab  Abd al-Hadi (wife of a prominent statesman, Awni Abd al-Hadi), was asked to address a crowd at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Also, by this time, female demonstrations surrounded by protective male demonstrators were becoming common.7 What is even more noteworthy was the spontaneous participation of peasant women in the 1936 Arab Revolt. Not only did these women bear the double burden of tending to their farms in the absence of men, they also directly contributed to the revolt. 

Many were involved in feeding fighting men in the field of combat, while some hid fugitives in their own homes. Some women contributed to the war effort by fighting alongside the men.  Palestinians give a place of honor to the first female martyr to fall in the line of duty,  Fatemah Ghazal who fell during the battle of Azoun, near Lyddah, on June 26, 1936.8

The Years of Service and Regrouping

         After the Nakba (the Palestinian term marking the destruction of their homeland in 1948), Palestinian women attempted to regroup and create new organizations in the new Palestinian diaspora.  A Jaffa-based leader, Salwa bu-Khadra, who fled during the hostilities to Damascus, founded the Women’s Union in her new place of refuge.  Eventually, she was to emerge as one of the earliest cadres of Fateh.  A Jerusalem-based leader who found herself in Cairo, Samira Abu-Ghazaleh, created  the Palestinian Women’s League in her new place of residence.  And so it went, women founded new organizations wherever Palestinians were to be found. But the thrust of these organizations was primarily charitable, as women struggled to cope with the massive Palestinian refugee problem resulting from the creation of Israel in 1948.9 Until the emergence of the second PLO under Yasser Arafat’s leadership in 1969, the experience of the refugee camps strengthened traditional customs and norms.10 Unlike the Palestinian environment where women were free to engage in national activities, being guests in other Arab countries and having to live in reconstituted village settings reinforced, rather than weakened, traditional male controls of the past.  In a way, this was not any different from the experience of Afghani women in the refugee camps of Pakistan during the 1980s.   

     Following the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, few of the branches of the AWE survived, but those which did so became fully devoted to sustaining the Palestinian refugees inside the West Bank and Gaza.  As the Palestinian refugee population proliferated inside and outside of historic Palestine, the needs of the Palestinians emerged as charitable, not political.  But what motivated women to continue with these efforts was the previous nationalist ideology which stressed the need to aid “the common national struggle.”  It was the ideology of the 1917-1939 women’s organizations which pushed them to seek greater training and education in order to deal with the needs of the dismembered national community.11


     Women’s organizations took on a national character again with the creation of the first PLO in 1964.  A creature of the Arab League of States, particularly Nasser of Egypt, the first PLO was neither radical nor overwhelmingly populist.  Women participated in the meetings of the first Palestine National Council in Jerusalem in 1964, with a delegation of forty-five out of a total male body of 422.  These included luminaries of the old generation of leadership such as Zuleikha Shihabi and Wadi’a Khartabeel,  and future leaders like Issam Abd al-Hadi and Samiha Khalil (a.k.a. Um Khalil).  By 1965, women responded to a call by the new PLO to form a supra organization by creating the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW) as an official cadre of the first PLO.  This organization also included representatives from various women’s groups in Gaza and the West Bank.  This cadre, second only to the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) enjoyed a long affiliation with the first and the second PLO.12 For many who were able to make the transition from the female activism of the British Mandate period to that of the PLO years, the new affiliation was not any different from  their relationship to the Arab Executive.13 At first, strongly anchored in Gaza which emerged as the stronghold of the rump of the old Palestinian national movement, GUPW saw the enrollment of many future leaders, such as the twenty-three year old Intisar al-Wazir (a.k.a. Um Jihad).  GUPW’s leader was someone who participated in the pre-1948 and post-1948 nationalist phases, namely Issam Abd al-Hadi.  After the Israeli occupation cast its shadow over the Palestinian territories following the defeat of 1967, the Israeli authorities were quick to imprison and later to expel Abd al-Hadi and Shihabi.  Abd al-Hadi became a totally political activist, being elected to the Central Council of the Palestine National Council in exile. The GUPW became the official representative of Palestinian women under the auspices of the second PLO, following the passing of national leadership from Ahmad Shuqeiry to Arafat. Advocating for Palestinian political rights became GUPW’s main activity as the women sought to visit and establish relations with women’s groups in Cuba, Iraq, the Soviet Union, and East Germany, among others.  This was a necessary outreach as the PLO sought to gain recognition in international quarters during the 1970s.14

Women under Occupation: Transformation or Modernization ?

          When the Israelis won control over the West Bank and Gaza in June of 1967, the lives of activist Palestinian women changed forever.  For women who lost a male provider, the occupation sucked them into the vortex of the ranks of the unskilled proletariat.  They also came to experience Israeli jail sentences for the first time in their lives.  Palestinian society under Israeli occupation was radically transformed, although Israel’s defenders insist on describing this as the process of modernization.  Apparently, Israel’s apologists never tire of making the unsubstantiated claim that the Israeli occupation, unlike any other experience of this kind, should be regarded as a benign system of rule.15 In reality, the occupation has drastically altered the lives of Palestinian women in such a way as to make the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987 almost inevitable.  Women were made to feel the impact of massive family impoverishment due to the confiscation of land and the general destruction of the Palestinian economy.  Within a matter of years following the 1967 June War, women lost their traditional role as workers on their families’ agricultural lands due to the incessant building of Israeli settlements on confiscated land. In addition to this sector, 50% of the West Bank population is made up of refugees who were pushed out of their original towns and villages in 1948.  In Gaza, the number of registered refugees who receive UN rations on a regular basis is as high as 85% of the total population.  The combined effect of harsh economic conditions and political repression which at first targeted males, forced this category within the 30 to 64 age group to emigrate in large numbers.  This same trend later affected men in the 14 to 25 age group.  Israel’s tax policies which had increasingly burdened the Palestinian occupied population was in violation of the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention.  All of these factors combined to weaken the economy of the Palestinian family.  Thus, new responsibilities fell on the shoulders of the female population, evidenced by a dramatic increase in the number of female-headed households.  The women soon became a proletariat, which unlike the male population, had no previous experience suitable for the realities of the marketplace.  They had no bargaining experience and were unlikely to strike due to the availability of a large pool of unemployed workers.  Until recently, many of these women became migrant workers within Israel proper. According to 1990 estimates, 45% of the total labor force engaged in agriculture in the West Bank were women.  Other women pursued domestic occupations such as sewing, embroidery or other crafts.  Gaza’s statistics portray a harsher reality.  Due to the limited availability of land in that area, only 8% of women were self-employed on family farms.  Smaller numbers worked until recently as migrant agricultural workers within Israel, but these have dwindled due to Israel’s frequent closure policy and reluctance to bring Arab laborers into its territory.  Until the establishment of the Palestine National Authority, West Bank women used to depend on finishing work for the Israeli garment industry.  This was done at home and wages were at least 50% lower than what the average Israeli worker earned for similar work.  In addition, women rarely enjoyed any job security, being retained on short-term working permits which expired on Jewish holidays, during the winter off-season, or whenever an emergency arose.  Due to their exclusion from the Israeli national labor union, the Histadrut, both Palestinian men and women lacked any benefits such as unemployment insurance, normally associated with organized labor contracts.16

     Palestinian women usually worked in small shops employing ten workers or less.  The average per capita income of a West Bank and a Gaza worker were estimated as one-third and one-sixth that of an Israeli worker, respectively.  Most workers required up to four hours daily to commute to work since Israeli law prohibited overnight stay within Israel.  Women’s forced employment, thus, must be viewed in the context of the general destruction of the economy of the West Bank and Gaza, both of which served as a captive market for Israeli products and a source of cheap labor.  Women took on employment within Israel too, suffering long travel hours and the prospect of leaving their children unattended behind.  Neither did the Palestinian home possess labor-saving devices to shorten a woman’s domestic duties.17

          When some women sought to unionize, the whole weight of the Israeli security apparatus fell on them.  Consider the case of Amal Wahdan, who worked in the 1980s as an accountant for an Arab company, the Jerusalem Cigarette Company.  The factory employed 120 workers, of whom twenty were women mostly employed in secretarial and unskilled work.  In December of 1983, she was placed under house arrest while pregnant due to her organizing efforts.  Her husband who was also a union activist was  imprisoned at the time.  Although she was later released from house arrest, she had to endure long sentences of town arrest.18 Wahdan’s suffering at the hands of the Israeli military authorities was also due to her role in the creation of the Women’s Work Committees.  These were founded in the West Bank and Gaza in order to address the needs of Palestinian working women.  The committees have always recognized that Palestinian women were victims of Israeli discrimination directed at all Palestinians, including class oppression as low-level workers, and gender discrimination as women workers.  The work committees emerged as a women’s movement dedicated to the understanding that the liberation of Palestinian women is an important component of national liberation.  The committees faced several obstacles, not the least of which were harassment, arrest, and imprisonment.  The Israeli authorities habitually delayed the granting of organizational permits, arguing that under Israeli Military Order No. 10, any political meeting of ten or more requires a permit.  Any individual who was seen as engaging in adverse propaganda was subject to a ten-year prison sentence or a fine of $1,500, both of which were not subject to appeal since the Israeli military governor was legally immune from such procedures.19

The Women’s Work Committees

          Although the work committees developed as affiliates of various Palestinian political factions outside of the Occupied Territories, they are mainly credited to the social awareness of the leadership of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). First appearing as The Association of Labor Committees in 1978, this new approach to women’s issues was led by Zahira Kamal, a school teacher.  A second work committee followed, organized by the Palestinian Communist Party, taking the title of The Association of the Working Palestinian Woman.  Fateh, the main faction within the PLO, organized The Woman’s Association for Social Works in 1988.  The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, another military faction, formed the Association of Palestinian Women, which emerged in 1981, in Nablus.  By that time, Yusra Barbari had already created a PLO-affiliated group in Gaza in 1964, known as the Palestinian Women’s Association.  But due to the minimal enrollment of Gazan women in work outside the home, the focus of this group was not on working rights.  Later, a HAMAS-affiliated organization emerged under the leadership of Amal Zamili who insisted that women’s rightful place was in the home.  The women, thus, became all too political and factionalized, leading the Algiers PNC meeting of 1988, to call for their unification under a supreme women’s council.  This did not materialize, although the work committees forged ahead with programs dedicated to aiding the working woman.  Zamili, however, continued to stress that women should not get involved in politics and should devote their efforts to educating the younger generation and maintaining Islamic traditions in the home.20 But for the West Bank work committees, the need was to assist working women survive the hazards of the occupation and their unfamiliar work environment.  Recognizing that the rate of illiteracy among peasant women was almost 60%, the committees began to operate literacy centers which also served as meeting grounds for women who were socially and nationally isolated.  But, the committees’ greatest contribution was their establishment of nursery schools, kinder-gartens, and summer camps for children  in the refugee camps while teaching mothers better means of child care.  These projects were a great boon to women who travelled long distances to work and left their children behind them.  There were also programs to provide academic instruction to students suffering from frequent school closures by the Israeli military.  Sit-home women were offered vocational training programs in order to preserve native crafts associated with the Palestinian cultural heritage which was threatened with extinction.  Women were also taught collective bargaining methods and how to demand better rights in the workplace.  Additionally, the committees created special groups to defend the rights of prisoners and to support their families, particularly since more and more of the prisoners were women.21

     Thus, life conditions under military rule not only led to the inevitable politicization of poorer women, they also stiffened the backs of the more modernized women. This was evident in the manner in which these women responded to seemingly friendly gestures by the Israeli military authorities.  When the Israelis decided to co-opt the Palestinian national current in the Occupied Territories by calling for municipal elections in 1976, they also adopted a law enfranchising Palestinian women.  Instead of expressing gratitude, particularly when no such favor was extended by the Jordanian regime, the Arab Women’s Union called on all Palestinian women to boycott the elections.  One official of this organization, Raymonda Tawil (Arafat’s future mother-in-law) commented: “The Union felt that Israel did not have the legal right to change Jordanian law.  It was also feared that this step would give Israel a precedent for changing other laws.”22 Tawil was referring to the illegal practice of the Israeli military government over the West Bank and Gaza which often passed new laws, contrary to the stipulations of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1947, prohibiting such practices in occupied areas.  Once again, women were to place the national interest above their gender agenda.  For working class women, unlettered peasant females, or women of the elite, living under the occupation regime was a harsh experience.  The proletarianization of Palestinian women, as one Israeli writer put it in 1989, was not a pleasant or progressive experience: “Figures supplied by the Palestinians themselves” he wrote, “demonstrate that the contribution of women to the economy of the occupied territories is the result of economic distress, not of economic development.”23


The Prison Experience

          Before the establishment of the Palestine National Authority (PNA) on parts of the Palestinian Occupied Territories following the signing of the Oslo Accords, a large number of women experienced imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Israeli military authorities.  There are still female prisoners in Israeli jails today, some serving long-term sentences.  Today, the favored Israeli method of retribution when the military invade Palestinian towns and villages at will revolves around the demolition of homes and assassinations, euphemistically referred to as “targeted killing.”

Neither did the Israelis ever spare women who are merely engaged in non-military acts of protest.  Leaders such as Samiha Khalil, Issam Abd al-Hadi,  Zahira Kamal, Raymonda Tawil, and many others suffered imprisonment, expulsion, and long terms of house detention.  The rampant use of torture in Israeli military jails has been documented in many reports by international humanitarian agencies, as well as by a landmark study published by the London Sunday Times in 1977.  Many reports documented the use of sexual torture and harassment against women prisoners, including a 1986 study by the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC).24

     One of these studies which relied on reports appearing in major Israeli newspapers and publications was made in 1989 by the London-based The Israeli Mirror.  This study detailed the harshness of treatment reserved for women activists during the first intifada (uprising), 1987-1996.  The traditional inclination to avoid unduly harsh punishment of women in similar situations has been totally forsaken here.  Some women, like Miriam Ismail, an activist with the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, ( the apex organization of the women’s committees), was detained without trial for a long period of time and subjected to psychological and physical torture such as being locked in the “cupboard” for as long as a week. Neither was age any protection against such methods, as girls as young as fourteen were often imprisoned.  Some of the accounts describing the sexual harassment of female prisoners during the first intifada made its ways to such Israeli dailies as Hadashot, Ha’aretz, Yediot Aharanot and Davar.25 The mistreatment of prisoners was usually the result of Israeli Administrative Detention Laws, which were inherited from the emergency regulations of the British Mandate system.  These laws allowed the authorities to hold suspects for a long time before bringing them to trial, to allow for obtaining confessions.  It was during this initial period of incarceration that torture and undue use of pressure were used in order to facilitate trials.  According to the Center for Palestinian Statistics, the number of women prisoners who passed through Israeli jails since 1967 totals 10,000.  Of these, 500 were incarcerated during the second intifada (2000-present).  Currently, the number of female prisoners is over 500, in addition to 120 females under detention.  About 4,000 children were also held since the second intifada, of whom 330 remain imprisoned today.  Some who are 18 years old or more have been held years ago when still children.26 Three West Bank female prisoners have delivered their children while serving jail time.  Of all these practices, nothing is more objectionable than the detention of children, then bringing them to trial according to illegal laws issued by the occupation authorities.  While most of these under-age prisoners are eventually released, their families are usually charged with the payment of large fines.  Dalia Itsik, Israeli Speaker of the Knesset, has demanded an investigation of the use of experimental drugs on Palestinian prisoners.27 According to Amnesty International, when women are arrested, threatened, and subjected to ill treatment, it is usually to place their husbands or male relatives under pressure or to have the prisoners sign false confessions.  By adopting these practices, Israel is violating several international conventions, including the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  In addition, the Fourth Geneva Convention on the Rights of Occupied People, prohibits under Article 3 (1) (c): “. . . outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.”28

Worsening Conditions under the Second intifada

         Despite the devolution of authority to the PNA in some parts of the West Bank and Gaza, the outbreak of the second intifada has led to a severe deterioration of living conditions, especially for women. First and foremost is the impact of military checkpoints, blockades, and curfews on women’s health and well-being.  The damage to the fabric of Palestinian society in general has deeply affected women’s lives who are now victimized both by the Israeli military and by their own society.  However, much of the blame should still be directed at the Israeli military since it is their continued control over the Occupied Territories and their frequent incursions into Palestinian towns and villages that led to the destruction of 4,000 Palestinian homes, sizeable agricultural areas and extensive commercial businesses.  Added to this is the deliberate sabotaging of the water, electrical, and sewage infrastructure.  The checkpoints and other restrictions on the movement of people have made access to places of employment, education or health centers near impossible for the 3,500,000 people inhabiting the West  Bank and Gaza (2 million in the West Bank and 1.5 million in Gaza).29In his “Statistics about the Fifth Year of the intifada,” Dr. Mustafa Barghuti, head of Non-Governmental Organizations in the West Bank and Gaza, has estimated the number of military checkpoints to be 703.  One example of the effect of these checkpoints on travel time is that a trip from Ramallah to Hebron which used to take one hour to complete, now can last as long as 12 hours.  At least 86 Palestinians, including 30 children, have met their death at the checkpoints.  By 2004, at least 55 women have delivered their babies at the checkpoints, with 20 of these suffering the death of their newborns as a result.30 Checkpoints and blockades have effectively isolated and surrounded many towns and villages, forcing Palestinians to go for long distances in order to circumvent the by-pass roads of Israeli settlers.  The Separation Wall, which completed around 600 kilometers by 2000, is complicating the lives of Palestinians further.  In addition to cutting off entire communities and educational and health facilities, the Wall has consumed large tracts of Palestinian lands since 80% of it is built outside of Israel within the Green Line (Israel’s 1967 border).31

     Israel does not recognize that restricting a civilian population’s freedom of movement constitutes a severe infringement on that population’s human rights, especially in the areas of health, education, and work.  The fundamental rights of an occupied population are protected under international humanitarian law, particularly as those affected are considered subjects of belligerent occupation which should be transitional by nature. Israel ignores these conventions, as well as, the implications of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (the Women’s Convention).  Other ignored international instruments include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICEFRD).  According to Amnesty International, Israel has refused to abide by UN human rights treaties and has rejected altogether the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the Occupied Territories.  Israel claims that since it did not deprive the Occupied Territories of their sovereignty, it is under no obligation to apply this convention to these areas. Thus, Israel does not recognize the applicability of Article 38 (2) of the same convention which calls on the occupying power to ensure equal access to medical and health facilities to the Palestinians which the Israelis enjoy.  Neither does Israel observe Article 38 (5) and 16 which specifically charge the occupying power with providing health treatment to pregnant women and children on the same level as what is available to Israelis.32

    The checkpoints have also resulted in poverty and unemployment since they prevent people from reaching their lands or places of work on time.   Land is routinely seized by the military, especially after severe delays which prevent the farming population from reaching their fields.  But the worst impact of closures remains on the sick and injured.  Not only did the health infrastructure in the Occupied Territories deteriorate as the result of the security situation, much of the ill population is unable to travel for treatment outside of the country.  The stark contrast between the high level of health care available to Israeli women and to Palestinian women has recently been noted by an Israeli section of Physicians for Human Rights. This organization found out that, to take one example, the survival rate of breast cancer patients within Israel is 70-75%, but for women in the Gaza Strip, it is 30-40%.   Patients seeking to travel to Egypt or other countries for better health treatment are prevented from doing so due to frequent and prolonged border closings in that area.33

Women’s Work Opportunities and Domestic Violence:

          Although women’s participation in paid employment outside of the home has been low, before the second intifada women’s participation has increased to 15.8% among women in the 25-year age-group or older.  After the intifada, women’s participation fell to 10.5%.  Some of this decline is the result of restrictions imposed on Palestinian agricultural lands by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), such as restricted access to sources of water, land seizure by Israeli settlers, and the destruction of olive groves and fruit orchards due to building the Wall.  Under these conditions, including the increasing absence of males, subsistence agriculture becomes absolutely necessary.  But even that is becoming difficult as women struggle to play the role of main bread-winner for the family.  Male unemployment, which is experiencing a dramatic increase, has placed additional pressures on women and children to seek employment.  Women are now pressured to find employment outside of the home and the family’s fields.  The only available work to the majority remains of an unskilled nature in the unregulated sector of the economy.  More importantly, women are not only facing abusive and exploitative treatment at the hands of their employers, they are also mistreated by unemployed male family members.  Human rights organizations and social workers have concluded that the rise in domestic violence against women is the result of worsening economic and security conditions.  Even when the first intifada provided opportunities for women’s participation in civil society, the level of domestic violence targeting women increased due to the rise of violence against the Palestinian male.  With the development of a more militarized intifada in 2000, women’s opportunities for participating in decision-making were drastically reduced, and so was their ability to affect their own future.  Restrictions and confinements forced upon the Palestinian male population deepened the level of poverty throughout society.  This caused feelings of humiliation and frustration, leading to angry and violent response to any act of domestic provocation.  Anger and abuse became the natural reaction to the males’ inability to fulfill their traditional roles as family providers. Additionally, women have been reluctant to end abusive marriages due to the lack of employment opportunities outside the home.34

Educational Opportunities

          In the shadow of the second intifada and its increased violence, educational opportunities for women and girls were perceptibly reduced.  This is the result of travel delays at the checkpoints and frequent blockades, rendering daily access to educational facilities, particularly for young women, extremely problematic.  Students travelling from nearby towns and villages have to incur increased travel costs as the daily journey becomes longer.  They also have to contend with reduced security and the possibility of spending nights outside the family home.  When more families are impoverished as a result of the general deterioration of economic conditions, they are hardly able to absorb the 400% or 500% increase in transportation costs due to long travel delays.  As is typical in these conditions, educating sons is given priority over the education of daughters.  The risks to the female student of daily commuting has also given rise to the phenomenon of early marriages.35

Women’s National Leadership Roles

          The rich historical experience of Palestinian women should have catapulted them by now to positions of national leadership. Any casual glance at the history and development of the Palestinian national movement will adequately demonstrate the pivotal role which women played in sustaining the national struggle. However, what emerges from the women’s narrative is a specific pattern of formal acknowledgement of their efforts but limited opportunities for participation in formal politics.   It is also clear that Palestinian women have been greatly mobilized by the intensification of the national struggle and by society’s need for a human infrastructure engaged in acts of social production.  Although the women became an important cadre of the PLO, and despite their acknowledged and immense service to the nation, when the latest intifada arose it was directed mainly by a male leadership. But a closer look at Palestinian history reveals an accumulation of female experience by those who created and staffed such organizations like the work committees of the 1980s, which successfully focused the nation’s attention on such “feminist” issues as work, equity, and gender.  It should be remembered that the committees’ greatest service to the community in the pre-intifada period was the creation of more than 80 nursery schools and an extensive literacy program for women, efforts which also created opportunities for the acquisition of organizing skills and networking across class lines.  When the first intifada broke out, therefore, women’s organizing abilities were not dissipated.  Instead, the women’s work committees merged into the Neighborhood Committees which served as the grassroots of the uprising.  Thus, the first intifada emerged as an opportunity for empowerment and mobilization in defense of the Palestinian people.  The work committees quickly heeded the call of the intifada’s United National Leadership. The women were enrolled in all of the sub-committees of the Neighborhood Committees, in charge of agriculture, education, health, food storage, and guarding duties.  Clearly, without the experience of the work committees, women would not have been able to contribute to the national effort during the uprising.  Women also understood that total immersion in the duties of the intifada, meant shelving the feminist agenda.  Yet, it is undeniable that the conditions of the first intifada made the transition to a national role seem so natural and expected.36

The Indigenous Feminism of Samiha Khalil

          Although no more than five or six women were ever elected to the first and second Palestine Legislative Council in 1996 and 2006 which had a total membership of 132, women did actually fulfill the demands of national leadership roles.  Yet, official and formal recognition of women’s contribution to the national struggle remained low.  Only two women were named to the PNA cabinet in 2005, and only 13% of the staff of the PNA’s institutions were women.  A mere 10% of all lawyers were women and only 9% of all judges were women.37 Despite all this, the contention of some writers that “There are no women in the national leadership,” cannot be fully substiantiated.38 Indeed, women did reach the highest layers of power during some phases of Palestinian national history.  The following list briefly illustrates this point:

1.   Issam Abd al-Hadi, the first GUPW’s head in the 1960s, became a  member of the Central Council of the PNC in the 1970s.

2.   Intisar al-Wazir became the Treasurer of Fateh and later, the head of the Martyrs’ Department.

3.   Samiha Khalil became a member of the National Guidance Committee of the Occupied Territories in 1978.  She also ran for the  office of President during the elections of 1996.

4.   Majidah al-Masri, currently serves as member of the Central  Committee of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine  (DFLP), a constituent group within the PLO.

5.Leila Khaled is currently a member of the Central Committee of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a constituent group within the PLO.

     When viewing the national careers of these female leaders, it is difficult to separate their nationalist from their feminist agendas.  All of them cared deeply about women, and all of them cared deeply about the nation.  Each one of them rose to prominence nationally due to their service to women, which gives credence to Alice Walker’s innovative adjective of “womanist”.  No life-story illustrates the convergence of the “womanist” ideology with the philosophy of national liberation than that of Samiha Khalil. The woman who ran against Arafat for the presidency of the Palestinian territories in 1996, was best known for her social service institution, In’ash al-Usra, or Society for the Rehabilitation of the Family.  This was an organization which was founded in 1965 with a budget of $500, only to grow by 1986 to a budget of $42,000.  Founded single-handedly by this former school-teacher, In’ash al-Usra ran an orphanage for children of the martyrs, a nursery school, a bakery, a beautician training program, a dental clinic, a library, a folklore museum, and a textile shop.  The society offered literacy classes, a university scholarship program for 300 female students, and employed 4,800 women as producers of traditional Palestinian embroidery working from their own homes.  The society also employed 152 full-time employees, registered 200 women in  its various vocational training programs, offered a financial sponsorship program for 1,500 families, and ran a program to assist political prisoners and their families.39 Based in al-Bireh (near Ramallah), the society was dedicated to helping women and the family by offering self-help programs.  Much of its budget came from marketing its own products.  Um Khalil also published a journal described by one Israeli journalist as the equivalent of Shdemot, the kibbutz movement’s publication.  When the first intifada broke out, she devoted her efforts to assisting its victims and their families.40

     Um Khalil was not one to accept charity or donations that did not meet her patriotic standards.  Offers of aid from American organizations who received money from Congress were rejected, since it was the same Congress which, in her view, funds the building of illegal Israeli settlements on Arab land.  When the Israelis closed her Society in an effort to calm the atmosphere during the intifada, her defenders claimed that the Society was engaged in social, rather than political activities.  She herself, however, continued to assert the political nature of her activities.  She explained at one time that  “. . . teaching women self-reliance is political: making products that compete with Israeli goods, even on a small scale, is political.  Self-help is political.  It means that we are people seeking and deserving self- determination instead of occupation.”41


     Um Khalil was arrested six times by the Israelis.  Her Society was closed for the longest stretch of time in June, 1988, but some of her projects continued and even picked up steam with the passage of time.  The Israeli charge against her in Ramallah’s Military Court accused her of “Influence on public opinion in a manner threatening the public welfare and public order.”  Other charges included publishing a leaflet on International Children’s Day which was bordered with the colors of the Palestinian flag.  She was also accused of advocating women’s participation in the activities of the intifada.  One of her most moving literary effort, however, was publishing “A Letter form a Palestinian Mother,” in the Israeli papers of Davar and Al Hamishmar. In this statement, addressed to Israeli mothers, she asked if they knew about the violence and atrocities being committed in the West Bank in their name.42 But she continued to pay for her activities until her death in 1999.  The Israeli authorities barred her from any outside travel, including from attendance at the UN Nairobi Conference on Women.  She was also prevented from visiting her children in Jordan, as well as proceeding to another town while under house arrest in order to retrieve her deceased husband’s body in a timely manner.  Her true awakening to the tragic dimensions of the Palestinian tragedy was when she witnessed a long line of refugees waiting to receive food rations from the offices of UN Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) during the early 1950s.  She resented turning the Palestinians into a charity case, accusing the UN of failing to find a political solution for the loss of their homeland.43


          The case of Palestinian women is significant on several levels.  First and foremost, it is an inseparable part of the Palestinian national narrative, enriching it with the multiple experiences and social and political ideas of the female segment of the nation.  Secondly, this is a human rights story which cries out for justice and understanding.  No one who reads about Palestinian women will fail to be impressed by their steadfastness and faith in the face of tremendous odds lined up against them.  Thirdly, the Palestinian case is an instructive lesson in how to survive and even thrive under the patriarchy.  Experts on Western feminism should familiarize themselves with this story in order to better understand the meaning of the struggles of non-Western women.  What Western feminists will learn is not only differences in the manner in which women’s energies are harnessed to the national liberation struggle, but also how to work towards the survival of families, women, men and children alike.                 


End Notes:


1.   Alice Walker, The Color Purple (New York: Harcourt, 1992), passim.


2.   Elizabeth W. Fernea, ed., Women and the Family in the Middle East: New Voices of Change (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1985), 2.


3.   Cheryl Johnson-Odim, “Common Themes, Different Contexts: Third World Women and Feminism,” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991), 314-5.


4.   bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins), Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston, MASS: South End Press, 1984), 33.


5.   See: Vandana Shiva, Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology (London: Zed Books, 1993).


6.   See: “Perspectives on Palestinian Women,” The Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, New York, 1985, p. 11, for a pro-Israel American perspective on Palestinian efforts at international for a.


7.   Ellen Fleischmann, “The Emergence of the Palestinian Women’s Movement, 1929-1939,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Spring, 2000), 17-31.


8.   Simona Sharoni, Gender and the Israeli –Palestinian Conflict (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995), 59; From the Palestinian Women’s Struggle, pamphlet by GUPW, Beirut, n.d., pp. 5-6.


9.   Amal Kawar, Daughters of Palestine: Leading Women of the Palestine National Movement (New York: State University of New York Press, 1996), 6.


10.                  Soraya Antonious, “Fighting on Two Fronts: Conversations with Palestinian Women,” in Miranda Davies, ed., Third World-Second Sex (London: Zed Books, 1983), 72.


11.                  Polina Sakalian, “Women in the Palestinian Liberation Movement: Greater Women’s Rights Achieved through Nationalism,” unpublished thesis, Lake Forest College, 2006, 50-1.


12.                  Sharoni, 29-31.


13.                  Sakalian, 59.   


14.                  Kawar, 31-3, 60.


15.                  “Perspectives on Palestinian Women,” 4.


16.                  Ghada Talhami, “Women under Occupation: The Great Transformation,” in Suha Sabbagh and Ghada Talhami, eds., Palestinian Women under Occupation and in the Diaspora (Washington, D.C: Institute for Arab Women’s Studies, Inc., 1990), 16-8.


17.                  Shani Taylor, “Palestinian Women Workers Face Discrimination on Two Fronts,” Al-Fajr (May 20, 1983), 8.


18.                  “Palestinian Woman Unionist Finds Organizing Tough Going,” Al-Fajr (March 3, 1986), 13; “Three Unionists Town-Arrested ,“ Al-Fajr (August 14, 1986), 4.


19.                  “Women’s Work Committees in the Occupied Territories,” an unpublished report by PHRC, n.d.


20.                   Alex Fishman, “The Palestinian Woman and the Intifada,” New Outlook (June-July, 1989), 9-10.


21.                  “Women’s Work Committees.”


22.                  Ghada Talhami, “Palestine Women: The Case for Political Liberation,” Arab Perspectives (January, 1984), 10.  Tawil’s statement was quoted in The Jerusalem Post Weekly, May 4, 1976.


23.                  Fishman, 11.


24.                  Talhami, “Palestinian Women under Occupation,” 20-3.


25.                  Cath Senker, ed., Defiance: Palestinian Women in the Uprising. Booklet published by The Israeli Mirror, London, 1989, pp. 3-37.


26.                  “9,400 Palestinian Detainees in Israeli Prisons and 650 Thousand Detainees since the Occupation,” (Arabic), Fasl al-Maqal (April 21, 2006).


27.                  “The Day of the Palestinian Prisoner: Suffering and Steadfastness,” (Arabic), Al-Hourriyah (April 21, 2007), 7.


28.                  “Israel and the Occupied Territories: Conflict, Occupation and Patriarchy,” Amnesty International Report, London (March 2005), 18.


29.                  Ibid., 4.


30.                  http://www.palestinemonitor.org/new web/September update archive. htm. Sep. 27, 2004.


31.                  “Israel and the Occupied Territories,” 7.


32.                  Ibid., 6-8.


33.                  Ibid., 12.


34.                  Ibid., 13-4, 20-1.


35.                  Ibid., 14-7.


36.                  Rita Giacaman, “Palestinian Women in the Uprising: From Followers to Leaders?”, unpublished paper, September 1988, pp. 3-10.


37.                   Tanmiya, The Welfare Society of Geneva, Summer Report of 2005.


38.                  Fishman, 11.


39.                  Orayb Najjar, “Palestinian Self-Reliance on Trial,” The Christian Century (November 23, 1988), 1070-1.


40.                  Gideon Levy, “Samiha Khalil: First Lady,” New Outlook (June-July, 1989), 38.


41.                  Najjar, 1072.


42.                  Levy, 38-9.


43.                  Najjar, 1971.


44.                  Mufid Qindah, “A Year Has Passed SinceUm Khalil’s Departure,” (Arabic) Al-Mahjar (March 16, 2006), 16.

[i] - Ghada Hashem Talhami was born in Amman, Jordan, to Palestinian parents and received her high school education at Queen Zein School in Amman and Whyteleafe County Grammar School for Girls, Surrey, England.  She received a B.A. in Liberal Arts (cum laude) and Departmental Honors from Western College for Women (of Miami University, Oxford, Ohio), and an M.A. in US Foreign Policy from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  She holds a Ph. D. in African History from the University of Illinois-Chicago.

     She was a visiting professor of African History at University of Illinois-Chicago, and for one year the Director of Arab Studies at the same school.  She also served for one year as the Director of the Arab Information Center at Chicago, an office of the Arab League of States.  She taught Middle East Politics, African Politics, Politics of  the Third World, the Politics of Jerusalem, and Women of the Third World at Lake Forest College, where she holds the title of D. K. Pearsons Professor of Politics, emerita. She was also a Lecturer at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago, as well as the inaugural Susan Currier Visiting Professor of Gender and Global Studies at California Polytechnic University in the Fall of 2009. She taught at the University of Damascus in the Fall of 1997 and will be a visiting professor at the University of Tunis- al-Manar in January of 2012.

     She is past president of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates, past Editor of Arab Studies Quarterly, and past Chair of Palestine Human Rights Campaign.   She is currently on the editorial board of Hartford Seminary’s Muslim World, and Alternatives: The Turkish Journal of International Relations, and Arab Studies Quarterly. She was a member of the Board of North Park University’s Center for Middle East Studies. She continues to lecture at various academic institutions in the US and abroad and was a frequent speaker at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.  She has also been a frequent guest on Public Television’s program “Chicago Tonight”, on CNN, and on ABCs radio and television program “Beyond the Beltway,” NPR Chicago and many parts of the country, the Arabic Section of the Voice of America, the Milt Rosenberg talk show of WGN Chicago, Al-Jazeera’s Arabic program, and television’s History Channel. 

 She is the author of six books: Suakin and Massawa under Egyptian Rule (University Press of America, 1979), Palestine and the Egyptian National Identity (PRAEGER, 1992), The Islamic Mobilization of Women in Egypt (University Press of Florida, 1996), Syria and the Palestinians: The Clash of Nationalisms (University Press of Florida, 2001), and Palestinian Refugees: Pawns to Political Actors (Nova Science Publishers, 2003).  Her latest book, Palestine and the Egyptian Press: From al-Ahram to al-Ahali, was released by Lexington Books in 2007.  Her latest book is Historical Dictionary of Women in the Middle East and North Africa, published by Scarecrow in 2013. She is also the editor of an encyclopedia volume, Children in the Middle East and North Africa, published by Greenwood Press.  She contributed an article “Peace Movements: Middle East and the Arab World,” for The Encyclopedia on Women, published by Rutledge. She has edited four publications on women, one of which is Women in the Islamic Maelstrom, which appeared as a special issue of Muslim World.  She co-edited a publication on the1967 June War.  One of her latest articles which appeared in a special issue of Muslim World, commemorating the attacks of September 11, and their impact on Muslim Americans is titled: “The Neo-Cons and Muslim Women:  The Legitimacy of the Reformer.” She participated in a special conference on Palestinian Women and Development, which was convened in Vienna by the NGO Department of the Austrian Foreign Office in 2008.  She also participated in The Oxford Round Table, 2003, with a presentation on the veiling controversy and European Muslim women. She has published more than fifty articles on the following topics: the Jerusalem issue, the Palestine question, development in the Arab World, the Jordan factor and the Palestine question, African-Arab relations, women in Islam, Palestinian women, women, education and development in the Persian Gulf countries, Islamic philanthropy and women in Egypt, the Palestinian human rights issue, political Islam, and many others. 

She has attended several international meetings and conferences in Jordan, Cyprus, Germany, Canada, Mexico, Britain, Ireland, Egypt, Syria, Spain, Tunisia and Austria, where she presented papers on diverse subjects such as: women and development in the Middle East, the Palestinians in Iraq, the question of Jerusalem, Arab nationalism in the balance, Palestinian refugees,  and the Afro-American Islamic community in the US.     In recent years, she has participated in two colloquia by the World Council of Churches which were convened in Greece and Switzerland, both on the rights of different religious communities in Jerusalem.  She also received a Senior Scholar Fulbright research and lecture grant for study in Syria in 1997.


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  •   Occupation, War, and Feminist Perspectives  The Case of Palestinian Women

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