Palestinian society is based on a patriarchal and male-dominated
system of traditions. Everything within it is defined according to
masculine values which are premised on controlling women and
undermining female indi¬vidualism. Constraints and
restrictions have always pushed women away from the decision-making
process, even during the peak of women's polit¬ical activism
during the Intifada.
Women have had to continually challenge many societal restrictions
and constraints that have been imposed by the religious and
conservative ideas that penneate Palestinian society. While those
who claim to be progressive and secular can accept, in principle,
women's political activism, this accep¬tance has been confined
within the patriarchal lines that guide national strug¬gle.
Their belief was that a woman's place should be within the female
masses, restricted to professions which have traditionally been
deemed acceptable pur¬suits for women. The controlling male
bodies have always wanted to decide how far women's involvement
should go, and whenever their authority has been threatened by the
prominence of women, they have tried to force them to withdraw.
Thus, these forces have strengthened the gendered division of
labor, common to all patriarchal societies, including
Palestinian Women at the Crossroads
The current political transitional phase forms a turning point not
only for women, but for the whole of the Palestinian people. New
realities are being created as a result of the creation of the
Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and the beginning of the
construction of an independent Palestinian entity, and these are
accompanied by all the challenges, obstacles and haz¬ards
resulting from the complexity of the present situation.
Presently, there are many crucial matters on women's agenda, and
women have had raised hopes of gaining access to larger arenas in
which to voice their demands powerfully, and to fill the vacuum
that has been solely occupied by the political agenda.
Keeping in mind the painful experiences of other women in different
parts of the world, making the transition to liberation and
statehood, Palestinian women realize the momentum of this
transitional phase and its ability to draw the attention of both
the PNA and the Palestinian public to their demands for rights and
freedoms. Palestinian women are no longer content with, or fooled
by, the compliments and expressions of praise that they have
received from their male counterparts and partners during the
Palestinian women have had to, and continue to fight on many
different fronts. On the one hand, they must confront the continued
Israeli Occupation with all the trauma it causes, especially in
terms of gross vio¬lations of human rights in an era of
promised peace. On the other, women must consider their present
situation - they perceive themselves as part of the Palestinian
democratic forces that must voice opinions and take action against
the new trends prevailing in the autonomous areas, such as
milita¬rization. The coming of seven new security forces to
the area, for example, is not a contingent thing, but rather an
alarming phenomenon which women are beginning to address.
Another burden women have had to take onto their shoulders is the
internal struggle for political visibility within their parties.
Trends of exclu¬sion from leadership positions, whether at the
level of the PNA, of negotia¬tions delegations, or even of
parties, have continued, discouraging women who did not spare any
effort in the struggle against Israeli harassment and oppression.
Women were at the forefront in the defense of the Palestinian
existence throughout the national struggle. They have always been
part of the active resistance to Israeli Occupation. And yet for
four decades now, they have been invisible in the leadership,
neglected in political action.
Women continue to be marginalized in political representation,
espe¬cially within the PNA. Out of a 22-member cabinet, only
one member is a woman. There are five female director generals, of
800, in the various min¬istries and PNA bodies.
Women's Political Transformation
The political transformation of women has emerged through four
different phases, which can be divided as follows:
From charities to political activism: The early women's movement
was an expression of political, economic and social needs. It did
not adopt a feminist doctrine, as such, but emphasized the role of
women in preserv¬ing the Palestinian national identity and the
unity of the family as a social base to support individuals in the
absence of a Palestinian national author¬ity. Women's groups
carried out such social welfare functions as providing for the
needs of refugees and families of prisoners.
From individualism to grass roots mobilization: The Israeli
Occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in 1967
was a major turn¬ing point for the Palestinian women's
movement. Because of severe changes in Palestinian socio-economic
infrastructure, there was a sharp rise in women's participation in
all aspects of resistance, including armed struggle. Women's
involvement during this stage succeeded in raising the awareness of
the female masses, which subsequently led to the emergence of
women's grassroots, non-governmental, organizations. These were
characterized by great flexibility, vitality and strength in
confronting the Occupation.
From politicization to socialization: No women's strategic agenda
was clearly articulated until the Intifada began in 1987. At this
point, the urgency of formulating a political and social
development strategy stress¬ing women's rights was understood
by a wider circle of women activists. Undoubtedly, the Intifada was
a turning point, not only for the women's agenda, but also in the
history of the Palestinian struggle.
With the momentum of increasing activism, it is easy to claim
victories and achievements, but it is more difficult to maintain
them and transform them into real changes in women's status,
especially in the absence of leg¬islation that can protect
women's human rights. Generally speaking, the Intifada has resulted
in dramatic awareness and perception of women's rights, because it
has thrust women into leadership roles, and has acceler¬ated
the adoption of women's concerns on a social agenda. The Document
of Principles of Women's Rights (the Women's Charter), adopted and
rati¬fied by the General Union of Palestinian Women, is an
expression of women's social and political development.
From identification to empowerment: In the current political
transition, Palestinian women are increasingly seeking to integrate
and incorporate their issues and rights within Palestinian
development. They believe this is the period in which democratic
and liberal attitudes to their status will pre¬vail. The
women's movement must, through skilled organization, build
consensus and support among women for a cornmon agenda of demands.
A constituency of professional and institutional women's
organizations is required for effective and influential
participation in the development process.
Do We Need a United Women/s Movement?
Although Palestinian women have ~ucceeded in establishing various
orga¬nizations and temporary or occasional networks, they have
not, as yet, managed to maintain a powerful, orchestrated and
ongoing movement. There are several reasons for this: the internal
divisions of the movement, which remain a mirror of the political
map of Palestinian politics, and all the power struggles this
implies, have been significant barriers. But the first and foremost
problem is the lack of consensus on some crucial issues. For
instance, until now, Palestinian women have not been in agreement
on the urgency of placing issues of domestic violence on their
agenda. Conservative voices within the movement have stressed the
potentially damaging effect of airing "dirty laundry" in public.
Other women, more eager to address this issue, have been able to
provide only a few insuffi¬cient counseling programs and the
occasional demonstration against domestic violence, while they have
stressed a need for tangible assistance such as women's shelters at
a time when society is seeing the aforemen¬tioned trend
towards militarization and the implied escalation of
While the traditionally conservative values in Palestinian society
are being fortified by the PNA, the women's movement as a whole has
refrained from raising the question of legislation, and how it must
be built upon the basis of equality of women and men. Little has
been done, for example, towards the creation of civil personal law
as an alternative to the family status law based on the Islamic
shari' a, which is grossly unfair to women. The nervous response of
Chairman Arafat to attempts by women to discuss the crucial rights
relating to private life reflects the current con¬solidation
of traditional values - as does the recent decision by the PNA that
women and girls cannot learn to drive unless they are accompanied
by malzram, that is, one of their male relatives. Or, for example,
the full sup¬port given by the Mufti of Palestine to early
marriage and polygamy, under the pretext that these two practices
would help prevent adultery and sins that might result from the
release from the political struggle against Israel. The PNA has
been attempting to placate Hamas and other fundamental¬ists,
at the expense of women's rights.
In this environment, it is obvious that a united women's movement
is badly needed to face the new hazards emerging from the changing
reality of Palestinian society. With organized activism and a
strategic agenda, Palestinian women can advance from a position of
observation to one of participation.