“Evolution of the Palestinian Feminist Movement”
Transcript of Remarks by Ghada Hashem Talhami
For the Record No. 247 (10 March 2006)*
At a recent Palestine Center briefing, Dr. Ghada Hashem Talhami addressed the political status of women in Palestine and the dynamic between their identity as women and the broader nationalist struggle against occupation. Speaking in honor of International Women’s Day (March 8), Talhami argued that Palestinian feminism can only be understood within the context of the Palestinian national struggle. Talhami is the author of several books, including Palestinian Refugees: Pawns to Political Actors (Nova Science Publishers, 2003); Syria and the Palestinians: The Clash of Nationalisms (University Press of Florida, 2001); and The Mobilization of Muslim Women in Egypt (University Press of Florida, 1996). She spoke for approximately 40 minutes and then took questions at the end.
The Palestine Center
8 March 2006
Thank you very much. My thanks to the Palestine Center, as well as to Ambassador and Mrs. Afif Safieh for being here this morning. This indeed is the topic of the hour this morning, and I am glad you took time out of your busy day to be here.
First of all, I think you do know that Palestinian women do have a lot of historical experience in confronting patriarchy, occupation and all kinds of negative conditions for their struggle. You might say that the feminism of Palestinian women has evolved over generations and developed over the years. Each generation has contributed in its own way to the national struggle.
We are not bashful, by the way, to say that ours has always been a nationalist kind of feminism. This isn’t really class feminism, or gender feminism. Some people wouldn’t even call it feminism at all. According to Elizabeth Fernea, an expert on Iraqi women, this is really a family-centered ideology. By that I mean there is definitely an understanding that feminism is not about gender conflict. It’s not about a conflict between men and women. It’s really about a conflict between women and their oppressive conditions, whichever way you choose to define those conditions. Palestinian women define their oppressive conditions, first and foremost, in terms of the occupation. Occupation, occupation, and again, occupation. This is really what they have lived under.
We have all grown under the lime-light of the American feminist movement. In the 1960s, the American feminist movement brought the subject to the forefront of the ideological debates in the United States (US). We all grew up knowing that this was part of the 1960s ferment in the US. Indeed, the US feminist movement has developed the notion that the entire world subscribes to its analysis of what feminism should be like. However, I think a closer look at the Palestinian situation, like the South African situation until its independence, proves otherwise. It really proves that third-world feminism, as such, is a particularly different kind of feminism altogether.
I would like to remind you of the work of Afro-American feminists Cheryl Odim Johnson and bell hooks [née Gloria Jean Watkins], who decided quite a long time that there is something unusual about this American feminism—that it’s too white, too bourgeois, too middle class. It does not sit well and doesn’t apply to third-world women. According to Cheryl Odim Johnson, the old fashioned Simone de Beauvoir-kind of feminism, or even that of Betty Friedan, would like you to believe that the real struggle is over patriarchy. So, the struggle is really between men and women—in other words, women have to liberate themselves from patriarchy and once they do, they can really move forward into their own human liberation. The feminist writer bell hooks goes a step further to say that American feminism is very much middle-class gender feminism, that it is really white, and that it does not address issues of one’s socio-economic context or oppression.
Indeed, the American feminist movement has always stressed electoral rights, political rights, education, the glass ceiling, and sexual freedom. These issues are really irrelevant to third-world women—terribly irrelevant. What is more important for third-world women is the context of their oppression. It is not the patriarchy. Patriarchy does play a role, but patriarchy itself—or the family situation, as it is in third-world countries—is not as negative a force in the lives of women as American feminists would have you believe. Women in third-world contexts have proven that they are able to maneuver and achieve a certain kind of space within the traditional patriarchy.
The problem is really the context of occupation and oppression, which by the way targets men and women in third-world societies. I’ll remind you a famous statement by Amal Abdel Hadi. I don’t know if you know who Amal Abdel Hadi is, but at one time she was the president of the General Union of Palestinian Women [GUPW]. She was attending a meeting in Yemen and right next to her was Nawal Saadawi, the Egyptian ultra-feminist. Saadawi is often described as a western-style feminist who emphasizes individual rights over communal rights. Amal Abdel Hadi got up and pointed to Nawal Saadawi and told her, “For us Palestinian women, the enemy is never the Palestinian male—it is the Israeli male.”
That really sums it up. For us, it is the Israeli male. I think it has been that way for a long, long time.
Many Palestinian women have grown up, trying literally to survive, under the differing political systems of the British Mandate, the Jordanian period, later on in the refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria, and now, of course, in Palestine, which as I’m sure you realize is not liberated. This is not a sovereign, liberated entity. When we use the term entity, we tell you that it is not a liberated country. It does not even go by the name of a state.
So, women have experienced many regimes. That is why Palestinians can be distinguished—because of the length of their experience. Throughout these experiences, we have seen more and more radical women. We have seen, first of all, a generation of old fashioned, middle-class, bourgeois women who were relatives of the prominent figures in the Palestinian national movement before 1948. The thrust of their activism has always been toward social welfare projects for the families of the victims of the wars, from the British period to later on, during the Nakba in 1948, and then later on after the 1967 war. In other words, the objective of these women has always been physically the survival of other women and the survival of society, because “women” indeed has meant “the family” and what women stand for within the family.
Later on, when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) came into being in Lebanon, the Palestine National Council—our national Parliament in exile for many years—actually included special seats, or a quota if you wish, for the General Union of Palestinian Women. The GUPW has always been an important cadre of the PLO. I want to remind you, also, that the GUPW is the second oldest organization of Palestinians in the world. The oldest organization is the General Union of Palestinian Students, which originated in Egypt. That was the organization that [the late Palestinian President Yasser] Arafat led over the years, which he really used to build his apparatus later on.
The General Union of Palestinian Women began in Gaza and was actually the second oldest of Palestinian organizations. That is something to remember. That is to say that Palestinian women, obviously, have a tremendous degree of consciousness about the nature of the nationalist struggle, which has pushed and catapulted them forward into a very important position.
In their years under the umbrella of the PNC, the greatest complaint of Palestinian women was the lack of fiscal autonomy. They always complained that the PLO organization itself did not allow them maneuverability when it came to their own money and funding. Other than that, I think they were pleased with the kind of representation they had in the PNC. But of course, they didn’t engage as fighters, with very few exceptions. The exceptions are a few women among the radical factions, like the Palestine Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); people like Leila Khaled and others who were engaged in something we would call “atypical” female roles. But most of the other women were engaged in social work, again, in the camps, sustaining the Palestine Red Crescent Society and doing charitable work.
Again, let me remind you that the issue for Palestinians is really survival - survival, survival, survival. How can you make human beings survive after years of horrible living conditions in Lebanon, the wars in Lebanon, other Arab wars various parts of the Arab world, and so on. That is really the history of Palestinian women. Indeed, the 1967 war created a new reality for us by extending the occupation into the West Bank and making the entire Palestinian society confront the Israeli occupier head-on.
What resulted from the 1967 occupation was really interesting. One thing was the work of younger, college-educated women from the Leftist factions of the Palestinian movement, who became very anxious to prepare the poorer factions of women to confront the economic hegemony of the occupier. Once the West Bank was occupied, the Israelis used it as a source of cheap labor and a captive market for Israeli goods. That’s really what it was. Part of that cheap labor, let’s not forget, were women. Women would be bussed every morning to their places of employment by the Israeli “jobbers,” and would be brought back by bus the same evening because they were not allowed to sleep over night in Israel—nor were men, by the way. Women in the West Bank, who had never worked under any conditions, were now forced to take menial jobs in the Israeli sector—not even in the Palestinian sector. Think about this. What happened to their children, their familial duties? The task of the younger women became how to create a network—which ended up being nursery schools, no more—through which at least the kids would be taken care of while the women were away. That was one response.
The other response was to teach the young women about economic, or collective, bargaining—how to bargain with the Israeli “jobbers.” Of course, these Palestinian workers in Israel were never really given any kinds of benefits in the Israel market like Israeli workers were. Both Palestinian men and women were treated like the migrant workers in our country, here in the United States. That is, they were paid by the hour and had absolutely no benefits of any kind. They would come home in the evening to face a myriad of duties in their own family, so this was quite a problem.
On the other hand, we eventually found our own leader—a famous Palestinian female leader—who responded, I think, to all these negative aspects of the Palestinian situation. This was the famous Samiha Khalil [Um Khalil], who was indeed an institution in Palestine and eventually ran for the office of President against Chairman Arafat during the first Palestinian election. She was a formidable woman by any standard. If there was ever any woman for the Palestinians, Um Khalil was really the leader of Palestinian women.
What is unusual about Um Khalil? Samiha Khalil was a middle-aged woman when she became well-known. She had a high school education, no more, and was a house wife and a mother for much of her life. She was a school teacher in her early years and eventually settled down into creating a terribly extensive institution in Ramallah that provided training and employment opportunities for disadvantaged women. It had one purpose only: to make them independent of the Israeli economic sector. For her, the loss of dignity that women face on a daily basis demanded a different kind of response.
Samiha Khalil, by all accounts, was a very conservative woman. She would not fit, I think, your average profile of a typical feminist leader. For one thing, she was a pro-natalist. She always advocated large families and pushed women to have large families in order to sustain the revolution. She was a religious woman, very much so in her own right. Politically, she was not that much on the Right, but I think in her personal beliefs she was a good Muslim, a good Muslim woman. She would appeal to the business community in Nablus, Ramallah and Jerusalem to provide funding for the weddings of orphaned young girls so they would have an appropriate wedding.
This was important for her—to maintain the dignity of those women and their families. One of her greatest contributions was to make these women acquire new skills as dressmakers, beauticians, people who prepared preserved food, and so on. Her institutions became in effect the marketing agencies for these products. For all of it, the intention was to wean these women away from the Israeli economic sector.
Um Khalil, by the way, also became a member of the underground leadership committee in the West Bank before the return of the PLO to the West Bank after Oslo. So for many years, Um Khalil was the only woman in this secret committee of about 5-10 men, which really determined the nature of the struggle in Palestine against the Israelis. I think that is an achievement of hers that has not been focused on very much.
There are a few biographies of Um Khalil. I ran across one published by a Canadian, so there are some who are aware of this unbelievable woman. Um Khalil went to jail and was forbidden from crossing the bridge to Jordan to visit her grown children. She had sons who lived in Amman, but the Israelis would never let her go. And when the Israeli governor of Ramallah would summon her to his home, she would say, “Let him come down to my home to see me. I’m not going.” Indeed, she was a formidable woman. I always considered her to be my idol. I met her only once, in Chicago—she was allowed to leave the country only once. She was very much down to earth, a salt-of-the-earth woman, who I think really understood where the priorities were. It was fantastic, really fantastic.
There are other women you should hear about who are also very important. Today, we hear a great deal about President Bush’s democracy initiative, right? He would like to sell democracy to the Arabs and to promote democracy in the Arab world. Unfortunately for him and for us, this is the wrong message for the wrong people at the wrong time for the message. A lot of the people who matter in these countries—that is, the thinkers and writers, the intellectuals—have said, “Before he exports democracy, we would like him to think about our human rights, what is happening to Palestinians, how they are being treated, what he can do about it, and so on. This is more important than exporting democracy.” But let’s take him at his word—let’s say that there really is a genuine interest on the part of the US government in teaching the Arabs about democracy and pushing the issue of women. We saw [US First Lady] Laura Bush speak, after the invasion of Afghanistan, on behalf of women and against the Taliban’s treatment of women. Fine.
What do we find here? This was an interesting case for the Palestinians. They had already experienced this attitude during the Israeli occupation, when there was only one municipal election. It took place in 1974. The Israelis expected that this election would bring forward a batch of friendly mayors who would work with Israelis. This was the time that the Israelis were developing the village leagues, their own version of soft collaborators who would work with them and make governing the West Bank manageable. When they started to prepare for the elections of 1974, they decided to do something for women. The Israelis decided that, “We have now something to do for women. We’re going to give women voting rights, for the first time in their history. Of course, women never voted during the Jordanian regime, so now we’re going to give them voting rights.” There was a lot of propaganda that really focused on this point.
Would you like to believe that the Palestinian women rejected this right with a resounding message? They said, “We will not accept any gift from the hand of the occupier. We will achieve that on our own.” And would you like to know who led this campaign? You will be surprised: Rowanda Tawil, Suha Arafat’s mother, who was a well-known journalist and activist. I think, when the time comes to write her biography, we should remember this stand she took.
It was really an important stand. It taught us something and ought to be something we mention to this administration in the United States, that this is not the way to advance democracy. Democracy cannot occur in the context of occupation, in a context where there is an absence of human rights. Don’t ever think that women will betray their cause in the interest of gender rights. They will not. They will certainly stick with their own people before anything else. That’s the way it has been, and I think that is the way it will continue.
Since the Palestine National Authority (PNA, or PA) came into power over the West Bank and Gaza after Oslo, we have not really seen a great improvement in the status of women. That is something we all regret, but of course we have also seen the worsening of conditions resulting from the continuing oppression of the PNA itself. That is, we make a big mistake in assuming that the PNA has been free to achieve whatever it wanted to. It is still struggling, stretched to the limit. Be that as it may, if you look today at the statistics, you will find that only 13 percent of the positions in the PNA are taken up by women. That is very, very low.
Only one post was reserved for women—the Minister of Social Welfare, which would quite often be filled by Um Jihad [Intisar al Wazir]—the widow of Abu Jihad [Fateh co-founder Khalil al-Wazir], the second in command to Arafat had he lived. She was indeed one of the formidable women in Palestinian history, who handled all the accounts for the martyrs, their families, and their children over the years. She was, in essence, the Minister of Social Welfare before the establishment of this government in Palestine. She was doing that since a long time ago. I don’t think any male in Palestine would argue that Um Jihad does not deserve to be in a cabinet position, but that I think is really tokenism. We need to do more. We need to expand the participation more. Today, we see that the Jerusalem file is held by a woman [Hind Khoury]. A Christian woman, I might add, which is also very interesting.
So, there have been some slight inching improvements, but when we come to the second intifada, I think the picture becomes quite dismal. What you see then is the worsening human situation of all Palestinians. It is very difficult to segregate how this situation affects women from how it impacts the family. We have to really look at the second intifada and the accompanying deterioration of Palestinians’ living conditions before we can talk about how it affected Palestinian women. They really go together. You cannot separate the two.
One of the insights of Cheryl Odim Johnson, this Afro-American feminist, is that what the continuing struggle does for women living under oppression is that it heightens their perception of oppression and makes them desirous of assuming male roles because the men will be killed, jailed or exiled. That is the situation that Palestinians have always faced in large numbers. Quite a few women have become, by force and involuntarily, heads of households, whereas by definition, patriarchy always argues that the heads of households are males. But actually, the women have assumed these roles in Palestine. Because of this heightened consciousness of oppression, women become politically oriented and interested. They will struggle to achieve political rights, but they will do it in the context of the national struggle. They cannot separate their rights from the national struggle.
When you think about the 25,000 Palestinians who have become homeless in Gaza as a result of home demolitions—this is a figure provided by Peter Hansen, the former director of UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East]—and the 10,000 people that have become homeless in Rafah, again, as a result of home demolitions, these are simple numbers. When you think about the 65 women who have given birth at checkpoints since the beginning of the second intifada, because of the inability to reach a hospital or a clinic, or the 11 percent of households living below $2 or $3/day that are headed by females, think about how bad the experience of women is in the Middle East.
The drop-out rate for female students in the West Bank and Gaza today is close to 45 percent because of the worsening security and economic situations. By the way, the question of education and the availability of educational opportunities for men or women in the Arab world has always been a matter of resources. When the resources were available, our families always taught the women, sometimes before the men. When there were no resources, then the men would actually take precedence. Certainly, people who come from a well-to-do background like me never had to face the problem of not going to school or to university. However, there were girls I went to school with who came from refugee camps and had to drop out of school because, if there was any money available, it was going to go to the male. This was the kind of situation you live in when you live under occupation and in horrendous circumstances.
Within the last elections that just took place—as you know, many of us were as surprised by the outcome as you and as much as Hamas was surprised—17 women were elected to the Palestinian National Council. That’s 17 out of 132 members. That’s not bad. However, I am a little bit upset by the fact that the organizations and political parties on the Left, more enlightened, and more progressive, have yet to adopt a specific program about the rights of women.
For instance, the platform of Badil—the alternative list that included the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and Hizb al-Shaabah [The People’s Party], another Leftist group—provided very specific statements about Jerusalem. It called for ending Jewish settlements in Jerusalem and ending the isolation of Jerusalem from the rest of the Arab areas of the West Bank. It had very specific ideas about the Wall and called for making the Wall a priority for any future Palestinian government. It had sophisticated ideas about how to make the executive branch of government accountable to the legislative branch of government. These were specific demands, voiced in specific political language.
When it came to the issue of women, however, you will be very disappointed. All Badil’s platform said was, “We pledge to work for achieving equality for women and making sure they participate more and more in political decision making, and that all codes will be actually more inclined to introduce reforms.” What does that mean: Shari’a? Any other codes? This was really very vague language and is unacceptable, really unacceptable.
I think we are missing the boat in a way. Radical situations call for radical solutions. I think at a time when the human crisis of Palestinians is intensifying to such a degree, it behooves us to bring women to the forefront. Maybe, if for nothing else, this would prove to the outside world that we think highly of our women, their achievements and their contributions to the struggle. This does not mean that we will take our directive from the American feminist movement or the international feminist movement, by the way. I can show you instances where the American feminist movement has been woefully short of appreciating or understanding the nature of third-world women’s struggle. I’ll give you two examples.
One of the slogans raised by Ms. Magazine all the time is that sisterhood is global. That could be taken in two instances—first of all, that the patriarchy everyone cries about applies to the struggle of Palestinian women like American women and like everybody else. We’ve just proved that this is not the case. That sisterhood is global would also mean that they should sympathize with the suffering of other women around the world. They do not.
There is absolutely no instance of NOW, the National Organization for Women in the United States, ever taking a stand or making a statement against the suffering of Palestinian women either. I don’t think we expect them to take a position on the general situation of Palestinians, but I think at least woman to woman, if they indeed believe in a global sisterhood, they should have made a statement or taken a position calling for better human relations for this suffering sector in the Palestinian community.
I’ll give you another example. Robin Morgan used to be an editor of Ms. Magazine and is one of the great names of NOW, the organization for women in the United States. She wrote a sensational book a few years ago called Demon Lover. The book, Demon Lover, was actually the result of her many interviews with women in Gaza and the refugee camps in Lebanon. Something bugged her about these women; she wanted to know why they had such large families. “How come they don’t understand that you can’t have such large families and be liberated,” she wanted to know. In Beirut, when Robin Morgan would approach very poor families that had ten children or more, she would be very upset. She would ask why and the women would say to her, “One more for the revolution.” In other words, they understood very well that most of their children would die. If they were lucky, one of them would survive for the revolution. Robin Morgan couldn’t understand this.
I’ll give one more for the revolution too, here. Robin Morgan absolutely refused to believe that revolutionary conditions call on women’s natalist functions in all societies—not only among Palestinians. Even in Israel, where a woman who has more than 3 or 4 children is given special consideration, women are encouraged to have more and more children because of the demographic question. But she refused to acknowledge that among Palestinians—that is how little she was able to understand that this situation demands more children. It demands what, as we commonly say among Palestinians, “We’re going to fight with our own children.” They’re going to have to fight, because the struggle of the Palestinians is generational. It is not going to be over tomorrow. It is going to take a long time. I think the women understand this more than the men.
Before I stop, I want to address another issue that I’m sure is on your mind. Every time I speak, people ask me, “Have Israeli women extended a hand to Palestinian women over the years?” After all, there are some very decent Israeli feminists. Some of them I meet in the United States at various gatherings. Some of them, like Women in Black, have been opposed to their own government’s policies since the invasion of Lebanon and have been very strong in their desire to contact Palestinian women. There have been some contacts, I think on the elite level. That is, women in universities who talked to each other or women in the upper echelon of the feminist organizations in the West Bank and Gaza who spoke to Israeli women.
What is the outcome of this contact? Nothing. We are so stuck in the context of our national question and they are so stuck in the context of their Zionism that we can never find our common ground. There is no common ground. This is very pathetic. We actually tried to explore this, but there is none. Their objective was, whenever they sought those kinds of connections, to somehow soften the Palestinian women’s response to Israeli society. Well, we cannot do that. We cannot. We cannot see them as liberators, or as women engaged in the same struggle we are, unless they really separate themselves from their own society. And we cannot separate ourselves from our own society. We cannot disengage from our own society—neither can they disengage from theirs. There is thus no common ground, absolutely.
That is therefore another part of the experience of Palestinian women. Palestinian women are very experienced. They have accumulated tremendous political experience over the years. This is why I am not scared of a Hamas government in Palestine. I think we know how to deal with everything. We know how to deal with patriarchy. We know how to deal with occupation. We knew how to deal with the Jordanian regime. We knew how to deal with the Lebanese Phalanges.
Ours is a very experienced feminist community, and I think it will survive. I think it will win. I think it will survive always as part and parcel of the Palestinian national struggle.
Thank you very much.
* This transcript is based on remarks delivered by Dr. Ghada Talhami, professor of Third World Politics and Women's Studies at Lake Forest College, on 8 March 2006 at The Palestine Center, the educational arm of the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development. The speaker’s views do not necessarily reflect those of The Palestine Center or The Jerusalem Fund. This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. It will be reissued in the 2006 annual compendium of Palestine Center publications. A listing of all Palestine Center event summaries and speaker transcripts can be accessed online at http://www.thejerusalemfund.org/palestinecenter/fortherecord.php.