She Who Struggles: Revolutionary Women Who Shaped the World, eds. Marral Shamshiri and Sorcha Thomson (Pluto 2023), 248pp. She Who Struggles: Revolutionary Women Who Shaped the World, eds. Marral Shamshiri and Sorcha Thomson (Pluto 2023), 248pp.

This valuable collection of pieces explores the role of women in twentieth-century revolutionary and national-liberation movements throughout the world, finds Ellen Graubart

Marral Shamshiri and Sorcha Thomson have made an extensive study (beginning in the 1930s until the present) of the roles revolutionary women have played in anti-colonial, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggles. Their political activities, rooted in the politics of solidarity and internationalism, have shaped the twentieth century, and continue to influence and shape the debate today, but have unjustly been left out of the annals of history. In this book they question why women are made invisible, and consider how different written history would be if women’s roles had been valued on the same basis as the men’s.

In order to understand the radical history of the twentieth century it must be understood that women’s contributions to social and political movements are not inconsequential or merely complementary. Overcoming women’s oppression was not the main issue: the main problem for them was having to face a double oppression in two positions,as workers and as women. Their interests lay in dismantling the unequal structures that oppress people globally, which requires a solidarity based on the internationality of struggles, rooted in an awareness of interlocking structures of oppression under capitalist imperialism.

In spite of the fact that these women have played important and major roles in the history of the period, the historical record of the part they have played remains unjustly dominated by men:

‘The ongoing neglect of women in these histories is a reproduction of the patriarchal politics experienced by women throughout history. It is essential that revolutionary women be written into history if we are to learn anything about their struggles, their radical traditions, and the ways in which the woman question has been dealt’ (pp.1-2).

The period between the mid-sixties and the mid-eighties was a time of revolutions and liberation movements against colonialism and neo-colonialism, and the Palestinian women’s struggle was at its heart. During that period the Cuban, Chinese and Algerian revolutions became inspirational for the world, the remarkable struggle of the Vietnamese people against the mighty power of the United States. In comparison to their male counterparts, fewer African women took part in internationalist struggles, but those who did are lesser known. Women’s movements were usurped by the male elites of their countries as a consequence of postcolonial state construction, but to an extent, Ghana’s and Mali’s anti-imperial internationalism in the 1960s had its roots in the activism of Gold Coast and Sudanese women in the 1950s (p.36).

There is a remarkable internationality and solidarity between the seemingly disparate groups of women, a wide sharing of experiences and learning gained through the process of struggle. When attention is directed to the women in the story, we are able to achieve a deeper understanding about revolutionary movements as a whole.

The authors of the contributions included in this collection have used previously untranslated memoirs, biographies, oral histories, publications, records and archival ephemera to produce these remarkable stories, many of whom have backgrounds in academic disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Many are engaged in present-day movement work and political activism (p.5).

The list of women featured in this collection is long and global: they are from Cuba, Ghana, Mali, Ireland, Palestine, Japan, Iran, Vietnam, Kurdistan, South Africa, Egypt, the Philippines, and El Salvador.They mainly identify as communist or socialist, presenting and acting on radical visions of the world through the mobilising of liberation movements, and forging networks of solidarity struggling against colonial and imperial structures in Asia, Africa and the Americas (p.2).

Here are summaries of three of these amazing women’s stories.

Sorcha Thomson, ‘Melba Hernandez: From Cuba to Vietnam, under One Roof’

Born Cuba 1921, Melba Hernadez learned the values of justice and political education from her parents and a knowledge of the people who had struggled for the liberation of Cuba from the Spanish in the late-nineteenth-century wars of independence. The family home became a meeting place for political discussion and debate, which subsequently came under surveillance and threat of political persecution from the forces of military officer Fulgencio Batista, who led a coup that overthrew the Machado government in 1933, and since then had instigated heavy repression against socialist and communist groups in Cuba.

Hernandez’ first experience of politics was when she joined Party of the Cuban People, whose aim was to create a youth vanguard in the fight against corruption and for economic and social reforms (among the members was a young Fidel Castro). Although the party was favourite to win the 1952 election general, Batista’s coup established a military dictatorship. The US gave financial, military and logistical support to the regime; exploitation, corruption and repression of political opposition increased, along with the revocation of the right to strike and the torture and assassination of left-wing activists. In response to the clampdown, demonstrations broke out across the streets, parks and universities; socialist activities were forced further underground.

Melba then joined a young revolutionary group led by Fidel Castro. Her first task was to distribute the group’s clandestinely published newspaper – assuring it reached the University of Havana students – to build a more militant front.

Melba and close friend Haydee were the only two women in a group of 140 revolutionaries involved in an attack on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba in July 1953 in which many were killed, the rest being imprisoned or exiled, while Fidel was sentenced to fifteen years in jail. Melba and Haydee were sent to Guanajay women’s prison, where they refused to give up names and information that would incriminate the others; instead they organised resistance activities within the prison. They were released after seven months, vowing to continue their revolutionary activity in organising the release of their comrades still in prison.

Although the operation was a military disaster, it is widely recognised as the beginning of the struggle that would eventually result in the victory of the Cuban revolutionary movement over the Batista regime on 1 January 1959.

Jehan Helou, ‘Testimony: The Power of Women’s International Solidarity with the Palestinian Revolution’

This is Helou’s account of her participation in the Palestinian Revolution and some of her most prominent solidarity activities. Born in Haifa, Palestine in 1943, four years later she and her family were uprooted from their home during the Nakba and took refuge in Lebanon. Her father had been one of the founders of the Arab Trade Union in Haifa, so she had a good grounding in the politics of fighting for workers’ rights. In high school in Lebanon she started to advocate for their right to return to Palestine, and then at the American University of Beirut, she was elected president of the Political Society; she then joined Fatah (the largest of the Palestinian resistance organisations, founded in 1959) immediately after 1967, and was appointed to the Fatah leadership in 1967 (p.66). Her main work was to organise women in the Fatah movement.

She had always believed in the right of women to struggle for full liberation, and that belief remained central throughout her life. At one point she was demoted and marginalised by her Fatah leader for being ‘too left wing’, but regained her position two years later. She insisted that Palestine could not be liberated without the liberation of women.

She played many important and prominent roles in several international conferences and activities throughout her life, meeting and forging links with women’s groups from the US, India, Vietnam, Cuba, all over the Middle East, the Soviet Union, Latin America, China, Africa; she played an important role in establishing a branch of the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW) in Lebanon in 1969. The GUPW was a body of the PLO, the aim of which was social, economic and political advancement for Palestinian women. It was a grassroots organisation representing all Palestinian women (pp.66-67). Importantly, she was instrumental in bringing the issue of Zionism and apartheid to the fore.

There is a long history of the joint struggle between Palestinian and Arab women against Zionism and colonialism, and an understanding of the wider international relations is necessary to understand the centrality of the Palestinian Revolution to the Arab world (p.76). After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the provinces outside the Arabian Peninsula were taken over by the colonialist powers and divided into areas of British and French control through the Sykes-Picot Agreement, shattering a long-shared history and culture under the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic Caliphates before it. The Arab people, including Arab women, fully understood that the colonialist plan emphatically supported the Zionist project to build a settlement in Palestine (p.76).

The PLO – which in 1974 had been officially recognised as the representative of the Palestinian people by the UN General Assembly and granted observer status – was invited to attend the UN Women’s Conference in Mexico (of which Helou was a part) to coincide with the 1975 International Women’s Year. This was the historic moment when women started the condemnation of Zionism as a racist movement. They had the support of the Arabs, the Non-Aligned Movement, and of the socialist countries. The UN General Assembly passed resolution 3379 later that year which declared ‘Zionism as a form of racism and racial discrimination’. The US and its allies were furious, and tried unsuccessfully to revoke the resolution at the second conference of the Women’s Decade (established in 1976) in 1980, in Copenhagen. At this conference, an additional victory was scored in getting two main items on the agenda: ‘South African women under apartheid and Palestinian women inside the Occupied Territory and in Exile’ (pp.69-70).

The third Women’s Conference was held in Nairobi where Helou attended the NGO Forum, the parallel and informal forum to the main conference, whereas the PLO (through a GUPW delegation) attended the main conference at which no mention was made in any conference document of Zionism, nor was there any determination to keep resolution 3379. Many people suspect that there had been a direct or indirect agreement between the US and the PLO to revoke the resolution, or not to include it in exchange for a promise to support the PLO to have a Palestinian state. This led to the eventual revocation of the resolution in the UN General Assembly in 1991 (p.71).

The rise of the Palestinian Revolution happened after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, which was an explosion out of the bottle after twenty years of occupation. Learning about the Vietnamese experience was essential to their cadre’s education: ‘Vietnam Passed the Banner of Victory to Palestine’ (p.65): redemption from colonialism and oppression became the dream of both the Palestinian and Arab peoples against a remaining outpost of settler colonialism in the world, coinciding with the height of a feminist movement in Europe and the United States.

In the light of the dreadful genocidal siege on Gaza and violent attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem by the Israeli state going on at the moment – condoned and supported by the US and western powers – one is led to wonder how different the situation for the Palestinian people -and the rest of the world – would be today, if resolution 3379 had not been revoked.

Marral Shamshiri, ‘Marziyeh Ahmadi Osku’i: Guerrilla Poetry between Iran, Afghanistan and India’

Marziyeh (1945-1974) was a teacher, poet, writer, organiser and guerrilla fighter. She was a member of the Organisation of Iranian People’s Fada’i Guerrillas (OIPFG), one of Iran’s most prominent Marxist-Leninist organisations in the 1970s, which in 1971 launched an armed movement against the dictatorship of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, for that regime’s violent crushing of the huge demonstrations organised by the opposition in 1963: hundreds of peaceful protesters were shot and killed and thousands wounded and imprisoned. The Iranian left saw the Shah as a puppet of the United States: a decade before this a CIA-M16 engineered coup in 1953 had overthrown the elected government and restored the Shah to power. The 1960s was a period of political repression during which younger leftists, became disillusioned with the ineffective traditional political tactics and strategies of the old Left, and influenced by the anti-colonial revolution in Asia, Africa and Latin America, decided that armed struggle had become necessary.

Marziyeh was one of the Iranian communist movements’ most important female revolutionaries. She met her death in April 1974 at the young age of 29, when, in order to avoid being captured and tortured, she swallowed a cyanide pill during a street fight-out with the Iranian secret police (SAVAK). She became one of the ‘martyrs’ of the Iranian Left and is remembered and celebrated for being a talented poet and fearless revolutionary, but is hardly mentioned in the male-centric historiography of the Iranian Left (pp.95-6). The roles and contributions of women as important historical actors in the lead-up to, and after the Iranian Revolution, are yet to be recorded.

She Who Struggles is not only a fascinating read, but is also a valuable text book for anyone interested in the feminist, anticolonial and anti-racist struggle today: through the many exclusive interviews and original historical research, including primary sources never before translated into English, we learn about very little known revolutionary women from all around the world who nevertheless have had a huge influence on the course of revolutionary history – but ironically – a history that remains unjustly dominated by men. More than two decades into the twenty-first-century, women’s struggles for recognition and parity within a patriarchally dominated society are far from over.

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Ellen Graubart

Ellen Graubart was born in India of American parents and came to London from Virginia as a teenager to study art. She lives and works as an artist in Hackney. She is a member of Counterfire, Stop the War and Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

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