Wombs of the revolution: Palestinian women's contribution to the national project

Palestinian women take part in an event supporting the women prisoners in the Israeli jails on the day before international women's day in front of the ICRC office in Gaza City
5 min read
24 March, 2022
An indispensable force in the drive for liberation, Palestinian women's contribution to the political and social resistance against Israel's occupation is ever-present. Yet, pervading ideas about masculinity in Palestine have hampered their efforts.

The Palestinian feminist movement emerged in the early twentieth century mainly among the upper and middle class in urban Palestine. Initially, as charitable and social activism, the movement was soon drawn into the national struggle against the British Mandate and Zionism. It has since played a pivotal role in sustaining the liberation project and national identity.

However, the primacy of national liberation – agreeably a highly masculine form of nationalism – meant that the role of women in the national struggle did not translate to a radical change in their social posture. This is despite the remarkable progress these women have made over the past decades in terms of education and political representation. 

"Even when the recognition of female contributions is expanded, it remains within the traditionalist gendered hierarchy"

As it stands today, Palestinian women’s nationalist and cultural contributions are notably relegated to society’s private, domestic sphere and often determined and, therefore, valorised within the boundaries of socially acceptable feminine roles and conducts.

This has translated to women articulating their gender interests within the terms set by the male-dominant nationalist discourse, at the expense of an “authentic feminine identity” based solely on gender.

Most emphasised in this discourse is women’s contribution to the national project primarily through bearing and raising children. The Palestinian national movement, much like other national movements, including Zionism, has glorified the female for her biological ability to preserve the continuity of the collective.

What is different for Palestinians, however, is that the “reproductive power,” otherwise known as the “biological weapon of the womb,” of Palestinian women also serve to compensate – through demographics – for the asymmetrical power relations with Israel.

Hence the whimsical but rather telling expression that "Israel beats [Palestinians] militarily, but [Palestinians] beat Israel in the bedroom.”

Palestinian women take part in an event supporting the women prisoners in the Israeli jails on the day before international women's day in front of the ICRC office in Gaza City
Palestinian women take part in an event supporting female prisoners in Israeli jails, the day before International Women's Day in front of the ICRC office in Gaza [Getty Images]

Yasser Arafat, among many others, used to boast about “the womb of the Palestinian woman,” as the “strongest weapon against Zionism,” and eventually the harbinger of victory.

His worldview stemmed from the notion that the higher fertility rate among Palestinians vis-à-vis Israel will guarantee a Palestinian majority in the future. 

This continues to be the prevalent conviction despite evidence that the Palestinian fertility rate in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank has declined since the late 1990s (e.g. 4.6 in 2003 and 3.8 in 2019).

To some, Israel’s assumed panic over the “Palestinian demographic threat” and the concurring policies to suppress this threat (e.g. laws perpetuating the Jewish character of the state) only confirm that the demographic battle is being won.

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Even when the recognition of female contributions is expanded, it remains within the traditionalist gendered hierarchy. If it is not the “reproductive role,” it is the “mother role,” which serves an equally important function in maintaining the continuity of the national collective.

The 1988 Palestinian National Council’s Declaration of Independence, for instance, pays special tribute to Palestinian women, who are the  “guardians of sustenance of life, keepers of [our] peoples perennial flame.

Women here are celebrated for their role as mothers in the national project, the rearers and nourishers of heroes and the educators of sacrifice. This effectively places them as ground zero for nationalist culturalisation; as such, the original makers of manhood, the “active component” of the struggle.

Motherhood takes a rather messianic tone when associated with martyrdom. Being the mother of a martyr (um al-shahid) is the highest badge of honour assigned to the female role in society.

"Many women view their involvement in the nationalist project as emancipatory; that is, female liberation is partly achievable through women’s deep involvement in the progressive ranks of the national movement"

What is more, the nationalist narratives have for so long analogised the land of Palestine to motherhood, women's bodies, and represented the loss of Palestine as a sexual violation.

In Mahmoud Darwishs poetry, for instance, Palestine is often portrayed as his female lover, or the mother he yearns for. Darwish says: My land isnt my suitcase, neither am I a passenger, Im a lover and the land is my lady” (1977).

Also, the loss of Palestine is typically referred to as ightesaab (rape). The Palestinian Authority on its website laments the “rape of Palestine.”

From this angle, nationalism and feminism in the Palestinian sphere may appear compatible. Many women view their involvement in the nationalist project as emancipatory; that is, female liberation is partly achievable through women’s deep involvement in the progressive ranks of the national movement. In so doing, they can attain equality with men and have an imposing presence in society, if not break away from the established social hierarchy.

High-profile female revolutionaries like Laila Khaled are seen as proof of this belief. Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), led the hijacking of two airliners in 1969 and 1970 with the declared goal of attracting the world’s attention to the Palestinian plight.

Indeed, the method was controversial, but from a feminist perspective, Khaled took an active role in what is considered a masculine domain. She effectively broke the social taboo and ended the inherently male monopoly on militancy. 

Others are critical. To fuse femininity with bullets and violence does not necessarily mean that nationalism and feminism in the Palestinian context are compatible. In fact, some feminist pacifists accused Laila Khaled and others like her of being “a sell-out for the patriarchy,” a beautiful female physique hiding brute male violence.

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Equally criticised is the conviction that women’s inclusion (and emphasised visibility) in the national project acts as a proof for the civility and modernity of the Palestinian struggle, making it more worthy and appealing to the international community. 

However significant, Palestinian female contributions to the national project and collective culture are still restricted by gender inequality deemed a "natural hierarchy.”

This is exactly what female activists beginning in the First Intifada (1987-93) warned against. “We will not be another Algeria,” they protested, vowing not to allow their gender interests to be subverted to political processes, as occurred in Algeria following independence.

Much has changed since, not least in increased female influence and visibility. But not enough to impact society’s long-held priorities which put national liberation first, class and economic liberation second, and gender liberation last – and only if the first two priorities have been fulfilled.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa