When discussing the Palestinian cause from the Nakba to the Great March of Return, many things spring to mind: the phenomenon of Zionism and its gradual takeover of Palestine; the rise of “Islamism”; the splitting of Palestinian national identity along factional lines; and even the possibility of a fourth intifada. Indeed one can find many such topics about which a lot has already been written. What rarely comes to mind, though, is the issue of Palestinian women’s struggle and activism.
With her book Palestinian Women’s Activism: Nationalism, Secularism, Islamism, Islah Jad fills the gap. The founder and former director of the Institute of Women’s Studies at Birzeit University has written a book based on decades of research and interviews about gender issues and the role of Palestinian women in the national struggle.
In the first chapter, Jad provides a detailed overview of the history of women’s activism and the fight for women’s rights within the national Palestinian national struggle over the past century. She outlines the differences in values, attitudes and perspectives between the Palestinian elite and the peasants – or “fellaheen” – with the former tending to be conciliatory towards British Mandatory rule and the latter viewing the British as a destructive force. These differences shaped the way in which women’s rights narratives and minority activism were treated and acted upon. With their better access to Western education, the elite were more suited to running women’s organisations, but had limited access to fellaheen women due to the inevitable cultural difference between them.
The author looks at the complexity of the concept of Palestinian nationalism and the uncertainty surrounding the term “Palestinian”, acknowledging an issue which Israel and its supporters have long exploited, with claims that there was no such thing as a distinct Palestinian identity prior to 1948. (The same thing could, of course, be said about “Israeli” identity, but that is beyond the scope of this review.) This myth has been refuted with regards to identity and statehood, but Jad demonstrates that the lack of a clear identity has hindered progress in terms of women’s rights in Palestine.
Post-Oslo Accords, the struggle for women’s rights came under the umbrella of the Palestinian Authority. As Jad points out, the Palestinian women’s movement and its affiliated groups were optimistic about the prospect of having a more stable platform upon which to attain their goals, but came up against the reality that the PA’s priority was state-building, albeit under the shadow of the Israeli occupation. Furthermore, she demonstrates the extent to which women’s activism in post-Oslo Palestine did not serve and represent the interests of all women, but was in fact a continuation of conflicting interests and power relations, leading the secular groups in particular to abandon their focus on the grassroots to which they owed any previous successes.
With the activists tending to come from a particular section of society and the everyday needs of the majority of Palestinian women being neglected in favour of more aspirational projects, the so-called Islamists and religious groups accused them of being overly Western, secular and elitist. The influence of the Islamic movements in Palestine had expanded in part due to the perceived failure of the PA to make any progress towards ending the occupation. In the face of accusations about its collaboration with the Israeli authorities and increasing secularisation, the PA lost out to the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, in the 2006 elections. This paved the way for the factional split in the Palestinian national movement which is still with us today.
Within the Islamist camp, meanwhile, women’s activism tended to be defined by notions of the “model woman” as “the veil-wearing caretaker of her husband and children, modest, patient, and pious, as in the past… she was the bearer of male children to be sacrificed in order to continue the resistance, in short, the woman as ‘giver’.” The secularists, however, saw woman more as a “taker” who was “urban, professional, elegant, claiming her individual rights from the PA, society and her family.”
Jad concludes that nationalism and gender are interlinked through various factors. The Islamists’ stance on gender and women’s rights, the author argues, has been surprisingly positive in many ways, managing to link the issue with the Palestinian cause, something that the PA has generally failed to achieve.
This book is a fascinating contribution to the debate about women’s rights in Palestine’s recent history. It draws attention to an aspect of the Palestinian national movement that is hardly ever looked at, within the more usual secular-religious divide and its exploitation by Israel and its supporters.
Throughout, the author keeps to a reasonably balanced and objective view of the many groups and factions in Palestinian politics and their relationship with women’s activism, although I felt that there is a slight bias against the Islamists. Nevertheless, Islah Jad has tackled the complications of Palestinian identity, the impact of the colonial and Mandate era on contemporary Palestinian politics, and Israel’s attempted exploitation of women’s rights activism in its efforts to maintain the rift in the national cause.