Palestine looks back on a long history of women organizing dating back to as early as 1917, as well as a vibrant history of women’s social and political participation in the country. Nevertheless, the coordinated feminist protests that took place on 26 September 2019 took some by surprise.
On that day, thousands of Palestinian women – some of them for the first time in their lives – hit the streets of 12 cities across the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as well as in refugee camps and the diaspora including a protest in Berlin and another in London, in response to a call issued by the activist group Tal’at to protest the rise in gender-based violence (GBV), most notably so-called ‘honour killings’, in Palestinian society. The demonstrators also denounced all forms of violence – be it from patriarchy, toxic masculinity, sexual violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, economic exploitation, local political exclusion, sexist laws, or colonialism.
The catalyst of this newly formed feminist movement was the killing of Israa Ghrayeb, a 21-year-old Palestinian woman, by her family members in the West Bank. Women’s mobilizations are not uncommon in Palestine, nor was this mobilization unique or the first of its kind. Yet such strong and coordinated mobilization was definitely a somewhat unusual recent development, and could be attributed to the strong feminist discourse that has linked social and political issues in turbulent times, as well as a general rise in violence against Palestinian women.
The mobilization came after years of what many observers regarded as a stagnation in the women’s movement, and an increased marginalization of women’s voices and concerns in the Palestinian national struggle. The action developed without the organizers resorting to traditional methods of mobilization – specifically, without the resources and networks of the women’s organizations directly affiliated with the established Palestinian political parties. The Tal’at group is independent, meaning that, unlike other Palestinian women’s organizations, political parties and formal institutions have no control over it nor the tools and tactics they use.
A Glimmer of Hope
The Tal’at mobilization began as an urgent action under the slogan of “No Free Homeland without Free Women.” It swiftly captured widespread attention: locally among wide sections of Palestinian progressive circles and Arab feminist groups, and internationally among several feminist collectives in Latin America and the United States.
The activists involved successfully overcame military checkpoints, geographical fragmentation, and physical borders. Organizers managed to reach out to different individuals and groups in different cities via their own channels and social relationships. Some knew each other as political and social activists prior to the mobilization, while others met for the first time. Organizers used social media as their primarily mobilizing tool. In several cities, they also hung up posters.
For some Palestinian women, the mobilization represented a glimmer of hope that a better and more just future for all in a free Palestine could be possible. Although it was met largely with praise, optimism, and a great deal of support and solidarity, mostly due to its progressive feminist discourse and firm stance against all forms of oppression, an expected backlash came from conservative and reactionary Palestinians who reject feminism outright and view it as an imported, purely Western ideology with the goal of destroying family values and tearing apart the Palestinian social fabric, as well as from Palestinians who believe that women’s liberation can only be achieved later, after national liberation, plainly stating that women’s dignity and lives are for now not a priority.
Diverse Experiences, Diverse Discourses
Tal’at opened a new window of opportunity for Palestinian women hoping for real social and political change to make their voices heard and place a progressive feminist agenda at the core of Palestine’s national emancipation – an agenda that aspires to entrench liberation as a value in all aspects of life. Tal’at also sparked an online conversation among Palestinian women about feminism – the notion itself, what can or cannot be included under feminism, and lastly what it means to be a feminist in the Palestinian context today.
With regard to the last question, a discussion took place around what kind of allies and supporters are welcome within a Palestinian feminist movement. Based on that discussion, attempts made by some Israeli women’s groups to join Tal’at were rejected. Affirming that being a feminist in Palestine today means having total control over the feminist narrative, Tal’at issued an official statement, explaining in detail why such attempts will always be rejected. Important debates also unfolded among women and activists around feminist discourse in Palestine. The debates I observed were healthy and refrained from speaking of Palestinian women as a monolith, instead recognizing their diverse social and political backgrounds.
Acknowledging such diversity leaves room for articulating the lived experiences of Palestinian women, as shaped by their locations and identities and as subjects of multiple layers of oppression. Such diversity extends to the realms of women’s needs, concerns, expectations, and dreams. Many came to realize that for any Palestinian autonomous women’s organization or feminist organization to emerge, it would need to recognize those differences. Without doing so it would be just another futile attempt that benefits only some at the expense of others, and would not take us further toward full liberation.
That said, it is practically impossible to depict all feminist discourses and agendas on the ground, or to cover all the diverse viewpoints and attitudes of Palestinian women who identify as feminist. This is a very complex undertaking, as the field is still insufficiently investigated. Moreover, terms such as “feminism,” “feminist discourses,” “intersectionality,” and “patriarchy” only recently became more common in the public sphere and in conversation.
However, there is clearly a diverse range of feminist discourses and various strands of feminist and women activism which have emerged organically, for the simple reason that this system of structural violence impacts them differently, and the ideas and discourses they develop over time are based on their own concerns. Those diverse feminist discourses agree on several salient points and intersect around central questions, such as national liberation, political participation, femicide, women in the labour market, and women’s reproductive health and rights. They differ, however, in the lens they use and the strategies they employ to understand and engage with those questions.
In a culturally conservative society like Palestine, religious teachings and beliefs still have a powerful influence on how people structure their everyday lives, and feminist and women’s rights discourses are no exception. The widespread conservative feminist discourse in Palestine views religion as a point of reference for its demands, and a standard what is acceptable and what is not. This conservative feminism is largely confined to what is socially acceptable, and its goals are usually limited to legal reforms such as pushing reforms that protect the rights of women to inheritance in accordance with Islamic law, and protecting this right against threats such as fraud and manipulation.
This discourse generally avoids any issues that are deemed to violate Islamic teachings, such as a woman’s right to appear in public without a head covering, to travel without a male guardian’s approval, sex work, or the right to sexuality. These issues, combined with patriarchal social norms, limit conservative discourse and set a very low bar for demands when compared to the other mainstream feminist discourse, namely the secular discourse.
Nevertheless, this conservative discourse – since it is less in confrontation with society and the system – is granted space to safely campaign without being demonized or targeted, in contrast to what happens to their secular counterparts. The conservative religious discourse around feminism or women’s rights has also opened up discussions over the right to education, access to healthcare, the right to work, disability rights, matters related to the so-called “personal status law,” and violence against women.
One heated, ongoing debate in Gaza specifically revolves around changing the laws concerning child custody and child visitation rights, with the goal of at least adopting the same law as it is applied in the West Bank. In Gaza, divorced women lose their custody rights once their children reach the age of seven (for boys) and nine (for girls). In most cases, they are also denied the right to visitation as a punishment, and may not ever see their children again. Meanwhile, in the West Bank, child custody for women lasts until the age of 15 for both boys and girls, with better regulations regarding visitation rights for both parents.
The debate around child custody was sparked in June 2020 by the murder of 20-year-old Madeline Jarab’a, who was killed for getting in touch with her divorced mother. One month later, the ten-year-old Amal Al Jamaly was killed by her father following disagreements between him and her mother. This pattern of killings encouraged women and mothers, most of them divorced, to start a campaign demanding justice by changing the law. Today the group encompasses around 1,500 women, who have already organized media campaigns, a petition, and protests in front of the legislative council, chanting and holding written banners with Quranic verses and hadiths (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) concerning the regulations of familial relationships during marriage and after divorce.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, a secular feminist discourse led by a broader network of women’s rights activists and groups can be observed. The demands raised within this discourse go further, and its protagonists are keener to challenge social norms and patriarchal structures whether religion, domestic patriarchy, or structural violence from formal institutions. Both reformist and radical tendencies can be identified, including feminists who are liberal, left-wing, or who are opposed to political Islam.
Violence against women and ‘honour crimes’ are top of the agenda here, as well as the politicization of women’s bodies, sexual abuse, harassment in the workplace, economic exploitation, the hijab, freedom of movement, women’s reproductive health, employment rights and legal reforms, changing the penal code, governmental protection for women, tougher laws, and ensuring that laws are in compliance with ratified international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
A Younger and Bolder Generation
Part of this secular discourse is a newly-emerging younger generation that identifies as feminist and does not shy away from the term out of fear of backlash. Tal’at is one example of this generation, while another is the queer-feminist organization Al Qaws with headquarters in Jerusalem and offices in Ramallah, Haifa, and Jaffa. In Gaza there is #MeTooGaza, focusing mainly on sexual harassment and honour crimes.
This younger generation is clearly bolder and has a more nuanced understanding of the patriarchal system, power relations, gender dynamics, and how all systems of oppression are linked both in theory and practice. Its level of understanding can largely be attributed to social media and thus access to information, whether in relation to feminist theory, schools of feminism, or worldwide feminist struggles. It goes without saying that the #MeTooGaza group is heavily influenced by the global #MeToo movement.
There is a clear distinction between these groups and an older generation of women activists who may themselves be aware of gender inequalities, but nevertheless are only involved to a limited extent. The older generation are affiliated with established Palestinian political parties, which have sometimes restricted their feminism in praxis and held them back politically. A member of the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW), the main official institution that represents Palestinian women within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and which therefore represents Palestinian women from all political parties, explained the following in a personal interview:
Women in the GUPW and all Non-Governmental Organizations associated with it, have to prioritize the interests of the party over the interests of women. They have no choice. If the men in the political party see an issue that concerns these women as a non-priority issue, then, it will not be a priority on those women’s agenda… Women representatives from political parties within the GUPW, would only prioritize supporting and helping women who are members of their same party.
The topics discussed online in younger feminist circles, on the other hand, go beyond heteronormative feminism: they discuss sexual orientation, gender identities, and gender transitioning. They open up conversations about reshaping gender roles at home, where inequality begins and becomes normalized, as well as debates around pleasure, emotional labour, sex work, marital rape, abortion rights, intersectionality, and male control over women’s bodies and sexuality. They are also more vocal about sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the private sphere. In a society that considers everything around sexuality and sexual expression as taboo, this is significant.
The emerging young feminist generation is fully aware that addressing social questions, such as the oppression of women, is also a political question. They are accordingly critical of neoliberal practices such as the depoliticization of “collective women’s concerns” via NGO-ization, which then become co-opted into donor-driven projects with deadlines, as happens all too often in Gaza and the West Bank. That is one reason why Tal’at publicly distanced themselves from this kind of, in their eyes, superficial feminism, stating they were a totally independent Hirak (movement), as many women had lost faith in pro-women NGOs and their agendas.
The emerging feminist generation is also critical of the reformist tendencies among the secular feminist discourse and refuses to ignore the patriarchal nature of the political system, while rejecting the idea that the feminist agenda should be limited to superficial changes that only benefit elite women. For instance, they do not cherish changes that can be leveraged in the service of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and help the PA to improve its public image.
This generation does not simply accept scratching the surface of the problem by appointing more women within PA structures, recruiting women for the police, limiting political participation to acts of engagement within the system, and using the tools of the system such as having more women in the government. This generation clearly views the PA and its institutions as part of the patriarchal system responsible for violence against women and reproducing violence against marginalized groups, and which thus needs to be dismantled in the process of full liberation. There are of course women’s rights activists who disagree with that assessment, and view the PA as an important actor that cannot be omitted from the equation.
A Discourse in Flux
Looking back at the feminist discourse and activism that was visible in Palestine five years ago, it is clear that a certain maturity has emerged in today’s discourse, and it continues to change, even if slowly.
The discourse has become more nuanced: new topics are gaining more space, as seen in contemporary discussions of issues such as the intersection of class and women’s oppression, the importance of producing feminist knowledge in Arabic, and even topics like black abolitionist feminism.
In addition, matters that are considered taboo like sex and sexuality are being discussed, even if in smaller circles or online. Nevertheless, those conversations are not yet mainstream, and perhaps take place only in private progressive feminist groups.
Silence and Complicity around Honour Killings
Gender-based violence and what are often known as ‘honour crimes’ are the two main issues haunting women in Palestine. Both are usually swept under the rug as ‘private matters’ and ‘personal issues’, in line with a rhetoric that views such horrific violations as individual cases, not as systematic crimes. Women who speak up or complain are regularly shamed for doing so.
There are no reliable statistics around honour crimes and violence against women. Many incidents go unreported. Recent years, however, have seen a spike in publicly reported crimes on social media. According to women’s rights organizations, 35 women were killed in Gaza and the West Bank in 2020 – but even this figure is only an estimate. Many cases are registered as ‘honour killings’ because the family or the perpetrators feel no shame over what they did. However, other killings get registered as “suicides” or “accidents” as a way to close the case quickly and avoid public scrutiny.
The notion of ‘honour’ behind these ‘honour’ crimes is highly vague, yet is the main declared motive for those killings. There is no catalogue listing the behaviours that supposedly stain a family’s honour and thus deserve the punishment. It could be innocuous acts ranging from not sticking to the expected code of morality, maintaining a Facebook account, receiving a phone call from a co-worker, talking to a stranger, or coming home late. This vagueness is tied to the idea that women must preserve their chastity, in line with the dominant religious laws and social patriarchal norms in Palestinian society. Additional pressure is put on unmarried women, as society attempts to control their sexuality and ensure their ‘virginity’. Women who adhere to social norms and religious laws are categorized as ‘good’ women, while those who do not are regarded as ‘bad’.
Honour crimes are also used as a cover for crimes committed on other grounds, such as the right to inheritance or the right to choose a partner. Perpetrators know very well that, if they claim they committed the crime on grounds of defending the family’s honour, they will receive a reduced sentence – or no punishment at all. Even when women are fortunate enough to have the access and privilege to report threats and abuse, their complaints are usually dismissed by police. This behaviour on the part of police or hospital staff is not merely an individual problem: those institutions and employees are guards of the patriarchal system; they, too, are part of the problem.
Reporting sexual harassment and abuse is not an easy process. Due to the widespread stigma associated with sexual abuse, women are often afraid to seek justice. When they do, they are subjected to a long process that violates their bodies through medical examinations, thus adding to their trauma. Women accusers are expected to prove that the incident really happened and navigate a number of bureaucratic hurdles. More often than that, the process ends with the abuser walking away and justice not being served.
As a result, women refrain from speaking out about rape and sexual harassment perpetrated by relatives and family members. They stay with their abusers since governmental institutions and laws offer no real protection. In Gaza, for example, there are two women’s shelters – one run by the government and one belonging to an NGO. Neither provide real solutions. According to testimonies from women who have been to them, the NGO-led shelter still uses traditional patriarchal ways of dealing with cases, such as male mediation and tribal interventions. The governmental shelter is much worse: women are shamed and blamed for what happened to them, and workers uphold the very same conservative social ideology that subjected women to violence. Rather than find the refuge and protection they seek, women at the shelter find themselves negotiating with patriarchy instead.
Social Media: A New Battleground
The patriarchal structures and social norms of Palestinian society not only permit and normalize violence against women, but also prevent them from seeking justice. This is coupled with the complicity of formal institutions that reinforce and reproduce violence. They provide legal loopholes, allowing the abuser to get away with crimes or receive reduced sentences. Essentially, the whole system is designed to protect abusers.
Women and girls have lost faith in the system, and constantly question the ability of these institutions to provide them with safety and protection. All of this has pushed them toward thinking of new ways of making their concerns public, using social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, hoping these would provide them with some protection.
In the case of Israa Ghrayeb, if it were not for the videos and conversations that were leaked to social media, which later sparked outrage leading to a huge campaign demanding justice and investigation under the hashtag #JusticeForIsraa, the crime would have gone unnoticed, and Israa would have been just another victim, another number.
Similarly, in the case of Madeline Jarab’a, if it had not been for individual feminist efforts, no one would have known what had happened and that a girl had been killed. In the face of public feminist pressure, her father was arrested but later freed, due to a legal loophole that allowed the next of kin to pardon the perpetrator, who in this case was the father himself.
In August 2020, two young women from Gaza went live on Facebook to speak out about physical abuse by their family members in separate incidents. This unprecedented event defied social restrictions concerning violence against women being a private matter. Alaa Yasin, one of the two girls, went to the governmental shelter in August 2020, and told me: “[i]n the first week people working in the shelter were nice to me, in the second week things were getting worse, they tried to take my phone, push me to go back home to my abusive family, it was like a prison, not a place for safety and protection.” She eventually managed to leave for Egypt.
One month later, on 17 September 2020, another young girl took to Facebook and Instagram to speak about being sexually harassed by her father and other family members. If there is one thing families fear, it is such issues being made public, where they might harm the family’s reputation.
Because of the lack of direct action on the street around these crimes, recently we can observe more Palestinian feminist groups emerging on social media, disseminating information about feminism and women’s rights, speaking up about crimes against women, and building networks. They are initiating campaigns like #MeTooGaza that tackle sexual harassment, while the relative anonymity ensured by the internet provides them with safety and protection in a conservative society. At the very least, these groups allow women to share their stories and heal together. They also allow women to discover new ways of supporting each other, which is something that is not possible outside of the virtual world.
Social media has allowed feminists to communicate directly with each other and building support systems online, where survivors and victims know they are not alone in their struggle. This use of social media platforms by feminist groups has also attracted a backlash in the form of online misogynist threats, cyberbullying, and blackmail. This has opened up a conversation about what tactics can be developed to fight such attacks and keep feminist groups and individuals safe.
Fighting Patriarchy and Colonialization
Compared to Saudi Arabia’s strict guardianship laws, one could almost get the idea that male guardianship does not really exist in Palestine or the rest of the Arab world. That would be a mistake. Palestine definitely has an informal male guardianship system that is held up and reinforced by society and formal institutions, even if the Palestinian Basic Law states otherwise. Women are often prevented from enrolling in a university, having a job, going for a walk, visiting friends, choosing their partner, or traveling without a male guardian’s approval.
In one instance, women who tried to leave Gaza via the Rafah Border Crossing, all of whom were over 18 years old, were appalled when border guards asked them to call their “male guardian” in order to receive consent for their travel. On 14 February 2021, the Higher Sharia Court Council in Gaza issued a circular prohibiting unmarried women of all ages from travelling without their male guardian’s approval. After public pressure and campaigns, they are said to be revising the circular. That being said, even if it is revised, informally women would still be asked to call their male guardian or risk being returned to Gaza and denied crossing.
The conservative norms prevalent across Arab society provide Palestinian feminists with more than enough social ills to address, but not all of their problems are home-grown. After all, the oppression of Palestinian women cannot be understood outside of the context of the structural violence of the Israeli occupation. The violence Palestinian women are subjected to every day cannot be separated from the reality of Palestinian society as a whole.
Israeli policies and the dispossession of Palestinian bodies and lands for decades also includes gendered violence against Palestinian women, while at the same time the harsh political and economic realities caused by the occupation play a role in reinforcing violence within Palestinian society. For instance, Palestinian women holding Israeli citizenship are subjected to different forms of violence, where Israeli institutions deliberately reinforce patriarchal kin unit structures at the expense of women’s lives under the pretext that this violence is a cultural specificity of the Arab community. Meanwhile Palestinian women in Gaza have little control over their lives, living under a tight Israeli-Egyptian blockade. Uniting these distinct experiences, however, is the occupation.
The same feminist activists who oppose structural patriarchy in Palestinian society also fight against colonialist policies. In doing so, they risk arrest and torture in Israel jails, being searched and humiliated at checkpoints, surveillance, having their freedom of movement taken away from them, being besieged, blackmailed, and denied access to healthcare services, and even having their right to self-determination taken away. As this younger generation of feminists emerges, it rejects the rhetoric of prioritizing national liberation and side-lining feminist discourses, instead arguing that the liberation of the homeland and the liberation of its women go hand in hand.
From Scene to Movement
The list of challenges feminists and organizers for women’s rights face in Palestine is indeed long, beginning with their difficult position wedged between domestic patriarchy and foreign occupation. Although key driving forces behind building a social movement, such as injustice and oppression, are strongly present, reality continues to impose limitations on their ability to engage in political struggle. When building a feminist movement, geographical fragmentation can pose a huge obstacle.
The lack of resources and infrastructure also poses enormous challenges that affect the ability to mobilize and organize, and hinder the building of a strong feminist movement by making the process of growth much slower. This are compounded by other negative factors like frustration, demoralization, the constant backlash from conservative forces, or the threat of being harmed for organizing under political banners. All these dynamics weaken any attempts made by Palestinian women to launch collective feminist action of any kind.
There have been incredible efforts to build a feminist movement in Palestine in the past years, as the local discourse develops and shifts and feminist groups seek to alter the status quo. That said, what we have today is a Palestinian feminist scene, not a movement. Tal’at, for example, has gathered momentum, but whether it will be able to persist and establish continuity is anybody’s guess.
However, all the recent efforts, as well as how women and feminists are engaging with them, clearly show that there is a thirst for change, and a desire to fight for gender justice and liberation. To build a feminist movement in and for the future, feminists need to redefine the political space and reclaim public space, and not confine women’s presence only to national emergencies. We need to rethink organizing and develop new organizational models suitable for the socio-political and cultural context in Palestine in order to be able to conceptualize a broader vision of our collective liberation.
This article first published on the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung website.
Fidaa Zaanin is a socialist feminist from Palestine currently residing in Berlin.