Fighting for their own liberation
Byline: Miriam Shaviv
Date: Friday, February 8, 2002
Publication: The Jerusalem Post
Last week's terror attack by the first female Palestinian bomber seemed to herald a new role for women in the conflict. But Miriam Shaviv explains why Palestinian women, struggling to find a role in their own society, are largely absent from the action
When Wafa Idris blew herself up in downtown Jerusalem last week, it seemed
to herald a new development in the role of women in the ongoing
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although subsequent investigations have
suggested Idris may have been intending only to plant the bomb, she was
initially viewed as the first Palestinian female suicide bomber.
Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin gave her and any future women
terrorists his blessing, although he did add that there were enough men
willing to carry out suicide bombings in the foreseeable future. Some of
Idris's friends from the al-Amari refugee camp near Ramallah predicted that
a string of Palestinian women attackers would soon follow her example. Top
IDF officers scrambled to rethink security procedures so that women would be
inspected at checkpoints as closely as men.
The irony is that despite Idris's radical act, Palestinian women today are
less active and less sure about their role in the current Palestinian
campaign than ever before.
There have been a small number of women involved in terror activities in the
last year: Amana Mona used the Internet to lure 16-year-old Ofir Rahum from
Ashkelon to Ramallah, where he was murdered by two Fatah activists. Several
women led male suicide bombers to their destinations, and a few have
attempted to stab Israelis, such as Issaweih Abatsam, who stabbed a Bezeq
security guard in east Jerusalem in October.
On the whole, however, Palestinian women have been overwhelmingly absent
from the action. Between September 2000, when the Palestinian violence broke
out, and August 2001, just 30 of the 650 Palestinians killed in action were
women, according to figures compiled by the Palestinian Working Women's
Society for Development. Of those 30, however, six were age 10 and under;
most of the others were caught in gunfire exchanges or died, according to
the Palestinians, because they were prevented from reaching hospitals by the
long lines at army checkpoints. None were killed because they had confronted
soldiers, or had been involved in terror-related activities.
Professor Eileen Kuttab, director of the Women's Studies Institute at Bir
Zeit University, says that women have struggled to find an alternative,
non-violent role in the latest uprising. Their silence is a cause of
frustration for her feminist colleagues.
'We regard the current situation as a missed opportunity, because most gains
for women are made in periods of instability,' she says. 'We want to find
ways to support the intifada, but where have all the women gone?'
Some - like Idris herself, who was a volunteer with the Red Crescent - have
become medics, treating the wounded. Others have created community programs
to counsel those traumatized by the violence, or mourning the loss of a
For most women, however, the main challenge has been to survive, and hold
their families together. Together with the men, they suffer from increasing,
sometimes desperate poverty, restrictions on their freedom of movement, and
encroaching violence in their lives.
As women, however, they carry additional burdens. The violence of the
conflict has left them with wounded husbands, sons, fathers and brothers to
care for. Women who become widows, or whose husbands are out of work, are
forced to become breadwinners.
'Daily life is so hard,' says a mother of 10 boys and six girls from
Tulkarm. 'There are tanks in front of my home, and I'm afraid that any
second soldiers will come and ruin the house. It's difficult to move from
place to place because of the roadblocks, even if you are sick. We're just
afraid for our husbands and children. When they leave the house, who knows
if they will ever come back. I cannot control the actions of the soldiers,
but I can take care of my children. My role is as a mother.'
KUTTAB calls the retreat to the domestic front a 'defeat' for Palestinian
women, who have historically always participated in the fight for
In the early 1970s, a number of Palestinian women managed to rise to
prominence in the staunchly secular and socialist-leaning terror
organizations such as PFLP and DFLP, which were then dominant.
Leila Khaled, who led an attempt to hijack an El Al plane with 158 people on
board in September 1970, mesmerized the world. She was overpowered after
trying to set off a grenade and taken into British custody after the plane
eventually landed in Heathrow. The next day, however, her PFLP colleagues
negotiated her release by blowing up three more airplanes they had
Just two years later, Therese Halaseh, an 18-year-old Greek Orthodox Israeli
Arab, was one of two women who helped hijack a Sabena airliner to Ben-Gurion
Airport, demanding the release of terrorists held in Israel. The Galilee
native, who was carrying an explosive charge, held the lives of 100 people
in her hands for nearly 24 hours. Halaseh captured public attention after
being injured in the rescue operation by recanting her terrorist past and
even claimed she wanted to convert to Judaism.
At the end of the 1970s, Palestinian women decided to fight together. At
that time, public discourse amongst Palestinians was dominated by committees
which represented various groups in the population. Educated, middle-class
women began establishing their own committees which could act in the absence
of political parties. In preparation for an eventual Palestinian state, they
also tried to empower their poorer peers by promoting social welfare and
cultivating leaders in the refugee camps and villages.
'They tied the national liberation struggle to their struggle for social
liberation,' says Kuttab.
The women's efforts paid off when the initial intifada broke out in 1987.
Women are regarded as equal or near-equal partners in that first, popular
uprising, which was jointly run by all the political factions. On the
command level, women often issued the communiques with instructions to
activists, and were leaders on the neighborhood level as well. On the
ground, it was easy for women to take part in the non-violent demonstrations
and stone-throwing sessions which formed the backbone of the first intifada.
'The soldiers did not want to hurt the women or arrest them, so they would
be at the forefront of every demonstration,' says Dr. Mordechai Kedar of the
department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University.
Most importantly, it was during the original intifada that a serious public
discussion began on issues which concerned women, including the bride-price,
spousal abuse, and choice of groom. Women also started achieving more power
in society by delivering medical, agricultural and other services in place
of men who had been arrested.
Women were enthusiastic about joining the battle for independence, says
Kuttab, because they felt that the people were also fighting for a more
just, democratic society which could benefit them.
Circumstances in the current violence campaign are entirely different, as it
is being spearheaded by just a small number of factions in which women have
limited or no representation, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the
Palestinian Authority itself.
'Other groups were never told what their role was to be,' says Amneh Badran,
acting director of the Jerusalem Center for Women, just outside the A-Ram
checkpoint, which encourages Palestinian women to become more active in
public life. 'The struggle never became a popular enough movement that
included all sectors.'
IN THE meantime, the power of the women's organizations - which would have
once been able to lobby for an increased role for women - has been
Kedar explains that when Yasser Arafat established the Palestinian Authority
in 1994, the committees were too independent for his tastes. He brought them
under the PA's control, limiting their agendas and budgets, and losing many
members in the process.
The women, Kedar adds, are yet to adjust to the loss of their main source of
influence in the political arena.
For individuals, the violence of the 'Aksa intifada' is a crucial and
intimidating factor. Guns and bombs have replaced rocks as the weapons of
choice. There is a feeling that the Israeli soldiers are quicker at the
trigger and are willing to employ more force against demonstrators than they
did a decade ago, because of the increased risk to their lives.
'We want to be safe,' says the Tulkarm mother of 16. 'Fighting is not for
women, we are meant for higher things.'
According to Kuttab, women are also reluctant to fight alongside the men
because they were disillusioned after the original intifada.
'Oslo came, and it didn't deliver for women,' she says. 'We weren't really
included in the negotiations. When the political structures were established
in the PA, women were not given the opportunity to become more involved.
There are a few wives of martyrs who are involved in the PA [such as the
widow of Abu Jihad] but they are just symbolic.'
Out of the 88 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, five are
women. In 1999, just 22 of 3,439 members of the local councils were female.
'Even the left-wing parties which talked about equality never ended up
putting what they preached into practice,' Kuttab says. 'There is a lot of
According to Badran, women still want to find other ways to work for the
cause of independence. As part of her job, Badran runs workshops for women
in order to raise their awareness of the importance of participation in
'They are eager to participate,' she says. 'They don't want to continue
The women's desire to take action will presumably only grow as the financial
circumstances in the territories continue to deteriorate and the violence
In the near future, however, it seems that their options are limited.
Badran argues that women must fight to become more involved in the political
arena. She suggests lobbying for quotas of women's representation in all the
factions. In order to reinvigorate the women's organizations which might
help in this effort, she suggests they adopt more democratic procedures,
which would attract new members, and lead to a development in activities and
Skeptics point out that the Islamic parties have proved all but impenetrable
for women, while women who reached the top of the PA have either neglected
to address women's issues, or have been given lightweight portfolios. Even
Hanan Ashrawi, the most prominent woman in the PA, recently became the
spokesperson of the Arab League. Political pundits interpreted her
'defection' as an expression of her frustration with the opportunities
accorded to her by the Palestinian establishment.
THE ACTIVISTS reject outright any suggestion that the women's movement
systematically adopt the approach of Wafa Idris.
'We believe in peaceful resistance and civil disobedience,' says Badran. 'We
do not believe in operations that violate human rights.'
Says Kuttab, 'We won't encourage this. We don't even like bombers who are
Badran says she does not know of any women's organizations which advocate
violence, a fact she attributes to women's innate preference for more
peaceful modes of conflict resolution. Although some on the Palestinian side
would argue that Idris struck a blow for Palestinian feminism by carrying
out a task previously reserved for males, Badran argues that the women's
organizations are taking the truly feminist approach by promoting women's
ideals over those of men.
In fact, there is some reason to believe that despite the public adulation,
many Palestinians reacted to Idris' action with downright scorn. Sources say
that many locals looked down on the refugee-camp resident, and said she was
motivated not so much by nationalistic or religious fervor, but by a desire
to escape what society regards as shameful personal circumstances.
Idris was a ninth-grade dropout who married her high school sweetheart, a
blacksmith. The couple divorced after Idris failed to bear any children.
According to Kedar, 'in Arab society, a woman without children has not
fulfilled her true potential.'
He agrees that there is a possibility that she was motivated by a desire to
prove her self-worth. There are precedents: in the original intifada there
was a string of young Palestinian women who clumsily and often
unsuccessfully tried to stab Israeli soldiers.
'Most of them had got into trouble with relatives because they had slept
around, and were afraid their families were going to lynch them,' says
Kedar. 'By attacking Israelis, they found refuge in jail, while turning into
heroes for the general public.'
In the absence of other options, some women in recent months have begun to
reinterpret women's retreat to the home as an active contribution to the
In a recent article published simultaneously by Al-Hayat in London and
Al-Quds in Jerusalem, Lucy Nusseibeh, wife of PA Jerusalem representative
Sari Nusseibeh, said that non-violent resistance can be broadly viewed as
'an assertion of humanity and as the development of potential in spite of
the odds against it, since violence essentially cuts off potentialÉ
'The context for Palestinians today is one of total despairÉ Many children
no longer dream of anything other than becoming 'martyrs,' and it is all
that most women can do just to cope - for themselves and for their families.
In this situation of siege and bomb attacks, with women and children paying
the heaviest price, such coping is itself an assertion of non-violence.'
Nusseibeh, who is British-born, told The Jerusalem Post that women's
day-to-day effort is an 'equal, and powerful contribution.' The emerging
consensus is that in order for women to take a more public role again, they
must wait until the Palestinian leadership makes a strategic choice to
return to the less violent methods of the first intifada.
In the past few months, women have initiated non-violent demonstrations,
marches and petitions. So far, however, they have been ineffective because
of a lack of attention from the press.
'The media is not interested in anything but blood, shooting, bombings, and
declarations by Sharon,' says Badran.
Kuttab says that women must persist. Although the women's movements are
currently too weak to organize properly, 'When we do participate actively,
the nature of the struggle will change, because it will become more popular
again. It will become harder for the Israelis to suppress because they
cannot shell peaceful women and children.'
This could happen soon. 'We are reaching a breaking point. People are
becoming more and more aware that we are in a dead-end,' she says.
From the point of view of Palestinian women's emancipation, she says, it is
now or never.
'If we don't begin to participate in the struggle more broadly, we will miss
the historical opportunities we are always talking about.'
|© 2010 Miriam Shaviv | Design by Danny Bermant|