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The Struggle of the Palestinian Woman on Two Fronts

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In commemoration of International Women’s Day, it is a time to highlight the Palestinian woman plight and struggle. It is a time to heed the Palestinian woman struggle in terms of her political, social, and economic achievements. The efforts of the Palestinian woman have been extraordinary in Palestine over the past 57 years.

Israel’s repressive policies in military-occupied West Bank and Gaza have had a devastating impact on the lives of Palestinian women and children, a new U.N. study says.

“The capacity of Palestinian women to cope with this new situation has been declining, and the number of women dependent on emergency assistance, particularly food assistance, has risen,” the report said.

“Women have not only been subject to increasing violence, but their responsibilities within households have expanded due to the death, imprisonment or unemployment of male members of households.”

The study quotes the U.N. Children’s Fund (U.N.I.C.E.F.) saying that 38 percent of Palestinian mothers have reported increased difficulties in gaining access to health services, and 65 percent reported the quality of their food had deteriorated. However, Palestinian women struggle mightily to take care of their families in the face of this adversity, while supporting and participating in the resistance movement. Their bravery and determination are stunning.

Palestinian women have always been extremely active politically, and this involvement predates the creation of the state of Israel. For example, Ghassan Kanafani, the most important Palestinian writer of the 20th century, stated in his book “Palestinian Resistance literature in Occupied Palestine”, that women used intimidation tactics to the British Soldiers by chanting national songs. He described how that singing and chanting was counted as a popular means of resistance widely spread in the Palestinian society at the time of the 1936 Palestinian Revolution.

In the 1930s and 40s, early attempts were made to organise women into associations and societies, mostly initiated by bourgeois class educated women, who’s main focus was on the right of education and work for women, with rare discussions about political participation. We recall May Ziyadah, a renowned writer, who was one of the first women artists who held meetings in her house (in the thirties) for artists and poets.

In the 1950s and 60s, the Palestinian woman had the opportunity for education and higher education during the Naasir of Egypt era. Naasir opened the education system for all Arabs, for free, in the name of Pan Arabism. Palestinian women became writers, poets, and researchers. Early political participation was emerging.

The first intifadhah (1987) came to create the political consciousness of Palestinian women and their ability to organise and mobilise. The sustainability of the first intifadhah was facilitated by the resourcefulness of Palestinian women. Women were active in many aspects of civil society and in the popular committees.

For example, Palestinian women took a leading role in the 1987 boycott campaign against Israel products in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. This boycott initiative was incredibly hard to mobilise due to the lack of indigenous Palestinian industry.

In order to convince Palestinian families to boycott Israeli products, it was necessary to provide them with alternative sources of income and products. So Palestinian women began establishing their own industries such as cheese making, jam making, bread baking and community gardens, and in doing so were not only able to encourage the boycott initiative but also develop the infrastructure-base for a Palestinian economy.

Also during the first intifadhah, Palestinian women led a campaign to reopen schools (which had been closed by the Israeli army). During this campaign, Palestinian mothers established underground community schools that their children could attend.

This campaign, along with many others, was in addition to their street activism directly confronting the occupational forces. When the Israeli soldiers would arrest a child, Palestinian women would come out collectively and demand that the child be released, all claiming that the child was their own. With dozens of women demanding the return of their ‘own child’, the soldiers often felt pressured to release the child they had in custody.

During Ala’q’sa intifadhah (2000), Israeli forces stepped up attacks and aggression against women and children, as well.  As a result, many women suffered various Israeli violations. One hundred and sixty nine (169) women and 65 children were killed by Israeli forces. In addition, 24 women died on checkpoints and crossing borders due to the Israeli forces brutalities. One hundred and twenty six (126) women were detained in Israeli prisons. The Palestinian women suffered also the most from house demolitions which put a heavy burden on housewives whose families became homeless.

Many women detainees were held in solitary confinement, had to give birth in their prison cells, tortured, verbally, emotionally and sexually abused and threatened. Many were held jointly with Israeli criminal prisoners, as well. Palestinian women prisoners have been subjected to extreme brutal and violent conditions, deprived of basic human needs and prisoner’s rights, in violation of Geneva Conventions. For example, when a Palestinian woman is detained or harassed by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint, not only is she victimised by the occupation soldiers, she also risks getting into trouble with her family for arriving home late.

Palestinian women in the Occupied Territories have much greater opportunities than women in other parts of the Arab world to participate in the labour force, vote and hold political office and play visible, active roles in civil society. But the realities and effects of dispossession and occupation counterbalance many of these social gains. The conflict has taken a heavy toll and caused serious negative impacts on the physical and psychological health, education, economic security and access to basic services and rights of Palestinian women.

In spite of these circumstances, Palestinian women exemplify the strength and capability that women possess to survive and function. They continue to support each other, their families and their neighbours by actively working for peace within their communities—politically, economically and socially.

Palestinian women continue to resist the occupation. They are also resisting the construction of the Apartheid Wall.
The Apartheid Wall is already having a devastating impact on the lives of Palestinian women living in villages and cities along its path. Families are being cut off from access to large portions of their agricultural land and greenhouses. More than 100,000 olive and citrus trees have been uprooted, and many wells and irrigation systems have been destroyed or isolated behind the Wall.

Women especially feel the impact of being cut off from their families. Because most women move to their husband’s home when they marry, many women live in different cities or villages than their families. The completion of the Wall has brought dozens of new military checkpoints all over the West Bank. 16 villages, with over 11,550 inhabitants, are now completely isolated between the Apartheid Wall and the Green Line. No one is allowed to enter these villages except the residents. Friends and family members from outside these villages are not allowed to visit their neighbours on the other side of the Wall.

Amid the devastation wrought by nearly four years of the intifadhah, a subtle but significant transformation is under way in the lives of many Palestinian women. Normally confined to domestic chores and child care, they’re now playing central roles in the survival of families in which husbands have found themselves without work.

The intifadhah has emboldened women to assert themselves in new realms, from finding part-time work and taking control of family finances to political involvement. The women raised money through non-government organisations (N.G.O’s) to refurbish their husbands’ boats and are employing Palestinians who do have access to the sea to captain the vessels.

Despite the oppression and occupation, the Palestinian woman sustained the momentum of her struggle for rights and equality. The year 2005 was marked by women participation in presidential and municipal elections as voters and candidates. Women’s participation was highly observed in West Bank and Gaza. For example, in last January election, 68 of 414 candidates for local councils were women. Her struggle led to the ratification of the elections’ law. Article 28 was ratified to ensure that women shall have, at least, 2 seats in every local council.

Local Palestinian women’s groups must continue fighting for political rights, and demand funding that actually has the ability to change the oppressive realities under which Palestinian women live the realities of patriarchy and occupation combined.

The dream of gender equality and a Palestinian state will never be realised if the priorities of women struggle are forgotten, that is, if they divorce politics from the personal.

In brief, the Palestinian woman is still craving to achieve her rights and equality. She strives to shoulder her responsibility in developing and shaping the Palestinian society. In spite of trouble, she stands tall and fights on two fronts by all means to achieve her goals.

1. Kanafani, Ghassan, Palestinian Resistance literature in Occupied Palestinian (1948-1966) 1966, Beirut, Lebanon.
2. U.N. Study: Palestine Women Hard Hit, February 5, 2004
3. www.alsbah.net, March 9, 2005
4.  www.dailystar.com, August 8, 2004
5. www.dci-pal.org, 2004
6.  www.iacenter.org, October 8, 2000
7.  www.miftah.org, March 8, 2005
8.  www.nonprofitnet.ca/wao, 2003


Saadeh Khalil -

Dr. Saadeh A. Khalil [Sa‘aadah ’Kaleel] has a Ph.D. in education for Oregon University, USA.Read More >>

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