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Fenneke Reysoo
Christine Verschuur

« Étoiles et toiles ». Mouvements de base, perspectives féministes et interactions local-global

The Palestinian Women’s Movement: New Realities/Old Concerns

Nahda Sh’hada

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1A central feature of Palestinian politics in the nineties, and specifically after the signing of the Oslo agreement in 1993, was that while many Palestinians were enthusiastically debating the laws and challenging their newly established government on the basis of equality, they were aware of the framework within which their new reality was constructed: an agreement which deprived them of their fundamental right to self-determination and independence; which approved and sustained their inequality with Israel; and which, by virtue of being signed by Palestinian representatives and approved by the international community, was a written surrender and acceptance of the unequal relation with the state of Israel; an agreement which thus established a new mode in international relations in the globalization era based on an acknowledgement of colonial relations by co-opted representatives of the colonized themselves.

2Another important feature of Palestine is empirical. Anyone living in Palestine between 1995 and 1999 would have been struck by the passion its people shows in discussing every law submitted to the legislative council; by the huge number of workshops devoted solely to debating proposed legislation; by the regular media coverage of activities related to debates on law. This process has created symbols of what constitutes the ideal citizen, and has interpreted those symbols, placing them within a specific political and institutional context.

3Participation in these activities was not restricted to professionals. Nor was it dependent on whether or not the participants knew the mechanism through which laws are formulated, or whether specific laws had direct or indirect effects on their lives. The predominant factor in the debate was that for the first time in their history Palestinians had the opportunity to pass their own legislation. It is within this context that the Palestinian women’s movement appealed for equal rights and equal citizenship for both genders, an exercise embedded in the larger trajectory of a nation which is still struggling for independence but yet celebrating its limited self-rule.

  • 1 I have argued elsewhere (Sh’hada, 1999) that, in the Palestinian context, the issue of identity is (...)
  • 2 The unified leadership of the first Intifada, which consisted of all secular and democratic forces, (...)

4Within this context the non-Islamist sections of the Palestinian women’s movement engaged in a collective effort to negotiate their rights and articulate a new discourse for their involvement in the social and political spheres. The last two years of the first Intifada (1990-1991) witnessed a growing emphasis on religio-national identity vis-à-vis the colonial occupier,1 an issue which bluntly – and perhaps fortunately – implicated and confronted the nationalists with the most sensitive subject: the gender issue. A clear indication of this development was the women’s movement’s bold expression of its dissatisfaction with the gendered views and approaches of the nationalists, who have persistently relegated women’s interests to the bottom of the agenda, in favour of the national cause and recently (1990-1991) in favour of political compromise with the religious parties.2

  • 3 It is worth noting here that there are no “Islamist feminists” in Palestine, as they exist in Iran (...)

5Issues that are religiously, politically and culturally sensitive started being debated publicly, this critique going hand-in-hand with the movement’s redefinition of gender interests and re-establishment and re-articulation of the very legitimacy of women’s rights. Women’s groups have powerfully brought to the fore the valid claim of equal rights for women on the basis of their equal participation in the struggle for self-determination and independence.3

  • 4 For more details, see Usher (1995a) and Sh’hada (1999).

6Significant in the movement’s politics is the historical moment of its appeal; the “autonomous” Palestinian women’s movement introduced into public debate issues related to equal rights and equal citizenship at a time when the national movement was at its “lowest ebb” (Abdulhadi, 1998: 661) due to international power shifts, regional political changes, local disputes over the Oslo agreement,4 and the striking failure of the nationalists to “address complex issues… such as social rights, pluralism of worldviews, and freedom of speech” (Hammami and Johnson, 1999:319). Palestinian women activists were aware of the nationalists’trend around the world to overlook women’s contributions once the national liberation was won; some women activists expressed their disappointment with the post-Oslo PA attitude towards women: in the words of one woman activist, “We have worked so hard for so long, but we do not see fruits of our work” (quoted in Ameri, 1999:41).

7The debate about women’s strategies vis-à-vis the state has only arisen in the last decade, with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, which made possible the first meeting between “Palestinian society and its leadership in exile” (Hammami and Johnson, 1999: 318). During this period, the Palestinian women’s movement was the most active social movement; it brought up the question of equality and claimed its rights from the “nonsovereign government” (ibid). The claims of the Palestinian women’s movement not only drew attention to new “social agents”, but also provided a different interpretation of old problems.

8A key element in the movement’s campaign is its political strategy. When the female participants in the Model Parliament for Family Law Reform (1997-1998) were frequently intimidated and labelled as western by the Islamists (Sh’hada, 1999), their “counterdefense to the Islamists was to ground [their] equality argument in the language of nationalism, state building and democracy.” (Hammami and Johnson, 1999: 339) This political strategy, which links gender equality with the “deep geopolitical inequalities of the Oslo period not only reclaims nationalist ground from the Islamists, but opens up the possibility of new democratic alliance” with the nationalists (Hammami and Johnson, 1999: 337). The same nationalists who were apologetic vis-à-vis the Islamists during the first Intifada (1987-1991) became supporters of women’s rights. It was the social question posed by the Model Parliament, which the nationalists had for a long time failed to advocate, that attracted public attention and nationalist support. A leftist leader commented on the Model Parliament campaign saying that “the parliament was like a light and we had to respond” (Zakut, 1999, cited in Hammami and Johnson, 1999:335).

  • 5 The instrumentality of women’s issues was best shown when the Egyptian parliament discussed the Fam (...)

9This shift in the nationalists’ attitude does not signify a transformation in their discourse about women’s rights; it is rather due to the political space created by the women’s movement, which “opened up a political debate that had been absent.” (Hammami and Johnson, 1999: 338) The nationalists’ support to the women’s cause in this specific case confirms the fact that the women’s question continues to be a matter of political pragmatism.5 Nevertheless, it validates the movement’s claim that their political concerns are not restricted to the family law reform as such; the women’s movement is concerned with the question of citizens’ rights and political democracy in general.

10Despite their different ideologies and heterogeneity, and even with the plurality of their political orientation and class background, a central element has emerged in non-Islamist women’s organizations, a shift towards a public interrogation of gender relations in Palestinian society through employing the notion of equality. This process has been paralleled by a gradual institutionalisation of the women’s movement itself through the establishment of women’s study centres, increased numbers of grassroots women’s organisations focusing on empowerment and awareness raising, setting up of women’s departments within ministries, etc.

  • 6 There is a growing debate about the meaning and consequences of institutionalization of women’s mov (...)

11In this regard, Ameri (1999) observes that there are two view points within the Palestinian women’s movement concerning the issue of institutionalization.6 One sees this development as a defensive action, which comes from the movement’s fear of the Palestinian Authority’s power to limit the scope of mass mobilization, while the second sees it as a move away from the grassroots which perhaps will weaken the roots of the movement and make it an easy target for the Islamists and the PA. In Egypt, professionalization and institutionalization were among the main effects of donors on the women’s movement. It led, as Al-Ali (2000) observes, to the so-called careerism within the women’s movement.

Model Parliament: a Brief Overview

12The Palestinian Model Parliament (MP) was a networking project between a number of human rights centres, women’s centres, and women’s coalitions. It was established in 1997 with the aim of bringing together all parties interested in proposing Palestinian laws and legislation based on equality and human rights.

13The Model Parliament began with planning sessions in all regions of the West Bank and Gaza. The activities resulted in the election of 88 members from the West Bank and 120 members from the Gaza Strip. The parliamentary seats were divided equally between men and women. The participants were representatives of political parties, members of the Legislative Council, human rights activists, representatives of women’s organizations and grass-roots organisations, as well as some sheiks.

14What was striking was the fact that the MP members worked systematically to examine, debate and challenge the very basis of the family law, namely the frame of reference, a field which fundamentally questions the sources and consequences of any legal reform to the extent that most women’s groups view family law reform as a figurative indication of the state’s policy towards not only the gender question but also towards what constitutes the identity of the state itself.

15In order to provide the MP participants with the opportunity to debate women’s rights from different perspectives, training courses were conducted on issues related to human rights. These included contemporary readings in religious thought dealing with women’s rights and the position of women in Islamic legislation. The training sessions compared the ideas of Muslim thinkers from many different periods and regions. The members of the MP were all conscious of the fact that the issues before them were basically a matter of power relations. Thus, their problem was to find solutions that would help to build a new, more balanced equation that would strengthen the “progressive” discourse while keeping the realities of Palestinian society in mind.

16There were two main approaches to doing this. Some participants argued that the Islamists should be confronted on their own ground and challenged on the basis of new and progressive readings and interpretations of the Quran. They called for a feminist interpretation of the Quran as a way to strengthen the feminist discourse.

17The second viewpoint came from some “secular” members in the MP, who said that Islam’s position on women’s rights in general is ambiguous at best; and that Islam’s compatibility with women’s rights cannot be resolved easily. They added that the Quran would have to be read selectively and subjectively to find supportive verses, and thus the feminist interpreters would use the same methodology as the dominant religious institutions. Furthermore, the feminist interpreters would have fewer texts to support their perspective, while the “traditional” Islamic school of thought has at its disposal an arsenal from the mainstream of the Islamic heritage. In addition, they described the women’s battle within Islam as a losing one, not only because Islamic texts contain clear ideas of male superiority, but also because the authority of feminist interpreters of Islam would never be greater than that of the male-dominant institutions.

18These members also argued that efforts to comb through Islamic texts for evidence of sympathy for women would be unfruitful from the “liberal” viewpoint. Their strong argument was that women’s struggle for their rights should be seen as a political struggle within the power structure of society and that any attempt to obscure this fact would serve the opposition. Therefore, the battle should be conducted politically, taking into account the power relations of society and the dominant patriarchal relations in every aspect of life in Palestine and in the Islamic world in general.

19A comprehensive evaluation was conducted at the conclusion of the MP’s activities. One of the main achievements of the project was its success in reaching thousands of women and men in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Other achievements included raising the awareness of political parties, especially the leftists, about issues specific to women, and lobbying them for better laws for a Palestinian society based on justice and equality. The MP initiative sparked a debate that had been missing from the Palestinian society for a long time. The MP members were able to communicate their objectives to the people despite the counter-campaign. The project succeeded in ensuring the right of women to discuss their situation and the discrimination against them in the current laws. The MP members crossed the limits and taboos set by some Islamists that forbid people from discussing the Sharia. Finally, in implementing the slogan that the national and social struggle have to be carried out side by side, the MP filled the vacuum left by the democratic movement.

Longer-term Implications

20The movement’s political strategy is very significant in terms of its relevance to the public/private discussion; it is quite instructive that the women’s movement’s attempts to enter the monopolized public space with new claims and demands actually opened up the same space to the voices of the “stronger” political actors. Hammami and Johnson (1999: 338) discuss these changes extensively. They argue that the Oslo agreement produced a “profound crisis of political visions, language, and direction for the national movement, particularly as it was locked in the Palestinian Authority system of rule.” Thus, the Model Parliament provided an exceptional opportunity to the political parties to make their voices heard.

21The movement has not only challenged the state on the grounds of women’s rights, but also thrown up profound questions about the rights of citizens vis-à-vis the state and the right of the whole nation to equality, citizenship, and independence at the international level. In other words, the movement has succeeded in making the links between the women’s issue and peoples’ rights (men and women) vis-à-vis the state, and could link the two with the nation’s right to independence and self-determination. Interestingly, this specific strategy of Palestinian women as Peteet (1999) has pointed out emanates from the movement’s deliberate approach of locating their arguments within the human rights and democracy paradigm rather than situating the debate around issues related to sexuality. These three linkages made it clear that the Palestinian women’s movement has begun to make the transition from the “chorus” seats (Nun, 1989, cited in Vargas and Olea, 1999:248) to the central stage of the national theatre.

Further Reflection

22In this paper, I have tried to examine the Palestinian women’s movement’s endeavour to raise its voice and defend women’s rights in a highly complex situation where international, regional and national politics play a great role in developing/impeding women’s movement strategies and tactics.

23The question of the women’s movement’s attempts to challenge the patriarchal structure of Palestinian society shows a response by various women’s organizations to similar sets of contradictions (Kandiyoti, 1991:18), but they are still struggling to find an adequate and applicable explanation of women’s subordination from which a general account of women’s interests can be derived. Therefore, feminists are still debating over where to focus their efforts: “on objective or subjective elements, “men” or “structures”, laws, institutions or interpersonal power relations – or all of them simultaneously” (Molyneux, 2001: 42). Even though each women’s group asserts its independence, they need to avoid the complete fragmentation of the women’s movement.

24Women’s organizations, though independent of one another, should articulate their discourse within counter-hegemonic alliances, and attack power formations on both the micro-and macro-levels. There are common grounds of experience, common concerns, and common forms of oppression that different groups share.

25It is important, however, to stress that emphasizing commonality does not preclude examining differences; women can build their collective strategies on strong grounds only by acknowledging and understanding these differences (Nicholson, 1994). In other words, we need to understand why at certain times some women’s groups stand against each other and thus weaken the movement’s common cause. Why, for instance, does a certain campaign for women’s rights gain support from other social actors more than from some groups within the movement? What kind of differences allows some religious leaders to support family law reform while some women’s groups do not? Why are certain women’s groups closer to their political parties’ visions and strategies than to other women’s groups?

26Another set of questions that needs to be answered is: How have the Palestinian women’s organizations conceptualized women’s interests? If we acknowledge the fact that a women’s movement comprises different strands ranging from a clear secular identity to highly religious organizations, and each of them has its own approach towards family law reform, the question is: How can we analyze these different strands of feminism? Is being a secular or religious organization relevant to the construction of interests? To what extent does the religious or secular nature of any given organization influence its visions with regard to women’s rights?

27One of Foucault’s key insights is that power is everywhere, not only in the state apparatus, but also in the media, streets, courts, family, and all other institutions. This approach acknowledges that power floods all social spaces and relations, and thus allows for and demands several forms of struggle. Hence, multiple forms of resistance open up along every line of identity that is controlled or stabilized. Diverse forms of women’s struggle attack the weak points of the structure and spread resistance everywhere, thereby enabling the general attack – that structuralists think is necessary – for challenging oppressive regimes. The task is complex; women’s movement is part of a nation that is still occupied, thus, it has struggled and is still struggling to liberate the nation’s “public private”. It also has to challenge patriarchy in both spheres, whether represented by the family structure, the state power, or Islamists’ discourse. This has to go hand-in-hand with adopting successful approaches to answer the question of representation by paying considerable attention to the needs and interests of the marginalized groups of women without losing sight of feminism. This last aspect constitutes the main question of my PhD research i.e. the gap between women’s movement(s)’ discourse(s) and the concrete experience of “ordinary women”.


1 I have argued elsewhere (Sh’hada, 1999) that, in the Palestinian context, the issue of identity is complex and should be understood in an historical framework. Palestinians have suffered many types of oppression and discrimination since the turn of the twentieth century, which have led them to view their past as the true expression of their nationalism. During the first Intifada (1987-1991), Palestinian women were viewed as the symbolic “container” of Palestinian identity. The glorification of women’s fertility, the recognition of their bodies as the most important part of national resources, and the encouragement to bear more children as part of the national struggle were explicit expressions in the Palestinian national discourse. A frequent popular slogan continues to be: she has a military womb, and thus she is responsible for producing more fighters. The Islamists, who have gained considerable popularity since the late eighties, have made powerful claims on religious identity; in their discourse, authenticity is viewed as being identical with Islam.

2 The unified leadership of the first Intifada, which consisted of all secular and democratic forces, accepted the social conservative agenda of Hamas. The leadership called for national unity over divisive and “marginal” issues such as the hijab and tacitly supported its enforcement by the Islamists in the Gaza Strip. Thus, the political interests of those parties were given higher priority than women’s rights.

3 It is worth noting here that there are no “Islamist feminists” in Palestine, as they exist in Iran or Egypt. Provocative Islamist women’s organizations (which are affiliated to Islamist parties) appeared only in 1997-1998, after the Islamist counter-campaign against the strongest women’s drive for family law reform. Thus, the role played by the Islamist sections of the women’s movement in the campaign to reform the family law and attain equality for women could be considered as being negative, with such organizations presenting obstacles to reform (see Hammami and Johnson, 1999). Generally, the women’s movement in Palestine, as in other parts of the South, has emerged and been articulated from within the nationalist (secular) movement. Badran (2001) argues that the feminist discourse in Muslim states has been located through the nationalist, Islamic modernist, and “more recently democratic and human rights discourse” (Badran, 2001:49). It is also important to differentiate between the prevalent Islamic culture in Palestine and the political (or women’s) organizations, which use Islam as a means for political gain.

4 For more details, see Usher (1995a) and Sh’hada (1999).

5 The instrumentality of women’s issues was best shown when the Egyptian parliament discussed the Family Law Reform Bill (2000); the leftists and the Islamists argued on the same lines, submerging the real substance of the issue into the political game of power and dominance (for more details, see Al-Ali, 2000:75).

6 There is a growing debate about the meaning and consequences of institutionalization of women’s movements as social movements. Diani (2000), for instance, believes that one of the main features of a social movement is its loose identity and un-institutionalized actions and activities. He even argues that once an organizational identity becomes overwhelmingly dominant, and thus institutionalized, it dies.


ISS, La Haye


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