Intifada: Women Organizing

Against the Current, No. 21, July/August 1989

Samira Haj

CONTRARY TO THE WESTERN image of the passive “Arab.” or Moslem woman immured at home for reproduction, the role of women has been a central force in sustaining the Palestinian Intifada. It is important to stress that their contribution has not just been through the actions of active middle class or urban women, but more so through the activities of ordinary, “traditional” women, rural and urban, young and old-from all classes and backgrounds.

The massive mobilization of women accounts in fact for the success and strength of the Intifada Palestinian women have not shied away from joining street demonstrations, hurling stones and shouting at Israeli soldiers. Neither have they been bashful in using their bodies as barricades to block the beatings and to stop the arrests of their Palestinian children.

their role has been limited to confrontations and to the protection of their children and families. Palestinian women have been an essential and a vital part of the popular committees that in effect replaced the institutions of a “civil administration” in the towns, villages and camps.

At the same time that this massive participation shatters western images of the meek, passive Arab woman, it raises interesting questions regarding national revolutions and women. I would like to address three: 1) the specific conditions that allowed the massive mobilization of women in the Intifada; 2) the ways in which women became political; and 3) the relation between women’s mobilization as political subjects in a national struggle and their emancipation.

The Massive Mobilization of Women

Although the Intifada as a national revolution shares certain features with other liberation and nationalist struggles, it is also quite different In my view it is the differences that account for its success in mobilizing women. Generally speaking, armed liberation struggles (here I speak mostly of the ones I am familiar with, such as the Algerian revolution and the Palestinian national movement in Lebanon) have the tendency to reinforce rather than challenge patriarchal structures and traditional relations of domination.

First, as freedom fighting organizations, these movements are inclined to draw on one segment of the society, mainly young males. Even in movements like Nicaragua, which recruited females and where relations between male and female fighters were somewhat equal, female recruitment remained small so that their experiences tended to have little impact on the masses of women. Second, armed struggle depends on maintaining structures of authority and hierarchy within the fighting ranks. This factor is prone to uphold rather than question traditional power relations.

This of course is not to deny the importance of popular mobilization in these revolutions, especially in the final stages of the struggle. But since the weight of these liberation struggles is on the military wing rather than on civilian mobilization, the popular support of urban and rural populations tend to be passive. In contrast, the Intifada as an unarmed liberation struggle depends exclusively on its ability to reach out and mobilize all segments of Palestinian society.

A second feature that encouraged the mass participation of women is the non-hierarchical, decentralized character of the movement Israel’s repressive policies helped in this case. Since the occupation of 1967, Israel made sure that the leadership of the Palestinian national movement remained in exile. Added to that, deportation and imprisonment of pro-PLO figures and other activists meant the elimination or containment of much of the older, traditional political leadership.

Israel’s repressive policies backfired, creating conditions for the emergence of a much younger leadership in age and political exposure-in other words, closely connected to its popular roots. This helped the democratization of the movement and allowed political participation of all people, including women.

A third feature is that the Intifada was preceded by a grassroots movement Due to Israeli repression, the various political factions could not organize in the open, especially on the central issue of national liberation. The PLO militants were compelled to shift the focus of their activities towards “bread and butter” issues. From the mid-seventies on, political activists began to organize around social, economic and legal problems that Palestinians encounter every day under occupation. By makng health, education, trade unions and the violation of human rights their primary concern, the political factions were in fact successful in reaching segments of the Palestinian society that were otherwise untouchable.

Like other grassroots organizations, the various women’s groups and committees (which are different from the traditional charitable organizations) set their tasks as mobilizing women around issues of family and work. Their activities centered around women’s concerns such as day care centers, after school activities, clinics and health education programs, literacy classes, vocational training, unionization of women’s labor as well as the establishment of women’s industrial collectives. As a result, they were able to come in contact with and draw in &” and isolated women in towns, villages and camps.

Out of these grassroots experiences, women activists became aware that the struggle for national rights cannot be separated from the struggle for women’s rights. The two most vocal groups regarding the inseparability of these struggles are the Palestine Federation of Women’s Action Committees, founded in 1978, and the Palestinian Working Women’s Committee, founded in 1980. During a 1986 Women’s Action Committee conference, delegates set their goals as organizing women around issues of “family, work and national rights” and pointed out that the national issue should not necessarily be at the top of their agenda.

They emphasized the importance of organizing housewives and women wage workers because: a) they constitute the majority of women in the occupied territories; b) they face “triple oppression as workers, as women and as Palestinians.” The delegates called for the struggle to combat illiteracy, not just in language but also socially and politically; that is, to educate women about their social and political rights.

n a similar fashion, an organizer from the Working Women’s Committee in Hebron explains why in her view the struggles are inseparable:

“We focus our activities on bringing women out of their homes to make them more self-confident and independent … if a woman first gains her rights by breaking down her internal barriers, in her house and then in society at large, then she will be able to deal with the occupation. A woman cannot fight the occupation if she is not even convinced that she has rights such as the right to leave her house.” (Middle East International, March 20, 1987)

It is important to stress again that their feminist consciousness was in fact the outcome of their own experiences as activists. Once they began to focus on women’s rights, they soon realized the importance for the development of a separate women’s movement. For example, the Palestinian Working Women’s Committee was established after a few of their founding members split from the Nablus Seamsters Union to create their own independent unit. According to these women, the split was the result of their inability to work in a union controlled by men who had no understanding and were not willing to take into consideration the particular problems facing women workers, at home and at work.

One can say that the movement in the territories has created a much higher level of feminist consciousness. In contrast to the territories, for example, the Palestinian women militants in Lebanon could not and did not challenge gender relations in the same way. They could not place “family (and) work (before) national rights” nor could they raise the inseparability of the two struggles, as women did in the territories. Palestinian activists in Lebanon organized around women’s concerns, but these issues were almost always subordinated to the larger, i.e. the national, struggle.

In sum, the specific conditions in the occupied territories that helped create the rise of an unarmed, decentralized grassroots movement also encouraged the development of an independent women’s movement that is concerned with feminist issues.* Since the Intifada and especially with the rise of popular and neighborhood committees, the mobilization of women (like the mobilization of the rest of the population) experienced immense growth. According to the Federation of Palestinian Women’s Action Committees, their membership had increased from 8,000 to over 20,000.

Ways in Which Women Became Political

The process of political participation of women varied from class to class, urban to rural, young to old. Most interesting in my view is the difference in the mobilization between young and old. For older generation women, for example, their entry into the political struggle was a natural extension of their relatively powerful status within the extended family household – as providers, protectors of the family and mothers. In their political role, as the “Combative Woman,” “Mother of the Hero,” “Mother of the Martyr,” these women do not challenge patriarchal structures or the prevailing forms of gender inequalities.

One such example is Um Khalil (Samira Khalil), who founded the largest charitable society in the West Bank, In’ash al-Usra (Family Rehabilitation Society) in al-Bireh. Before its closure by the Israeli authorities in June 1988, the Society provided help to students, children of martyrs, prisoners and their families. It also offered vocational training and job placement services. Although Um Khalil is a heroic figure in the movement, she is considered very “traditional” because she enforces rather than challenges traditional roles of women in society.

The case is quite different among the younger generation of women activists. In their case and that of younger men, the Intifada acts as a source of discontinuity not only politically but also socially. Their politicization leads them to defy not just Israeli occupation but traditional authority and patriarchal structures.

Generational and gender-related conflicts in fact are common features of the struggle today. Once they learn to stand up against the powerful Israeli state, its laws and its organized army, they become less afraid to challenge the authority of their parents, brothers, husbands and other cultural modes of control. There are many cases of young women from the refugee camps and villages who through their process of politicization gained certain rights previously forbidden them, including interaction with men, unrestricted mobility and employment outside the home. They all admit that their mobilization as political subjects compelled them to defy traditional relations of domination.

Of course, the presence of women’s committees that have experience in organizing women around women’s rights within the household and society at large have been an important factor in encouraging young women activists to question traditional prescriptions. Fr example, women’s committees occasionally intervene in support of active women who are facing difficulties within their families. In other words, what makes the defiance of patriarchal structures more viable is the fact that it is not carried out as an individual act but in the context of a movement.

Within the context of the Intifada, it is much easier to question the marriage of young girls and the dowry, the bride price. Women are also being educated by the committees on their legitimate and legal rights concerning property and personal rights: i.e. the right of women to divorce under Shari’a (Islamic law) and ways to claim their right to property.

In sum, the Intifada in more ways than one is becoming the vehicle for women to challenge traditional forms and mechanisms of patriarchal control. But can we conclude that the Palestinian women’s movement is a feminist movement?

Well, the question is much more complex: What makes a movement feminist anyway? What is the difference between feminist organization and women’s organization? The Palestinian women’s movement is not just able to bring women to activism, it also confronts certain gender nations. It encourages self-organization and empowerment of women and most importantly, is not run by men.

In women’s collectives – a chicken cooperative in Hizma, north of Jerusalem, or food processing women’s collectives in the villages of Sa’air and Beitellu – the women manage production as well as market their own produce. Even though their goal is economic and not specifically feminist, like the right of childbearing, these are still independent women’s collectives, organized, run and led by women.

Another question to be considered is the family: Can we consider this a feminist movement even if it does not take on the family in the same manner that western feminists do? To begin with, to view the family (as western feminists do) as the principal site of women’s oppression is obviously inappropriate here. In the Palestinian context, where people are fighting to defend and preserve their national identity, the Palestinian family operates as a source of political, social and cultural resistance. The preservation of the family becomes a necessity in the face of everyday struggle against social and political disenfranchisement.

Resistance to male dominance therefore will not take the form of an attack on the family. Rather, the Intifada in practice undermines traditional relations of domination, including that of patriarchy. By raising legal and personal rights of women and putting forward their right to self-organize, the movement in my view is challenging male domination in the family as well as in society.

To be feminist means that women have to challenge male dominance; but there are different ways to do so. The western model, based on industrial experience, is only one such model. The Palestinian can perhaps be another.

*One cannot ignore the rise of a right-wing Islamic political group like Hamas, which is hostile to feminism and women’s liberation. Until recently Hamas functioned outside the Unified Command of the Uprising; earlier it was encouraged and supported by the Israeli authorities to create dissension. Many Palestinians I talked to hope that Hamas will be neutralized now that it has joined the Unified Command. Hamas is most effective in Gaza but as I understand it is still difficult to establish the extent of its popular base.

July-August 1989, ATC 21

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