Portraits of Palestinian Women

Portraits Of Palestinian Women
Orayb Aref Najjar University of Utah Press, 1992, $14,95.

Palestinian women have long been neglected by both media and academia, states Orayb Aref Najjar; it is time that we listened to their stories. In Najjar’s Portraits many Palestinian women speak in the first person—rich and poor, educated, illiterate, politically active and politically embittered.

“My mother is a Druze from Lebanon, a strong free woman,” one woman begins. “When I see a plowed field, I feel secure,” she adds. “I would feel lost without it. I see a plowed field and I know what my life is.”

“I tried to reassure my father,” says another woman, “that the situation was not entirely hopeless, and that one day Arab armies would come to our rescue; and I believed it.” Later, she relates, “I felt that the United Nations was turning my people into beggars.”

“I cry when I think of my children having a life like mine,” says a refugee-camp mother. “I’m not interested in political events in Israel; I don’t think they will make any difference to us. Israel is like a snake — it can shed one skin and grow another, but it’s still the same snake, and a snake is never your friend.”

Portraits of Palestinian Women is a moving and often scathing work. “Although Palestinian women are deeply involved in the nationalist Palestinian struggle… the West knows them only as shadowy veiled figures with no interest in politics,” writes Najjar. “But home demolition is politics, and so is refugee status…. in this book women appear as themselves in the hope that they will cease to be invisible.”

Beyond relating the painful facts of the current Israeli/Palestinian situation, Najjar’s book provides a slant not to be found in the media. Portraits of Palestinian Women reveals the secondary impingements of the intifada on the personal lives of Palestinian women: “It used to be that some girls postponed marriage by insisting that they needed to finish school first; but some teenagers told me that the long-term closure of the schools by the Israeli military government deprived them of that excuse. Young women of that age cannot keep suitors at bay on their own when they are pressured to marry.”

A recent surge towards gender equality takes a dubious form: “A number of women have had serious fights with their families over the issue of participation,” one woman recounts. ” I even heard a mother shout at a ten-year-old girl, ‘Come in, the army will shoot you!’ The girl replied, ‘If boys can die, why can’t I?’ The mother turned to me plaintively and said, ‘See how strong-willed she is!'”

Palestinian women’s activism is a focal point of Najjar’s work, and much attention here is devoted to the progress of Palestinian women’s organizations in helping Arab women find employment and work towards literacy. The picture that emerges is one of a world of pain and struggle and renewed determination.

It is a matter of course that the stories told in (his book are one-sided, Anti-Israeli sentiments abound, and ambiguous references to “acts of resistance” committed by neighbors or family members are necessarily difficult for Jewish readers.