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
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
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
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.
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.