Bethlehem wall with graffiti depicting Leila Khaled. Bethlehem wall with graffiti depicting Leila Khaled. Photo: Bluewind / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED

The numerous women of the Palestinian resistance debunk the Western stereotype of passive, oppressed Arab women, argues Michael Lavalette

There is a myth that dominates much Western thinking about women in the Arab world and it needs to be dispelled. It is suggested that Arab women are meek and oppressed (far more than women in Western societies) by the religious and cultural practices of their societies. The wearing of the hijab is often identified as evidence of women’s submissiveness in the Middle East.

The odious Julia Hartley-Brewer, in a televised interview with Palestinian politician Dr Mustafa Bargouti, is merely the latest example of someone in the media regurgitating tired old racist tropes, suggesting Bargouti wasn’t ‘used to talking to women’. The easy response to anyone spouting such nonsense is that they clearly haven’t met any Palestinian women! Palestinian women have always been to the fore in the struggle for liberation. They are neither weak, nor are they passive victims of the Israeli occupation.

Women have played a leading role in the resistance movement. There have been several leading female militants within Fateh, for example. Fatima Barnawi was a black Palestinian woman, born in Jerusalem in 1939. She spent most of her childhood in a refugee camp in Amman, Jordan. In the 1960s she joined Fateh and took part in a military operation in Jerusalem in 1967 (just after the Six-Day War). She was arrested and gaoled for life by the Israelis. In 1977, she was released in a prisoner exchange.

Shadia Abu-Ghazaleh was born in Nablus in 1947. She joined Fateh just after the Naksa of 1967. She was martyred in October 1968 at the age of 21. Muzna Nicola was a trained nurse who returned to Palestine from Britain in 1975. She joined Fateh before being arrested by the Israelis for the ‘crime’ of recruiting people to Fateh in Nazareth. Dala Mughrabi was another qualified nurse who was brought up in the Sabra camp in Beirut. She joined Fateh and, in March 1978, led eleven fighters in a seaborne landing near Tel Aviv, in what was known as the Operation of the Martyr Kamal Adwan. The unit hijacked two buses as they attempted to get to the Israeli Knesset. Mughrabi raised the Palestinian flag and declared a ‘free Palestinian homeland’ before the unit became embroiled in a bloody battle with Israeli forces. Thirty-eight Israelis were killed, as were nine of the Palestinian militants (including Mughrabi).

But not all the activist women were Fateh members. Perhaps the most famous of all women fighters is Leila Khaled. Khaled was brought up in a refugee camp in Damascus before joining the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Khaled was just one of a number of women active in the PFLP. Others included Abla Taha, Latifa Howari and Sarah Joudeh, who were all arrested during 1968 and subjected to torture inside Israel’s prisons.

Women’s organising

But women have fought in other ways as well. Historically, a vast range of grassroots organisations (which today might be termed ‘civil-society organisations’) have been involved in the broad-based national-liberation struggle and women have actively engaged in these highly political networks and structures.

In 1929, the Arab Women’s Union was set up (after nine women had been killed whilst protesting in Jerusalem as part of the Al-Buraq Rebellion against the British Mandate and its facilitation of European Jewish settlement). The Union was involved in a range of social, economic and political campaigns – including organising protests and demonstrations.

In 1933, two sisters in Yafa, Moheeba and Arabiya Khursheed, set up an organisation called Zahrat al-Uqhawan (the Chrysanthemum Flowers). This group originally started as a campaigning welfare network but, after Moheeda witnessed a young Palestinian boy being shot by British forces, they turned themselves into an armed resistance network.

After 1948, women played a central role in creating and establishing a range of welfare networks – radical or popular social-work and social-welfare organisations – to support refugees. These included, amongst others, The Arab Child Welfare House, The Arab Women’s Society, The Young Arab Women’s Club and The Association for the Support of Wounded Militants. Such organisations provided immediate support to meet people’s needs, but also had an educative and campaigning role within the refugee diaspora.

1965 saw the formation of the General Union of Palestinian Women as an affiliate of the PLO. It organised political campaigns, lectures and seminars, cultural events and offered a range of support activities to families of prisoners and the martyrs. The GUPW was also involved in training women militarily. The growing involvement of women in these activities also, by necessity, led to GUPW networks establishing creches and kindergartens to provide collective childcare for activists and their families.

During the First Intifada, there was significant involvement by women in the liberation struggle. Particularly important were the Women’s Action Committees, a decentralised network operating across Palestine48, that encouraged local leaderships and local initiatives as part of the movement. This allowed women in Gaza, or in the North of the West Bank in Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarem, or in remote villages, to play a part in the movement. They were involved in the mass protests, strikes, alternative education centres and health and welfare networks established to meet people’s needs. They were active across Palestine48 and were fighting for national liberation and for a reinvigorated and prominent role for women in public and social life.

There is myth that is perpetuated in Western political and media circles of passive Muslim women, excluded from public life and marginalised within the struggle for liberation. It’s not true. The women of Palestine are active agents in the struggle for liberation, no matter what the Western press would have you believe.

Michael Lavalette, Socialists and Palestine Liberation is available from the Counterfire shop now.

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