Palestinian Women Warriors

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Palestinian working women must be courageous just to survive, and those who have

joined the resistance struggle are heroes.

In 1967, the Israeli army seized control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which

was all Palestinian land. Today, 41 years later, Palestine is still under imperialist Israeli

military occupation, abetted by major U.S. financial support. The Israelis routinely deport

political leaders, kill and imprison women, men, and children, confiscate water and

private Palestinian land for Jewish settlements, and put horrific restrictions on the daily

lives of Palestinians.

A Palestinian woman leads chants at a protest
against the construction of the Annexation Wall.
Photo by Lisa Nessan.

Palestinian women are triply oppressed: by the occupation, as women, and as workers.

While the occupation oppresses all Palestinians, women suffer additional cruelties. They

must stand in long lines at checkpoints and roadblocks waiting for Israeli soldiers to

check their identification before they can pass. This lengthy process delays food and

medicine, and has resulted in deaths among the sick, elderly, and infants whose mothers

were forced to give birth in the lines without medical help or sanitary facilities.

The customary role of Palestinian women in a predominantly rural and Muslim society

is limited to the home and raising children. Their responsibilities are especially merciless

because of the great poverty caused by high unemployment rates, Israeli land grabs,

lengthy in-home curfews, and the harsh measures taken against resistance. When a

Palestinian woman’s husband or sons are killed or imprisoned, she becomes the head

of the household and the breadwinner. And when Israeli bulldozers demolish homes in

retaliation for armed resistance, women must keep the family together.

Whether working in Israel or the Occupied Territories, Palestinian women are atrociously

exploited. They work in the lowest positions, in substandard conditions, and are paid less

than the minimum wage. Without organised trade unions, these women have minimal

awareness of workers’ rights.

Fight for national liberation. Today, women’s resistance continues a tradition begun

in the 1930s when the militant women’s group, Zahrat Al-Okhowan, fought the British

occupation of Palestine. In 1967, women immediately joined the struggle against the

Israeli occupation. They organised massive demonstrations as well as direct actions

against the occupiers, including at least 10 suicide bombings, throwing stones at heavily

armed Israeli soldiers or, as one woman did twice before she was caught, throwing acid

in a checkpoint soldier’s face.

One courageous action is a legend. After a stone-throwing incident, soldiers chased a

group of young men. They caught one, beat him, and were pulling him toward their jeep,

when a young woman with a baby in her arms rushed up, screaming angrily at the young

man: “So there you are! What do you expect me to do when you are arrested? How will I

eat? How will I feed our baby? I will not do it alone! Here, you take the baby.”

She shoved the baby into the young man’s arms and fled. The soldiers, who now had a

baby to deal with, pushed the young man away and left. Then the mother came out from

hiding, took the baby from the young man—whom she had never seen before—and went


The first Intifada. The most active participation and leadership of women in the national

struggle took place from 1987 to 1993, during the first Intifada (the mass uprising).

Women openly led many actions, including a general strike, a boycott of Israeli products,

mass civil disobedience, and stone throwing.

Women also used other protest tactics. When Israeli soldiers arrested a child, Palestinian

women would pour into the streets, each claiming loudly that the child was hers. Faced

with dozens of women clamoring for the release of “my child,” soldiers often felt

pressured to let the child go.

Palestinian women also organised committees to arrange medical services, establish

schools and childcare, and secure the provision of many necessities. Their most

challenging task was organising and sustaining the boycott against Israeli goods. Without

industries in the Occupied Territories, many items of daily life were produced in Israel.

The women’s committees provided alternative sources of income and products by

creating their own local industries, such as cheese making, baking bread, and starting

community gardens.

Nearly 60% of Palestinian women actively participated in this struggle and the Israeli

military responded harshly. In the first two years of the Intifada, over 1,000 people

were killed, and 25,000 children were injured. And like men, women participants faced

incarceration. Since 1967, the Israelis have imprisoned 10,000 women, including mothers

with babies, women younger than 18 years, and some imprisoned several times.

In prison, women organised actions such as hunger strikes. After release, women face

personal difficulties. While their courage is admired, they have special difficulty in

getting hired or married because they are considered “too strong.” These risks have not

deterred women. Clearly, without the leadership of women, the first Intifada could not

have continued for six years.

Women’s organisations. Palestinian society is the most secular in the Arab world, and

only about 25% of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are religious. Still, Islamic

movements are very popular and influential because of their political stand, consistency,

and effectiveness in the liberation battle. Their dominance, however, has kept women out

of public life.

Although women’s involvement in the national struggle has helped to advance their

social position, the struggle for national liberation is commonly considered the most

important at this time. Even among the women who openly joined the uprisings, only

a few believe that the struggle is also for women’s liberation. Moreover, the national

struggle is often used to push feminist issues aside. Based on the experience of Algerian

women who were forced back into a submissive role after their active participation in

armed struggle helped win liberation from French occupation, Palestinian women know

that their new position in society may be reversed once Palestine is free.

The first women’s rights activism among Palestinian women was begun at the end of the

19th century by middle class, educated, and mostly Christian women. At the same time,

women participated in liberation movements against the Turks and British, but not as


Women’s grassroots organisations, urban and rural, grew along with the national

liberation movements. Called “women’s committees,” they began in the early 1970s.

Each committee was associated with a political party and was represented in the Higher

Women’s Council established in 1988.

Today, most of these organisations have become Non-Governmental Organisations

(NGOs). They focus on improving women’s position in society through education of

women and men about women’s issues, leadership training for women, and providing

concrete support to women. However, since the strings attached to NGO funding

prohibit taking sides, NGOs disguise the actual economic and political roots of women’s

oppression. They avert women from the struggle for their liberation and equality. This

depolitisation of women is a major obstacle to building a strong women’s movement.

Support from Israeli women. Israeli women support the Palestinian struggle in various

ways, from creating places for Israeli and Palestinian women to meet to managing

human rights organisations and open demonstrations. Two groups, Women in Black and

Makhsom Watch (Checkpoint Watch), are prominent.

Women in Black began in Israel in 1988 to support the Intifada. Every Friday afternoon,

women wearing black clothing gather in the central squares of many cities and hold

picket signs against the occupation and for human rights. Despite verbal and physical

abuse, this movement has continued to grow and is now international.

Makhsom Watch was established in 2001 with the goal of providing some protection to

Palestinians at checkpoints. These Israeli women stand at checkpoints to monitor the

behaviour of soldiers and police, ensure protection of Palestinians’ human rights, and report violations to the widest

possible audience. The information collected by Makhsom Watch is used as evidence in

many human rights trials.

Israeli women also directly collaborate with their Palestinian sisters through organisations

that include members from both sides of the occupation’s border.

Feminism in Palestine. Feminism as a social movement and an ideology is practised

only by middle class and educated women, and in the academic world. Palestinian

feminism ignores a class analysis and is split three ways: secular, fundamentalist, and

Muslim feminism.

Secular feminists fought to change laws that are biased against women, and to include

a “Women’s Bill of Rights” in the Palestinian constitution. This struggle was carried

out mainly by feminist writers and has been particularly difficult with the rise of

fundamentalism. Secular feminist writers are accused of imitating American or Western

feminism, which is considered irrelevant to Palestinian women.

Fundamentalist Muslim women see advantages in Islam for the role of women. As

educators of the new generation, they can instill the values of national liberation in their

children, primarily resistance to Western colonial powers. Many Palestinian women,

religious or not, wear the hijab, a long dress required by Islam to cover most of a

woman’s body, as a statement against colonialism.

Muslim feminists provide a meeting point between secularist and fundamentalist

feminism. They give a “feminist” interpretation to the Shari’a (Islamic law), one that is

much less oppressive to women. That is to say, they try to have their cake and eat it, too.

The Role of the Left. With the increase in NGOs, fundamentalism, and the cruelty of

the occupation, it is extremely important to support the struggle for women’s rights and

equality as an integral part of the struggle for national liberation. Palestine will not be

free as long as its women are oppressed.

For this reason, too, a class analysis is crucial to expose the root of the problem —

American capitalism and imperialism. True, the Israeli army leads the brutal occupation

and Israeli national chauvinists and capitalists benefit generously from it. But Israel is

only able to continue the occupation because it is necessary to U.S. capitalists and funded

by them. The occupation makes it possible for U.S. imperialism to dominate the oil-rich

Middle East.

The U.S. ruling class understands this very well, and is not ashamed of it. In a 2007

interview on New Jersey’s Shalom TV station, Senator Joe Biden said, “…Israel is the

single greatest strength America has in the Middle East.” He emphasised that without

Israel, one could only imagine how many battleships and troops the U.S. would have to

station in the Middle East.

As former Secretary of State and NATO forces commander Alexander Haig put it, “I am

pro-Israel because Israel constitutes the largest U.S. aircraft carrier that cannot be sunk,

does not carry even one U.S. soldier, and is located in a most critical region for U.S.

national security.”

In solidarity with Palestinian and Israeli women, Radical Women supports the struggle

to end the occupation, and we call for a bilateral, secular, socialist state in which women

and men, Palestinians and Israelis, can live in harmony with equal economic and civil


Raya is a native of Israel and a professor of Information Science at the University of Washington in Seattle. This article was excerpted from her presentation at the Radical Women 41st National Conference in San Francisco on October 4, 2008.

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