Palestinian Women Political Prisoners: A Sociological Perspective
We have lost our land and we are left with nothing but our honor; shall we lose that too?

With these words, Um Jamil,1 a woman of 45 from Tulkarem (a town in the north of the West Bank) voices her rejection of women going to prison as part of the national struggle against the Occupation. "When a woman from town is imprisoned, we go express our sympathy to her parents, or congratulate them on her release. It is a social obligation, but deep inside, we see nothing honorable or deserving respect in the behavior of such women."
Um Jamil is not an isolated example. Hers is a position representative of her society's double standards regarding a large section of women activists in general and female political prisoners in particular.
Palestinian society is patriarchal and hierarchical. In such a society the individual forms part of a group which imparts support and legitimacy for his/her actions and behavior. In spite of the existing difficult political and economic conditions, the question of honor remains the mainstay of the moral and social order in Palestinian society. Methods aimed at safe¬guarding this order are translated chiefly in the imposition of space between the two sexes, such as limiting or forbidding physical contact or supervising both parties when together. In some instances, a mere exchange of conversation between members of the opposite sex arouses the condemnation of the society.
In this conservative and traditional social reality (which does not differ from other traditional Arab societies), female political activists and politi¬cal prisoners, in particular, have been pioneers in transcending the spatial¬ity constituting their gendered roles, i.e., the home and motherhood. In other words, they have crossed over from private space into public space, a wide general area traditionally associated with masculine jobs.

'Prison Is for Men'

The dictum "prison is for men" is proof that in Palestinian society prison pertains to the domain of public space. Indeed, symbolically, it is the embodiment of masculinity as a socially acquired attribute. The strong association between prison and virility as opposed to what constitutes femininity is clearly illustrated in the saying: "A son's mother moans and asks, 'Where is the prison, ye oppressed ones?'" And a daughter's mother walks leisurely and asks 'Where is the jeweler, ye fortunate women?'" Accordingly, women who go to prison are considered either "masculine," or have transgressed the sphere proper to them and invaded that of others.
The several interviews I have conducted with female political prisoners of various ages and of different economic, political and social backgrounds reveal that political struggle is always coupled with a social struggle against various forms of subjugation, running the gamut from defamation or boycott of the prisoner by her relatives and neighbors to avoidance of marriage with a released prisoner. This in spite of the fact that, on the national level, the female prisoner is glorified to no lesser extent than her male counterpart.
This article will focus on these social double standards used in dealing with female prisoners, specifically as defined through the institution of marriage. In Palestinian society, marriage is a noble social value with its own special rules of rejection and approval. It is considered the best means of "protection" for a girl. The saying, "Look for a husband for your daugh¬ter before you look for a bride for your son," depicts the urgency about a girl's marriage. The girl who passes the accepted marriageable age and is, still single, labeled a spinster and becomes a heavy burden on her family. An arranged marriage, even with a 70-year-old man, becomes an attractive option in this case. A girl who is single when she goes to prison generally faces enormous difficulties finding a suitable husband upon her release.
Wafa', a 28-year-old released prisoner from a village near Tulkarem, contends that men prefer girls who do not get involved in politics or "turn themselves into men." She adds that the majority of liberated prisoners who were with her in jail have had difficulty getting married. Even young activist men, claiming liberalism, are not ready to marry former prisoners. Wafa', with six other female prisoners, is now learning computer skills at a center in Tulkarem for the rehabilitation of released prisoners. All of them are unmarried; none of them has any hope of ever getting married.
Wafa' attributes this to the fact that Palestinian society is still largely tra¬ditional and conservative, and eager to preserve a gendered division of labor. A woman who deviates from this rule and encroaches on public space (in this case prison, a male bastion), is necessarily censured. Disapprobation for the transgression of the existing patriarchal order is translated through a variety of practical measures, chiefly, the discourage¬ment of marriage with female prisoners. Thus, on the one hand, the female prisoner is exalted as a fighter and a heroine, and on the other hand, she is decried as a woman who has stepped from the private feminine sphere into the public masculine one.
A main underlying cause for the rejection of marriage with a female prisoner is the traditional association between prison and rape, that is, loss of honor. The significance of honor as a higher moral value to be preserved at all cost has compelled some women's organizations to issue the declara¬tion "Land before honor." The intention is clearly to place public good or the liberation of the land over the private good or the conduct of the indi¬vidual. Unfortunately, a change of this magnitude will not occur overnight.
Leila, a 45-year-old former prisoner, now lives alone in the Old City of Jerusalem. She went to jail in 1970 at the age of 20. Although four years later she came out stronger and healthier than ever, she felt persecuted socially, economically and politically. "People pretend to sympathize with prisoners; in actual fact, they try to avoid them. In my position, and because I am alone, I am accused of immoral behavior." The explanation is obvious: a considerable section of society still connects prison with rape and views a woman's imprisonment an affront to the family's honor. Leila corroborates the remark of Wafa' that men (including activists) prefer "sim¬ple" girls for marriage, not prisoners or activists.
Some will argue that the concept of honor, which derives its meaning and significance from the patriarchal order, is merely a means for the con¬trol of women's conduct and their restriction to traditionally-accepted jobs. This is the contention of Rima, a 38-year-old released prisoner from Ramallah. She believes that honor is not necessarily the basic reason which drives men to shun women prisoners or even activists. Men are simply reluctant to share their life with an enlightened woman, fully cognizant of her rights, who spends most of her time in demon¬strations or confronta¬tions and who cannot be easily dominated.
This probably helps elucidate the ambiva¬lence within Palestinian society at large: the desire to enlist women's partici¬pation in the national struggle for liberation and development, and the dominant tendency to relegate them to the traditional role of pre¬serving and reproduc¬ing the existing social structure.
The initial impres¬sion that a woman who goes to jail while single faces greater difficulties than a married one is far from the truth. Married women, too, have to grap¬ple with society's condemnation. However, their reentry into society depends on the extent of their husbands' approval or censure of their activ¬ities.
Arrested in 1982, a year after her marriage, Samia, a liberated prisoner from Tulkarem, found in her husband a source of support. He himself had been in prison and it was through him that she had got involved in activism. When she was arrested, he was fully aware of what she had been doing. It was he who helped her face her father's wrath as she disclosed her activities to him and told him she was waiting for the soldiers to come and take her to prison. In contrast, another released prisoner from a village near Jericho was not as lucky. Immediately after she went to jail, her fiancé broke his engagement with her on grounds of family dishonor.
Naturally, several interrelated factors bear on the type and magnitude of pressures facing women prisoners. Among those is the geographical location from which the prisoner comes. The north of the West Bank, for example, tends to be more conservative and traditional than the south. A second factor is the family and the extent of its commitment to a fighting spir¬it. Additionally, the period during which imprisonment takes place is signif¬icant: in periods of rising national fervor, the field is open for giving greater freedom and legitimacy to women's activities. In periods of torpor, however, the trend is for restricting women to their traditionally accepted places.
In conclusion, the double standard with which women prisoners have to contend in their daily life is but a part of the double standard with which the issue of women has been generally treated. Having shared actively in the national struggle, women are the object of glorification and jubilation. Yet, they have to face all the social constraints of their daily lived reality. Politically, they have been marginalized, and no serious attempt has been made to address the gender issue and women's social status. Indeed, even women's organizations themselves have unwittingly contributed to the subordination of feminist issues to the national one.


1. All names have been changed.