Human Interest International Middle East Women's Issues

Palestinian Women: A History of Resistance

Could the plight of Palestinian and Israeli feminists unite them against patriachal oppression?

Madihah Murshed

Naked Politics Blogger

The recent demonstrations at the Gaza border leading up to and following the official move of the US embassy to Jerusalem captured much media attention and flashed images of unarmed, injured yet defiant Palestinians and tear gas equipped IDF soldiers onto our screens.

However, for me, the most striking incident was the death of 21-year-old Palestinian volunteer paramedic, Razan al-Najjar, who was killed by an IDF bullet to the chest that seems extremely difficult to accept as anything other than premeditated murder despite IDF claims to the contrary.

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Palestinian women at a protest near the ‘buffer zone’ in Gaza, March 30, 2018

Perhaps because she was a young woman almost my age, perhaps because I saw footage of her passionately defending her rights as a woman that reminded me of conversations I’ve had with the women in my life, or perhaps because she died whilst in an act of complete altruism, Razan’s life and death stuck with me.

In the wake of her death, I thought it would be fitting to shed light on the history of resistance by Palestinian women against their two main oppressors: Israeli occupation and the patriarchy.

Origins of the Women’s Movement

Palestinian women’s resistance dates back to the British rule in Palestine in 1921 and grew throughout the following decades. In 1965 the General Union of Palestinian Women was founded, with the primary focus being activism against Israeli occupation.

However, the women’s movement took a new turn in the late 1970s when the agenda for once was not confined within the parameters of the largely masculine Palestinian nationalist struggle. Instead, improving the conditions of the daily lives of Palestinian women and gaining more social autonomy through education and employment became the top priority.

The Women’s Work Committee concentrated on working-class women from rural areas and refugee camps rather than the elite women who had largely made up the earlier women’s movement. The 1980s, therefore, saw a more grassroots, class-conscious women’s movement aimed at making women self-sufficient, teaching them skills to improve their employability, and providing education in politics, health, and literacy to name a few areas.

The First Intifada, 1987-1993

This continued throughout the landmark first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, which broke out in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza in 1987 and lasted until 1993. The Intifada was the first Palestinian mass-based people’s protest against Israeli occupation, and women of all ages and social strata played a crucial role.

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Palestinian women demonstrating during the first Intifada

So how exactly did women participate? They:

  • Staged peaceful sit-ins and street protests and ran day-care centres so mothers could participate
  • Made up a third of all those killed, according to the Palestine Human Rights Centre in Jerusalem, as well as 3,000 women being arrested and detained without charge
  • Continued educating other women and children following the closure of schools by Israel from March-July 1988
  • Set up makeshift clinics and helped produce a centralised blood typing programme that covered tens of thousands of people
  • Smuggled food and medical supplies into besieged areas and organised relief and emergency services after Israeli army raids

All of this was conducted often in opposition to patriarchal norms, with Palestinian society largely condemning such public and political roles for women. That women physically protected Palestinian men from Israeli military street violence is testament to how radically gender roles were challenged during the Intifada.

For incredible eye witness insight into the women’s movement during the Intifada, check out the Naila and the Uprising documentary, or read an interview with Naila herself here.

Israeli and Palestinian Women

A dimension to the Intifada that may seem surprising is the level of collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian women. The movement was based on the recognition that feminism cannot be discriminatory if it is to succeed; Israeli feminists could not fight for their rights and freedom as women whilst also condoning the plight of their Palestinian neighbours.

Israeli women’s organisations such as Women in Black and Israeli Women Against Occupation organised meetings with Palestinian women and held demonstrations in solidarity from within Israel itself.

The Peace Quilt was stitched by thousands of Israeli and Palestinian women advocating for the end of Israeli occupation, and similar projects similar continue to this day.

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Women in Black solidarity vigil in San Francisco

Clearly, the history of Palestinian women’s resistance is rich and its legacy continues today with the likes of Razan al-Najjar, Ahed Tamimi, and countless other women protesting against their oppression both from their patriarchal society and Israel.

History has not forgotten their predecessors, nor will it ignore their voices.

 

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