The New Power of Palestinian Women

One Friday when 100 Israeli women from the group, Women In Black, gathered in Jerusalem for their weekly vigil to protest the occupation, a Palestinian woman — let’s call her Amal — passed by. The sight of the silent protestors and their signs, “Enough of the Occupation,” brought tears to her eyes.

“Here, there are Jewish women who leave their jobs or their children for an hour to stand in the street to protest what is being done to us,” she said to me. Yet the level of personal sacrifice experienced by women in the Israeli peace movement hardly compares to that of Palestinian women living in Amal’s home town on the West Bank, Several weeks later, in the middle of the night, Israeli soldiers broke into Amal’s home and took her teenage son to prison.

Amal has been out of work since the start of the uprising — when the school in the refugee camp where she teaches was closed. But like other women in the occupied territories, she is actively involved in relief projects in her community.

Since the Palestinian uprising began, Palestinian society is undergoing rapid social change. The meaning of the Arabic word intifada runs deep. The word literally means shaking off, the way you would shake off a mosquito on your arm or leg. The Palestinians are fighting to shake off the Israeli occupation, to achieve a Palestinian state, but they are also waging a deeper battle as they struggle with the conflict between tradition and modernity in their own community.

Many Palestinians are fundamentally rethinking what should be their best approach to education, health care and social welfare. Women are a critical component of this awakening of community spirit, and they are the key organizers of the neighborhood committees — the backbone of the uprising.

Most of the work done behind the scenes by women receives no attention in the Western media. Women might be seen pulling their sons away from Israeli soldiers; but, the intifada is primarily represented as the “battle of the streets,” where young Palestinian men confront the Israeli military with stones and petrol bombs.

“The success of the intifada is due to the strength of the women,” says Rita Giacaman, an ebullient, fast-talking Palestinian professor of public health at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank. She considers the uprising the best time of her life. As she points to a microscope on top of her refrigerator, she says, “I’m teaching kids on the street biology from my kitchen. It’s very exciting.”

Giacaman works as a public health expert with Medical Relief, an organization formed before the intifada began, but which has grown tremendously in the past year. Comprised mostly of female doctors, nurses and other health care professionals, the organization provides primary care to the poorest segments of the Palestinian population. In addition, its members train volunteer paramedics — mostly women — to handle emergency injuries such as broken bones and bullet wounds in people’s homes.

Giacaman says that as a member of her neighborhood committee, she’s been asked to take advantage of her skills. Some women use their talents to help plant community gardens; others prepare care packages for prisoners and knit sweaters for those held in administrative detention. Women’s groups have prepared over 6,000 Palestinians to donate blood. They used an economic boycott to successfully confront an Israeli wool factory which attempted to lay-off Palestinian women workers in the wake of the uprising.

The clandestine Unified National Leadership of the Uprising has, in fact, praised the women’s role in the intifada in a leaflet which came out on International Women’s Day. That day, Palestinian women’s organizations sponsored marches in seven cities on the West Bank.

Zahera Kamal, head of the Palestine Federation of Women’s Action Committees (PFWAC) says, “What you see now in terms of women’s activities is the fruit of ten years of work.” Kamal’s organization, founded ten years ago, was the first of four feminist groups to organize women at the grassroots level. Before the uprising, these organizations concentrated on economic projects — such as a women-run biscuit factory in Gaza, childcare for working mothers, and women’s vocational training. These organizations distinguished themselves from women’s groups of the past, because they put equal emphasis on the struggle for women’s rights and on the national struggle.

Because of the work in organizing childcare institutions, a number of the women’s organizations have addressed the question: “How is the intifada affecting our children?” The PFWAC, for instance, organized a conference during the first months of the uprising that included panels of psychologists and educators. The Union of Palestinian Working Women’s Committees also conducted a study of children, and issued a booklet with advice for parents. One version of the booklet, for non-literate people, relies on pictures to demonstrate ways to deal with a frightened child. By addressing family issues of most concern to women, Palestinian women’s organizations are swelling in numbers.

There is palpable excitement among Palestinian women who have been feminists for years and who now see their ideas being accepted by a broader segment of the society.

Women began to gain confidence in themselves when only they were allowed out to buy food during curfews. “The women didn’t need much longer to organize and become leaders of the street, and to be political and the social organizers of every camp,” explains Mary Khass, director of the pre-school programs in the Gaza refugee camps. “As a feminist, I only pray to God that after the uprising this will go on.” Some Palestinian traditionalists worry how they’ll ever again “manage the children and the women” once they have been active in the intifada.

While some Palestinian men feel threatened by the changing role of women, Amal feels lucky that her husband supports her independence. He feels proud of her activities, and allows her to travel on her own to meetings and conferences. Amal has contacts with Israeli Jews, and finds it important to nurture those relationships as a way to maintain hope in an all consuming conflict. She regularly visits friends in West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Especially since the arrest of her son, she has found Israeli friends helpful in dealing with the Israeli military authorities and the courts.

Has the rise in feminist consciousness made Palestinian women more willing to work with Israeli women for peace — or more hardened? Some of the women leaders see the value of working with Israeli women. But this correlates more with increased national pride — which has equalized these encounters — rather than with increased feminist consciousness. Palestinian women are strongly in support of the intifada, and they seem to hold the same goals of creating a Palestinian state that Palestinian men desire.

Political contact between groups of women in the occupied territories and the women in Israel is rare, but some efforts do exist. Palestinian women cooperate with the Israeli women’s group, Shani — change. Together, they discuss issues; Israeli Jewish women visit Palestinian women in community centers, homes, and hospitals. Palestinian women speak at Shani meetings in West Jerusalem. Shani women were even invited to attend a demonstration by Palestinian women in Ramallah. Palestinian women reported that when the Israeli women were present, the soldiers resisted using force against them, and did not disperse them with tear gas. One Shani activist saw a soldier raise his hand to hit a woman. She began to shout at him, “What are you doing? Don’t treat her like that!” The soldier stopped what he was doing.

Some Palestinian activists express a hope that cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian women will persist as a means of furthering the peace process. One woman, Kamal, who has spent most of the past seven years under house arrest, says, “If we want our independent state, there must be real change in the Israeli streets. Contact between us (Israeli and Palestinian women) may help change the situation.”

In the tumultuous Middle East, it is impossible to predict the future. But perhaps women from both communities will find a way to communicate with one another, above the noise of petrol bombs and Uzi submachine guns, and inspire their leaders to negotiate.

Reena Bernards, project director of the Jewish Women Leader’s Consultation on the Crisis in Israel, received a Levinson Foundation research grant for a project on women and international conflict, and organized an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue at the UN Decade for Women Forum ’85 in Nairobi.