Palestinian women: An untold history of leadership and resistance

Our collective deafness to the stories of Palestinian women needs to end for the sake of future generations.

Palestinian women op-ed photo REUTERS
A Palestinian woman stands in front of Israeli soldiers during a protest in the West Bank village of Bilin near Ramallah against Israel's offensive in Gaza January 8, 2009 [Eric Gaillard/Reuters]

The hallways of my memory have always echoed with my grandmother’s voice storytelling, and thus unburdening, narratives of womanly struggle. Her voice projected both wit and resilience in the face of the Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the decades-old Israeli military occupation. However, my grandmother’s testimonies were rarely recognised.

As a child fascinated with poetry and literature, I would spend hours browsing for poems that sang profiles like that of my grandmother, and seldom was I able to find poetry that did not reduce the Palestinian woman to a mere glamorised and exaggerated characteristic, likening her to men in a poorly calculated attempt at praise, not only robbing her of her complex humanity but also of her womanhood. Seldom did I see accounts that reflected my grandmother, my mother, or a Palestinian woman who did not choose motherhood, without fetishizing or victimizing her. Well-meaning Western essays on Palestinian women were often insulting and reductive, illustrating a powerless, uneducated, and stereotypical woman that was drawn with the colours of orientalism. Not to mention the not very well-meaning Western articles that blatantly painted Palestinian women as terrorists.

This drought concerning a much-needed movement of unapologetic and unadulterated representation of Palestinian society was one of the many reasons I chose to write.

One of the stories I tell most often – and a real-life epiphany – is the story of ten-year-old me witnessing Israeli policemen, undercover cops, soldiers, and settlers assaulting the people of my neighbourhood with tear gas, sound bombs and rubber-coated bullets, all while forcibly confiscating our neighbours’ homes. What makes this story defining for me is not only the trauma or the violent and historically-repetitive loss but the dynamic and collective way in which our community actively remedied the aftermath of those assaults.

My mother, as well as the other women of the neighbourhood, tessellated their efforts and labour to free the young men, young women, and even children from the hands of incarceration, rubbed yoghurt on their tear-gassed eyelids and stood tall with voices thunderous and stubborn. That manifestation of agency forever influenced the ways in which I practice, or claim, my own agency.

The role of Palestinian women in my neighbourhood was not exclusive to alleviating the pain of Israeli oppression – it was also a model of leadership. A few months after our neighbours lost their homes, my own home was forcibly taken and, motivated by anger and a sense of urgency, my aunt, in her sixties at the time, alongside the women of Sheikh Jarrah, paraded around the neighbourhood, chanting and drumming on pots and pans – demanding justice. That minor protest later turned into a huge, press-inviting weekly demonstration, sometimes involving thousands of Palestinian, international, and Israeli activists.

Historically, Palestinian women have stood at the forefronts of our resistance. Not only nursing victims of violence, but actively orchestrating popular resistance movements and navigating, or at least contributing to, the political conversation, whether with their assigned-authority or self-proclaimed seat at the table.

During the first Intifada – the Palestinian people’s most vivacious mobilisation in their struggle for freedom – merchants and labourers waged a nonviolent general strike, a symbolic act to mobilise the masses and a tactical move to pressure Israel to end the occupation. Part of that strike was boycotting certain Israeli goods (this call for boycott pre-dates the South Africa-inspired BDS movement), all while women’s committees provided home-grown alternatives.

This movement dramatically reduced reliance on Israeli goods and hit the Israeli economy hard, leading to millions of dollars of losses annually. Israel’s response was harsh: daily curfews, mass arrests, breaking the bones of protesters, cutting phone lines of entire villages and preventing Palestinian community members from leaving their homes without army permission.

A documentary released last year, Naila and The Uprising, a Just Vision documentary, narrates the story of a fearless community of women at the forefronts of the 1980s first Intifada. “Publicly, the women’s committees were known for their social work,” says Naima Al-Sheikh Ali, an activist interviewed in the documentary, “but, in reality and covertly, it was all political organising.”  When I attended a screening for the film in Washington, DC, I felt a sense of reassurance, a sense of warmth: my grandmother’s stories of courage and advocacy were some of the many, many other stories that were lived and narrated, unwritten and sometimes unheard.

Unarguably, the Israeli occupation and Western racism play a huge role in our collective deafness to stories and histories of those Palestinian women not only involved in the struggle for freedom but also commanding it; however, it is extremely important to note that patriarchy and misogyny drastically and negatively affect our frameworks for resistance and grassroots organising, especially concerning language and rhetoric. Why is heroism – generally and in the Palestinian context – deemed to be a masculine concept? Why did the heroes 10-year-old me read about in popular Palestinian poems never reflect the heroes I’ve known and witnessed in real life? Another woman interviewed in the aforementioned documentary accounts, “We can’t be free as women unless we’re in a free country. And even if we’re free of the occupation, we can’t know freedom as long as we’re subjugated in our own society.”

Palestinian women, written or unwritten, have always and continue to embroider the blueprint for both our liberation and sovereignty, for resistance and remedying the aftermath of oppression. If stories like my grandmother’s are not properly represented and recognised, whole generations of children might become illiterate to their own agency and potential.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.