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Monday, 3 October 2011

What was the Role of Palestinian Women in the First Intifada?

The volume of discussion of the Arab Spring has inspired me to take a look back at a key uprising - the first Palestinian intifada - and discuss the role women played during it. The Intifadas were key periods in modern Palestinian (and Israeli) history. They were socio-political movements that physically expressed Palestinian frustration and anger at the oppressive and colonialist policies of the Occupation, from a grassroots level. Intifada is the Arabic term for “Civil Uprising”, and literally means ‘shaking off’. The Uprisings were named thus, to represent throwing off the Israeli regime; the feeling of national desolation, related to pre-existing weakness, was also to be discarded. Although the first and second (Al-Aqsa), Intifadas were similar in their root causes, they differed enormously in their characteristics. One of the primary discrepancies was the role women played, particularly how they were greatly more active in the first Uprising than in the second. Resultantly, the main body of this paper will focus on the roles women played before, during and after the first Intifada, and whether any social changes that were implemented, became permanent.  However, some reference will be made to their role in the Al-Aqsa Intifada, to highlight the vast difference between the two. 


The first Intifada began on 9th December 1987, and was a mass mobilization and uprising of the Palestinian population of the Gaza strip and the West Bank, against the injustice and repression of life under the Occupation.  Palestinians had to pay Israeli-enforced taxes, and were often subjected to raids, detentions, and enforced curfews. Violence was a daily occurrence, and conditions were a constant reminder that their own national aspiration for independence had been denied. The injustice they felt was compounded by Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and the construction of settlements in the West Bank, the Gaza strip and Arab east Jerusalem. Palestinian frustration had been simmering for years, but the catalyst cause of the outbreak of the first Intifada, was a road traffic accident in which several Palestinians were killed by an Israeli vehicle.

The first Intifada was a social phenomenon; a search for self-identity at the individual and cultural social levels. Hundreds of thousands of individuals were mobilized during the Uprising, the majority of whom had never before forayed into active resistance or participated in political action. Traditional values were sidelined in the struggle, and gender, age and class boundaries were essentially dissolved as men, women, and children of all ages and from all social strata united in participation. Huge media coverage, in particular images depicting women and youths facing armed Israeli soldiers, helped generate unprecedented international recognition and sympathy, and propelled women’s issues into the forefront of contemporary consciousness as never before.

All across the world, women have long struggled for equality, recognition as valued members of society, and the opportunity to make their presence felt in the political arena. These struggles become even more prominent in times of war and conflict, a situation that is very familiar to Palestinian women. Until the beginning of the century, patriarchal authority and the religious and cultural traditions of Islam and the Arab world, meant female social standing was far lower than men’s, and women were relegated to the submissive ‘other’.[2] Their role was embedded in tradition, and prior to 1987, women were restricted to the private domain of the home. The Arabic saying (commonly circulated prior to the twenty-first century) expounds this tradition: ‘my woman never left the home until the day she was carried out’.[3]

However, since the beginning of the twenty-first century, Muslim women (in particular) in Palestine have been attempting to make their collective voice heard, and reduce the division within their societies, created by the gender gap. The seed of a feminist movement had begun to develop very gradually, but it was the outbreak of the Intifada, and its accompanying demands, that greatly accelerated the development of women’s roles, and brought about social changes. It made it possible, and even desirable, for women to be drawn out of their homes and into the social and political arenas. 'Although it is often asserted that women’s traditional role in the family is an obstacle to public political action...these barriers seem to have become permeable for Palestinian women during the Uprising.'[4]

As a direct result of the Intifada, women were able actively to participate more fully in society. They continued with their traditional ‘women’s work’, although additionally adopted roles and duties that had previously been deemed male vocations. This is a classic example of reordering of societal norms, and is symptomatic of a population engaged in struggle: ‘when a community is involved in open conflict and all resources are directed towards an external threat.., there is likely to be some fluidity in social ordering.’[5]

The feminist movement gained momentum, as women became more active and politicized: ‘women took up the fight, not only against Occupation, but also against the restrictive norms of their society.’[6] Public perception concerning the role and status of women also began to change as they undertook prominent roles in the Uprising. For the first time, women stood shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts, which thrust the subjects of women’s rights and gender equality into the spotlight. As a result, the feminist movement became synonymous with the nationalist struggle, and for many, the movements became inextricably intertwined. Jayawardena and West, for example, believe that far from being mutually exclusive, the movements are compatible and complementary, with both working towards the goal of transformation.

Membership of committees (both single, and mixed-gender), was one of the primary ways in which women were involved in the Intifada. Their participation was not only invaluable to the struggle, but also allowed for the domestic and political spheres to become more compatible. This in turn signified a move towards women playing more active roles in society than before. This marked increase in membership count of women’s committees was coupled with a decline in significance of the mainly charitable work of city-based committees, which were popular prior to 1987. Such work had generally been the province of bourgeois, urban women, but the Intifada saw the mobilization of women from every sector of society, and an inclination towards active participation, as opposed to passive charitable work.

The centrality of the women’s movement was unprecedented, and since 1987, the movement emerged, in the format of various women’s committees, as a:

...key organising force, a threat to many traditional Palestinian customs and values as well as to Israeli hegemony over the West Bank and Gaza, and a significant component to the effort to restructure the Palestinian economy, which [was] an essential goal of the Intifada.[7]

However, these committees did not emerge in a vacuum. They had been in existence since 1978, with the aims of promoting awareness of women’s issues and generating social flexibility and recognition. They attempted to raise women’s consciousness, and provided its members with training and practical skill development classes in order to increase their personal and social wealth.  These earlier committees provided a basis and model for the committees formed after 1987, and with the outbreak of Intifada this training evolved, and became broader in scope, to provide women with the training and means to support their own households and participate in the Uprising. Before 1987, there were only several hundred women belonging to women’s committees, but after the outbreak of the intifada this number increased to near five thousand. The Women’s Committee for Social Work also recorded forty new committees by 1993.

Four main women’s committees emerged, each of which was associated with a different political party. These were: the Association of Labour Committee, which was linked to the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP); the Association of Working Palestinian Women, tied to the Palestinian Communist Party; the Association of Palestinian Women, linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); and the Women’s Association for Social Works, which was associated with Fatah.

They were responsible for organising the popular committees, and a number of splinter organisations were formed to address the different problem areas resulting from the Occupation. These included, amongst others, home economy and agriculture, medical, and neighbourhood committees. They were generally mixed gender, but women were more active in the majority of organisations, and made up a larger percentage of the membership count. Nationalism was a primary incentive for women to take up active roles, but for some women, their role had to change, for as the political struggle escalated, large numbers of Palestinian men were jailed or exiled, and gaps were left in communities, which women had to fill in order to keep their neighbourhoods and families together. The women’s committees facilitated this move, and, ‘[women] assumed leadership roles in political and communal organisations, and in popular committees, [which] challenged the traditional economic division of labour.'[9]

The agriculture committees were primarily found within the refugee camps, and were designed to promote national economic independence from Israel and provide food for local neighbourhoods in times of scarcity. Palestinians boycotted Israeli produce, and women grew “victory gardens” to generate goods for personal and marketable use as enforced closure of local shops meant they faced food shortages unless they relied on themselves. They raised animals and grew, pickled, and preserved fruit and vegetables, made jams, ice cream and biscuits.  Women also stockpiled food for when curfews were implemented and smuggled food and goods to families during such times, whilst also covertly distributing, ‘publications discussing food storage and preservation and caring for plants and animals’.[10] They similarly circulated the United National Leadership’s bayanat (leaflets), which told of the strike dates, and outlined behaviour rules.

Women’s committees also addressed agricultural issues from a grassroots level and organised tuition for rural women in the basics of food production, accounting, and hygiene. Initiatives like this not only helped sustain the Palestinian economy and disrupt Israeli exportation, but also gave women a taste of economic independence, set the precedent for other women to join the movement, and created more jobs. Prolific committee member and women’s rights activist, Um Khalid spoke of her participation in the committees:

Now I feel I am able to fight for my full right as a woman and as a human being. I am no longer just a housewife. No, I’m part of the workforce which is creating the direct change in my society…By being productive I can also be a full partner in establishing the structure of our society.[11]

In addition to agriculture, women also addressed home economy issues. They approached churches and charitable organisations, which subsequently provided them with the materials to make handicrafts and clothes, which they then sold, or donated, to Palestinian prisoners. Sewing workshops were started, where women were taught practical skills by others. Such roles were of great importance, and earned women recognition and acceptance from the male population. However, such activities were not too far removed from traditional female duties, so it is debatable whether or not these roles aided the feminist cause or simply reinforced women’s traditional role in society. Women belonging to these committees also performed their resistance “work” in addition to their household duties, thus showing that although the equality divide was diminished, traditional role boundaries were not completely dissolved.

Women also played key roles in education committees, where they taught the pupils of the schools that had been shut during the strict curfews; often for long periods of time. When the neighbourhood committees were outlawed in August 1988, a small group of women still taught clandestine classes in their homes at great personal risk from Israeli Defence Force (IDF) raids and subsequent beatings. These teachers were respected by men as they were playing an important role in shaping the future generation of Palestinians. In the Al-Aqsa Intifada, teaching was again used by women as tool for self-realisation. Many women focused on education in an attempt to reduce the violence that permeated many aspects of their lives and societies, from a grassroots level. However, a sector of women also used education to promote active resistance, as one report shows: ‘[Women’s role is very important and is no less important than that of the man… She carries the difficult burden of making a living and educating the children to jihad.’[12]

However, after the committee ban, women’s roles changed yet again. The number of committees declined, and the majority of women reverted back to the more traditional activities of needlework and home economy. Some scholars believe that the change in female role appeared to only last as long as their active participation, and by the end of 1988, tradition had superseded the “new” and altered society.

Medical committees were formed in response to the huge number of injured Palestinians, to provide an alternative place of treatment to Israeli hospitals and transport patients to Palestinian hospitals. Female members played a major role in sustaining their local communities’ health and welfare through participation in such committees. They blood-typed whole neighbourhoods, and organized clandestine blood donor networks, as well as providing emergency local medical treatment as an alternative to hospitalisation. This was important as it was commonly believed that injured Palestinians were arrested and detained once they had been taken to hospital for treatment, or they simply ‘vanished’ from there in the hands of the IDF.  Women with medical knowledge also taught first-aid to others and organized health lectures from medical relief personnel. This was particularly necessary as checkpoints made progress to medical facilities extremely slow, and during curfews it was near impossible to get medical help for the injured, so local treatment was of paramount importance.

Women participated in neighbourhood committees, which were more localised versions of the various women’s committees. They coordinated activities designed to help the survival of their neighbourhoods, and each had a splinter committee to deal with emergencies and ongoing services and supplies. These committees addressed all aspects of civilian life and became the driving force for individual neighbourhoods. Committee members supported their local communities, and attempted to consolidate community spirit by mobilizing their neighbours to visit the sick and wounded, as well as the families of Palestinians who had been killed. They cared for imprisoned Palestinian women and worked on behalf of all incarcerated Palestinians by contacting lawyers, arranging prison visits via the Red Cross, and making and sending clothing and supplies to prisoners. They also organized sit-in demonstrations at local Red Cross branches to contest the terrible prison conditions and mass detentions.

Women also became responsible for the upkeep and repair of their neighbourhoods, and would survey the collateral damage after a raid and call for emergency services if necessary. They ensured the roads were cleaned and any rubbish was removed, in order that daily life could run as smoothly as possible (under the circumstances), and the shebab (young men) could continue their activities. Women formed close knit groups, and neighbourhoods became like extended families, where help was available to everyone. Committee members would address and tackle individuals’ problems, and collect donations of food and money for women who were struggling to upkeep their family and household if their husbands were away fighting, or had been killed or imprisoned. The role of women in the neighbourhood committees also incorporated the provision of child-care facilities, (particularly in refugee camps and villages), so their mothers could leave their homes in search of work, or to participate in the Uprising.

Some roles undertaken by women in neighbourhood committees went against traditional gender norms. One duty in particular was that of neighbourhood night guarding, which was a previously unheard role for women. They also took to the front-line of demonstrations and prepared ammunition for the shebab, and the loosely-termed Defence Committees. Reports have even surfaced of women taking part in the violence: ‘We told the shebab, stay home and sleep, today we’re in charge’.[13] Such actions prompted one female activist to say: ‘behind every man is a woman who strengthens his hands’.

Providing the shebab with ammunition and throwing rocks themselves was essentially the only physical expression of female aggression in the first Intifada, although this changed dramatically in the second, wherein women’s primary roles were violent. This was in keeping with the hostile characteristic of the Al-Aqsa Uprising: weapons (primarily guns), replaced stones, and records show that Fatah and its associates committed (or attempted) more than 1500 attacks since the outbreak. It was largely due to this militarization that the means and forms of struggle in the second Intifada were very limited, compared with those of the first. It did not leave room for many sectors of the population to participate, as violence was generally considered to be solely male terrain. Despite this, Israel's security forces recorded more than twenty cases in which women were directly involved in ‘sabotage activity against Israeli targets’,[15] and January 2002 saw the first usage of a female suicide bomber by HAMAS. Female members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, PFLP, and HAMAS were been employed as suicide bombers, targeting both Israeli soldiers and civilians, and since January 2002 several of the most severe attacks inside Israel and Gaza have been due to female martyrs.

However, Islamic opinion was divided concerning the role of women in martyr attacks. While some argued that it was symbolic of women moving towards equality, whilst raising their cultural status, others fostered the belief that female recruitment should not be read as a sign of rising status, as suicide bombers are considered relatively lowly and replaceable due to their disposable nature. (However, this view should be questioned as in Muslim culture martyrs are generally honoured and revered.) A more diplomatic opinion states that female suicide terrorism is simply the next logical step in the struggle, for women had previously (although partially) transgressed their sexual and cultural restraints and fought shoulder to shoulder with men during the Uprising, and since male suicide bombing was far more prevalent in the second Intifada, women followed suit and adopted the tactic.

Suicide terrorism was not however, a tool of the first Intifada, where women instead utilized themselves in different, but no less effective, ways.  In addition to committee work, they adopted more spontaneous duties, and in an apparent role-reversal, assumed the responsibility of protecting their male counterparts. Women physically stood between Palestinian men and the IDF to prevent arrests and beatings, and there are many reported examples of women sheltering fugitives in their houses, even if the men in question were strangers to them. 

Men also came to rely on the protection of women during demonstrations, which were one of the fundamental ways in which Palestinians protested throughout the Intifada. Huge percentages of the population were mobilized during such demonstrations, and the sight of women participants became an everyday occurrence. The demonstrations were highly problematic for the IDF, due to their spontaneous and often volatile nature, and the Israeli response was often extremely harsh. It became dangerous for men to participate without the presence of women, as they would often be forcibly apprehended and/or beaten. To counter this, women began demonstrating in huge numbers alongside men, and their role, ‘changed to a critical one – not because they could be as aggressive as the men, but because their very presence in a confrontational setting seemed to be an inciting factor’.[16]

This shows a remarkable shift in gender relations, for pre-Intifada, physical and even visual contact with men was prohibited for women, and integration, especially in such close proximity as demonstrations demand, would be taken as a serious misdemeanour. However, traditional norms were sidelined for the greater good of the Uprising, and the majority opinion was that women’s participation was a positive development. In fact, most families were proud of their female relatives’ involvement and new politicized status, and many encouraged other family members to participate. Giacman and Johnson highlight the Palestinian community’s acceptance of female political activism during the struggle, with special reference to the presence of unmarried women in demonstrations and mixed-gender committees.

Female only demonstrations were also frequent, and women naturally took positions of leadership and authority. They also played key roles in anti-war movements as activists and peacemakers, and worked to try and bring peace to both Israelis and Palestinians. In some instances, women from both sides came together, and one outcome was the Jerusalem Link: a correlated grouping of women’s centres on both sides of the conflict zone. They attempted to show that cooperation was possible, and that both sides shared a vision of peace. Women attended, organised and led demonstrations and marches to reinforce this belief, and by March 1988 women were leading an average of 115 women-only marches per week,[18] and participating in an unspecified amount of mixed-gender demonstrations.
In January of that year, the all-female group, Women in Black was also formed in Jerusalem.  Women belonging to this organisation modelled their activity on the actions of protesting mothers in the Plaza del Mayo, Buenos Aires.[19] They held weekly demonstrations, where they protested against the violence, arrests and killings of women and children, miscarriages caused by tear-gas and the Occupation in general. They also attempted to establish a more peaceful future, providing information to the media, as well as organising press conferences and meetings with Israeli women to try and generate peace talks. 1988 was a landmark year, in which Women in Black organised the first women’s peace conference, during which Palestinian and Israeli women addressed issues including freedom from human rights violations and persecution, and the development of a safe society in which individuals from both sides of the conflict zone could live alongside one other. 

In 1989 the group organised a second conference called ‘Women Go For Peace’, which opened three days of international activities working towards amity. This concluded with the illustrious ‘Hands Around Jerusalem’, which was an outstanding achievement involving 25,000 Palestinians and Israelis who joined hands and encircled the perimeter of the Old City, in a symbolic chain of peace. The outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada saw an active revival of the group, and in September 2000 women returned to the streets of Jerusalem to campaign for the termination of the Occupation, and to lobby for full involvement of women in peace negotiations. Women in Black has now flourished into an international network, and its work has been recognised in the nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

It should be noted however, that although it is often believed that women’s participation in the demonstrations, and their integration with men, meant that their status was rising, women had participated in earlier demonstrations, yet their social role and standing still remained lower than their male counterparts. Strum cites the anti-settlement marches of 1984, and the demonstrations in opposition to the Balfour Declaration in 1917, as earlier examples of female activity on the fringe of politics, and uses them as examples against the notion that the Intifada dramatically changed women’s status. Comparisons have also been drawn between the women of Palestine, Algeria, and the female work force during World War One. Women played vital roles in the revolutionary situations in Algeria and World War One, and were empowered as they helped maintain societal structure and momentum while the men were jailed or exiled. However, when they returned, the traditional gender structure was resumed, as males did not accept the new-found female authority and relative independence. In these examples, women’s contribution to struggle was unfortunately dwarfed by cultural tradition; they lost all their rights they had gained after liberation, and they found themselves under a patriarchal authority that was even more oppressive than it had previously been. Palestinian women questioned whether this would also be their fate, although this did not hinder their participation in the Uprising.

To conclude, women played various and key roles throughout the Intifada, although this did not completely alter or reverse the traditional norms and values of Palestinian society. For all the rhetoric that took place in the female name, and despite the presence of women in positions of power, total equality was not gained. Men still generally made decisions regarding the struggle: ‘The new situation gave women more freedom of movement, but not the freedom of full participation of decision-making. The new situation enhanced the role of women without seriously undermining the status of men.’[20]

[Additionally], just as the Intifada in its initial stage offered remarkable opportunities for the development of the women’s movement, the obverse is also true; the women’s movement in the occupied territories; inextricably tied to the national movement, reflects each twist and turn of the national fortune. The shape that the fledgling women’s movement will take on in the future depends on the political future of the territories occupied by Israel.[21]

Women’s role changes appear somewhat superficial, for although women’s roles changed, general perception did not. Despite a large percentage of men viewing women’s participation in the Intifada as necessary and valuable, this was only in the context of the Struggle. A common perception was that female activity was an “emergency measure” that would become obsolete once liberation was achieved, and the traditional and cultural norms would, once again, take preference. The Uprising was not enough to change patriarchal perceptions, and the role of women, but it did provide a springboard for the feminist movement to generate change in the future. Sabbagh claims, ‘If documentation of women’s participation can safeguard against the obliteration of women’s rights after independence has been won, then Palestinian women’s rights are well insured.’[22]

The Intifadas did encourage women to question and challenge the restrictive environment in which they lived. Participation in the Uprising made them see themselves in a different light, and gave them the confidence to continue their quest for female emancipation. They contributed to the drive for economic self-sufficiency, and empowered themselves though independent participation, which greatly contributed to the Palestinian ability to sustain the Intifada and survive as a people. Not only did Palestinian women play a leading role in their nation’s struggle for liberation, but they realised their rights as females as a result of their role in the Intifada. They won the respect and the admiration, not only of their male counterparts in the occupied territories, but of the population of the world.







[2] de Beauvoir (1972)
[3] El Saadawi & Hetata  (1980), p.219
[4] Giacaman & Johnson  (1989), p.162
[5] Ridd & Calaway eds. (1987), p.3
[6] Augustine, ed. (1993), p.18
[7] Strum (1992), p.1
[8] Augustine ed. (1993), p.23
[9] Peretz (1990), p. 96
[10] Nassor & Heacock (1990), p. 136
[11] Sabbagh ed. (1996), p. 111.
[13] Nassor & Heacock (1990), p.141
[16] Schiff & Ya’ari (1989), p.118
[17] Giacaman & Johnson (1989), p.161
[18] Nassor & Heacock (1990), p. 133
[19] Peretz (1990), p. 141
[21] Sabbagh ed. (1996), p. 113
[22] Ibid p. 112

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