The defining feature of Palestinian feminism will always be its intertwining with the national struggle of a perpetually oppressed population since the 1920s. Few feminist movements, whether at the centre or the periphery, can rival the truculent fate of tragic endings and incessant losses as that of the Palestinians’. In addition, one has to consider the impact of new social ideologies such as Islamism which swept the Arab and Islamic worlds with overwhelming force, ebulliently promising a new utopia of spiritual salvation and overarching justice and equality. A phenomenon of great mobilizational potential, the Islamist wave was bound to touch the Palestinians by actuating the masses to place their trust in the twin pillars of faith and tradition, meaning a return to the authority of family and mosque. For Palestinian women in particular, this amounted to more than just a crisis of faith, since national survival seemed to necessitate newer strategies with which to wage the gender war. But no sooner had Islamist forces become embattled within their own geographic environment than the fracas expanded to the West and engulfed even the United States in a battle of the giants to rid the civilized world of the opprobrium of the attackers of New York’s Twin Towers in 2001. Then, in a move that startled the world, the United States and few of its Western allies chose to attack secular Iraq, accusing it of masterminding the attacks. The Bush administration adopted the strategic doctrine of exporting democracy abroad as a convenient foil against any accusations of harboring imperialist designs on the Middle East. These strategies had a great impact on Arab women, especially on Palestinian women.

Given these conditions, the question becomes how to disaggregate all of these strands in order to understand the underlying causes of the current Palestinian feminist malaise. Since the inception of Palestinian nationalism and the development of the national identity, the feminist movement went through several phases, at times closely reflecting the strategic nationalist trajectories of the male leadership, and at others pursuing its own agenda while remaining loyal to the national cause. Until the nakba, or the destruction of the Palestinian homeland and the rise of the Israeli state in 1948, women of the elite, particularly relatives of the male leadership of the nationalist movement such as Tarab Abd al-Hadi, Melia Sakakini, Zulekha Shihabi and Matiel Moghannam created their own organizations like the Arab Women’s Association. Both Muslim and Christian, they led large demonstrations against the Balfour Declaration and British consent in the illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine, while also carrying on with their own social welfare programs to sustain the victims of the Zionist battle to take over their homes, land and political sovereignty of the Palestinians. Their activities constituted the second tier of the nationalist battle, providing support for major uprisings against the British Mandate government (19 22-1948). Thus, women were visibly present during the 1929 Islamic Conference highlighting Zionist threats to the sanctity of the Muslim holy sites of Jerusalem. Women also fought alongside men in the Arab Revolt of 1936, providing their first female martyr, Fatimah Ghazal, and their first revolutionary organizer and fund raiser, Mariam Hashem. Throughout this period, feminist issues were relegated to the sidelines, with Tarab And al-Hadi occasionally declaring her opposition to the custom of veiling women.

With the rise of a new Palestinian leadership epitomized by the first PLO and its pan-Arab and regime friendly leader, Ahmad Shuqeiry in 1964, women were quick to organize and make their presence visible during the founding meeting of 1964 in Jordanian Jerusalem. This time, upper middle-class women based in the West Bank and chafing under the authority of the Jordanian regime, organized the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW), led by Issam Abd al-Hadi, which debuted during that conference. Following the demise of Shuqeiry’s organization as a result of the second debacle of the 1967 War and the imposition of Israeli rule over the West Bank and Gaza, the new female leadership experienced persecution and jail terms, leading Abd al-Hadi to be expelled to Jordan. She found her way to the refugee camps of Lebanon as soon as the second PLO emerged under Arafat’s leadership. Significantly, the GUPW became the second oldest cadre to join the Palestine National Council (PNC), the Palestinian parliament in exile, preceded only by the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) founded in Gaza. Abd al-Hadi and her organization played a major role in enrolling refugee women in the PLO’s ranks and in securing a representational quota for women in the PNC and training them for skills necessary for their economic survival. Abd al-Hadi at the same time fought many battles against more radical and leftist women by maintaining strong links to the centrist Fatah group. Eventually, she battled against Arafat himself by fighting to preserve her organization’s fiscal independence. This is not to say that Fatah lacked its own female leaders, as evidenced by the career of Intisar al-Wazir, wife of Khalil al-Wazir, who served before his assassination by the Israelis as Arafat’s right-hand man. At one time, she led the entire PLO faction while the men were imprisoned in Syria and was given charge of the martyrs’ organization which supervised welfare activities for the surviving families. Other PLO factions to the left of Fateh elected female leaders like Zahira Kamal and Layla Khaled. Issam Abd al-Hadi, however, broke ranks with Arafat, condemning him publicly for signing the Oslo Accords and granting sweeping concessions to the Israelis.

Women played a larger role during the first intifada which swept the West Bank and Gaza in 1987, by running underground food networks, overseeing strikes, teaching in secretly convened classrooms, and occasionally playing neighborhood military roles. One of the unusual leaders of this period was a former school teacher who became the only female member of the secret National Guidance Committee which coordinated resistance activities leading up to the intifada. This was Sameeha Khalil (d. 1999), who ran an extensive social welfare organizations, In’ash al-Usra (Sustenance of the Family) empowering poorer women by providing training and working opportunities in order to end their exploitation by the Israeli capitalist sector. A reluctant feminist at best, Khalil was hardly a radical and often annoyed younger women by adopting pro-natal policies in order to assure the physical survival of Palestinian society. Khalil was also the only candidate to challenge Arafat during the presidential elections of 1996, winning 11.5 per cent of the vote.

The second intifada of 2000 proved to be inimical to women, as it degenerated into violence on both sides, leading to a much harsher Israeli occupation regime, the loss of land due to the building of Jewish settlements, increasing demolition of homes, an apartheid wall making movement between cordoned off towns and villages extremely difficult, and over 700 check points which complicated travel to places of work and education. Some women gave birth at the check points, while others died in the process by being prevented from accessing health facilities. The dangerous and long daily trip to school and university led to the phenomenon of early marriage and veiling as families sought to protect their women against hazardous travel conditions. Women, willingly or coercively, retreated into the security of home life and the spiritual comfort of mosques. Yet, surprisingly, even Gazan women living under the Islamic Hamas government since 2007, continued to assert their independence. Six were elected to the last Palestinian Legislative Council in 2005, and some challenged the authorities’ insistence on wearing long black cloaks, rather than a head scarf and blue jeans. Women leaders, understandably, continued to be legitimized mainly through their association with the national movement.

Given Gaza’s horrific living conditions as a result of Israel’s punishing blows, prospects for the emergence of a secular feminist agenda here, as in the West Bank, continue to be dim. Feminist activities are increasingly viewed as threatening and frivolous, if not a dangerous diversion from the essential task of survival and national liberation. The American strategic doctrine of exporting democracy abroad added to this dilemma as the majority of the population automatically associated feminism with Western cultural norms and practices. The American onslaught on Islam as a religion of violence sanctioning the abuse of women, led by such figures as Robert Spencer and the Dutch quasi-feminist Iyaan Hirsi Ali, naturally produced a reflexive and defensive attitude among the Palestinians, both men and women, favoring a return to traditional values and patriarchy. The neo-cons not only sought to defend the invasion of Iraq, but also to make the Middle East safe for Israel. Thus, in the eyes of Palestinians, these pseudo-secularists were also identified with Israel’s continued denial of their national rights and quest for independence and sovereignty. In this context of frenzied, uninformed and strident assault on Arabs and their culture, feminism became easily labeled as a Western import. Feminism, or at least the variety advocated by the enemies of Arabs and Islam, was seen a Eurocentric perspective closely tied to the globalist revolution and its deleterious impact on weaker societies and their disempowered members, namely women.

The search for an authentic feminism, free from any ties to the forces of capitalism, imperialism and globalization is on. The winners so far have been Islamist elements who bounce on secular women with great alacrity in the name of authentication, demanding the return to the hijab, or at least their own version of it, as a necessary safeguard of women’s modesty and domesticity. Some Palestinian women fully understand the implications of these culture wars, demanding that women’s rights be enshrined in the constitution of the future Palestinian state, recognizing that a lot is at stake, not the least of which are women’s glorious legacy as revolutionary partners and the backbone of a beleaguered society at risk.


Ghada Hashem Talhami is D. K. Pearsons Professor of Politics, emerita, Lake Forest College, USA.