Surveying Palestinian history since the Nakba up to the present will illustrate how women are an essential part of this history, either directly or indirectly; women are there with their presence, suffering, and their non-stop resistance.
As a result of the 1948 Nakba, the existing social structures suddenly collapsed, as did the relations connecting the Palestinian community. Many Palestinians felt they were falling into a huge abyss; a severe disruption from the normal and natural. Instead, dislocation became the norm, and social relations and structures lost their supportive or justifying elements. Loss and uncertainty, as well as psychological frustration and oppression, dominated people and pushed them towards new situations without any choice but acceptance.
Palestinians found themselves facing the direct existentialist question of "to be or not to be," not only on the political level, but also on the personal level. As the instinct for survival necessarily dominated the scene and took first priority, Palestinians did not busy themselves with other questions or priorities. In order to realize the horrific nature of the shock and its disfiguring impacts on Palestinians, it is useful to recall the features of the scene that characterized the Palestinian community before the Nakba.
The Palestinian social structure prior to the Nakba was characterized as a landsman community. The village represented the basic demographic unit on both the geographical and social levels. The village has deep roots in history as well as culture, traditions, and habits connected with its land and agriculture. Such reality dominated the social relations and structure, and was reflected clearly within the nature of the Palestinian family. One of the main features of this was the rural house, with its wide area and special design, as well as the surrounding walls and yards. Such a structure met the needs of relations between the fathers and the descendents as well as the relations of the young with the adults and the relation of the wife with the husband and the other male members in the family. Such relations were dominated with cultural features that have deep roots in history and a historical heritage. Within such a context, the social values, systems, and limits dominated the shape of the community and formed its patriarchal structure. Such relations were also based on human dignity and strong connection with land.
Such a social network interacted with the economic activities in that space, where the natural economy interacted with the labor economy. Thus, the labor relations connected with the agricultural sector to form a kind of mixing between males and females as a must imposed by the nature of the work.
Such a situation was dominated by the values of honor and dignity, seen as masculine, though it allowed a space of contacts and openness. These values and structures allowed for the control of women, but did not allow for attacks on them, especially if such attacks were committed from outside the circle of blood relatives. In this Palestinian culture, the position that women were given derived from the Canaanite myth and the role that the goddess Anat performed, in addition to the activeness that this myth represents. The same reality is reflected within the embroidery of Palestinian traditional dress, where it goes beyond the dimension of beauty to represent traditions and myths that canonize women. The embroidery represents amulets and spiritual protection of women and their bodies and their essential role within public life. In this manner, it is not possible to limit women’s lives to the domination of the masculine structure of the community.
I mention this cultural dimension and I am aware of the dialectic relation between the social division of work and the impacts of private property and its reflections on the social and cultural structure of any group.
Anthropologically, these behaviors and cultural structures have deep roots in history, though their impacts now could be weaker than in the past. Within the developments in the life of the community, such values are transferred from one stage to another and are subject to an endless process of restructuring and adaptation. Thus, within a particular stage, the social and cultural values and procedures look as if they lack any logic that dominates their development. However, they are the result of the development and transformation that groups pass through within their life, and include internal contradictions as well as the contradictions with the external world.
The other dimension that characterized the Palestinian community before the Nakba is the development that the coastal cities witnessed since the beginning of the previous century, especially during World War I. At this time, commerce activities flourished and served the powers involved in the war. Such economic flourishing was seen clearly in the development that the Palestinian ports witnessed, as well as the building of the railways and industrial zones. Moreover, the forming of the labor movement and the emergence of local newspapers and civil organizations were also among the features of such development. In other words, the Palestinian coast played an active role within the economic, social, and cultural life and it functioned further as a link with the external world and the nearby Arab sphere. On the other hand, the coastal area and its extension through the internal plateaus were among the most fertile Palestinian lands. The Palestinian plains were famous for hosting citrus fruits that spread not only in Palestine, but also in the nearby countries and the world as well.
This brief survey aimed to portray the pre-1948 situation in Palestine in order to facilitate understanding of the comparison between that and the circumstances that emerged later following the uprooting of Palestinians from their lands.
In 1948, the aforementioned Palestinian situation was subject to a horrible shock that uprooted Palestine from itself and the surrounding sphere. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians found themselves out of their place and time. They suddenly lost everything, including their social bonds. Their inner world was disfigured and all the economic and social circumstances surrounding them collapsed. Palestinians lost their environment, properties, and balance; they were cut in all directions with nothing to pull them together apart from the horrors of the catastrophe. Within the lost mystery, relations were torn up and the social network fell, accompanied by the collapse of the set of values and social bonds that characterized the Palestinian community. The horrific nature of the catastrophe increased with the spread of the refugees into the surrounding Arab sphere, which was supposed to absorb the disaster and decrease its impacts on the Palestinians, who paid the price for the defeat and the collusion of the official Arab regimes.
The refugees rushed in all directions in an attempt to protect their existence. It was an unconscious rush that mixed things, structures, values and concepts while trying to reprioritize life in a manner that gives less attention to the past and focuses on the future.
Within such circumstances, Palestinian women found themselves in the midst of events and changes that placed burdens on their shoulders; they had no choice to accept or refuse. Women found themselves on the margins of the defeated Arab cities that escaped their defeat by blaming the victims and throwing responsibility on them. Palestinian women found themselves among torn families and men who were supposed to grant them protection; in the past, privileges given to men were always justified by the fact that men provide women with protection. However, the Nakba destroyed this image and suddenly, men in the refugee camps found themselves bare of everything, including their dignity and sense of masculinity. They sat under the storms watching their women (or those who remained from their family) being subject to all forms of humiliation and insults, as well as hunger, illness, and death, without being able to do anything to protect them.
Nevertheless, Palestinian women were not static in front of such an historical change. Women started reprioritizing their tasks not because they were dominated by the desire for revenge, but because the desire for some continuity awoke inside them. The myths of creation awoke inside women, but within the limits that the new situation and the tendency to remain and protect the family allowed. While it is true that Palestinian women were always negotiating their positions and relations within the patriarchal society and the dominating masculine culture within such circumstances, it was always conceived as being done within continuously evolving social circumstances, not within the circumstances of social upheaval following the Nakba.
The Nakba pushed everyone, men and women, to an abnormal level of confrontation. All were focused on the necessity of reestablishing some level of social balance while generating new political and social circumstances that were a must to ensure physical existence. The emerging situation had no links with the past, apart from the levels of memory and culture. The important thing was to find the way that enables the forced new Palestinian entity of the refugee camp, to form an identity and protect its existence and forms of relations among the individuals. It focused on finding the necessary protection mechanism for the children who were victims of hunger and disease. That was, indeed, the hardest and most despairing moment.
During the first days in the camp, the Palestinian woman found herself in the first stage of creation, involving travail and darkness. She began looking for the road in the darkness, hugging her kids while commencing a battle for existence that prioritized her children and family, but not herself. The refugee camp environment restructured its relations to guarantee the minimum available dignity and privacy. The disfigured extended family was substituted by other circles, such as the village and the region. Each one was interested in protecting the privacy of others. Thus, a girl described the situation in the camp as "In the camp, I realized that our window is not ours only, but it is also the window of others and so is the wall of our house."
Within the restructuring process in the camp, new forms and patterns of relations and culture emerged. Such forms were based on what was in the past, yet, restructured according to new facts and regulations. Thus, it is possible to understand some psychological and behavioral aspects of life in the refugee camp. It could sound strange to find that Palestinian women (especially wives) found themselves enjoying more freedom of self-expression. The narrowed space did not allow for reforming the big extended family. Thus, newly married women used to live in separated houses or separated rooms that rendered them free of the control of the other men in the family or the mothers-in-law. Women became no more blocked in the house as women, and so men in the camp cannot survive if they do not fight either directly on the doors of the UNRWA stores to get some relief or to be a part of the labor market in the Arab cities. At the time the male community in exile was disfigured, searching for a living, women were left alone in the space of the refugee camp. All struggled for existence.
Over the years and with the prolongation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the risks of the Nakba and its extension in time and place, social and geographical interaction processes began in the sphere of the camps and the surroundings. The dynamic of interference returned once again to the scene to reform awareness and relations in the refugee camp. Palestinians under such a dynamic tried to recapture their connection with the past but according to the new emerging laws and regulations where it was built, mainly on the dream of home and return to the lost paradise.
The refugee community overcame the shock stage and the impacts of the horrible destruction decreased, and following the difficult attempts to adapt to the disaster on the psychological and spiritual levels, the community began passing from the stage of direct interlocking and existence, to another comprehensive stage of challenge and resistance. Memory was transferred into creative power to rebuild awareness and build bridges with the past, where new symbols were created to protect home and the idea where the "idea" became ideology that created the social bonds and resistance requirements. The emerging circumstances created new dynamics and beliefs, as well as values that affected the whole community deeply. This situation intensified by the year 1967 and occupying the rest of the Palestinian land where people started feeling that the Nakba is an historical event and its impacts are extended from the first Nakba to the one that followed, especially as there was a continual Israeli attack against Palestine such that Palestinians feel that the Nakba and refugees are an ongoing process.
Within these circumstances and interactions, Palestinian women continued interacting with the emerging circumstances on their own. At the point that there was "difference between one tent and another" as one was for refugee while the other was to produce resistance, there was also a structural change in the role and the mission of women. Such change was embodied mainly in the enrollment of women in the resistance battle, as well as involving them in forming the awareness and the memory of the children. In case women strived to recapture their lost paradise, then they had to contribute in creating the cultural, social, and political conditions and prerequisites needed to achieve that.
The role that women performed during the national struggle period provided them with awareness of their ego and role. Such awareness was reflected clearly through women’s participation in the Intifada and all other forms of resistance. Women used their participation to prove that they are recapturing all history and the impacts of the Nakba, as well as illustrating their position and opinions regarding the conflict. Thus, through involvement in resistance, women look as if they were declaring that they will never accept a repeat of the Nakba once again.
Reality is more complicated than women’s wishes and dreams. Over the previous decades, the masculine culture managed to absorb the shock of the Nakba and repair its positions. Thus, the scene is repeating itself in which there is masculine domination of the community as well as social discrimination and oppression that do not harmonize with the heroic role which women performed within the national struggle since the first Nakba up to today.
While new balances were created within the emerging situation, the awareness did not return to the same position of the past. There might be recession within the awareness but in all cases, the accumulated experience of women on all levels will lead in the end to a new awareness that deals with the new realities while maintaining contacts with the past.
Within such circumstances, the role of women’s organizations and democratic organizations is clear in defending women’s social and political rights and preventing the violation of women’s rights that might affect their pioneering role within the community. However, achieving this requires developing the awareness of these organizations in order to work within comprehensive strategies that deal with women’s rights as a process that requires an accumulation of efforts in order to launch a comprehensive strategy that promotes women’s status within the development process of the community in general. There should be development within the vision of the civil organizations in order to put the promotion of women’s status as part of the political and cultural developments of the community.