Palestinian Women, Nonviolence, and Social Movements

Every period has its own strategy, and we won’t succeed if we stick to the same strategy. We need to be innovative, so that Israel Won’t predict what we’re going to do.


Palestinian women have played important roles in resistance throughout the history of the Palestinian national movement. However, while they have participated in all forms of action - both violent and nonviolent - their participation in the latter has overwhelmingly outweighed that of the former.1 Nonviolent action theorists argue that this can be explained by way of nonviolence posing less risk to participants - whether in terms of social norms, retribution, or physical injury.2 With less risk involved, nonviolent resistance therefore theoretically presents fewer barriers to women’s participation than violent resistance. This appears particularly true for Palestinian women, who face numerous and often overlapping layers of oppression from the Israeli occupation and as a result of gender constraints within Palestinian society.

Yet the reality of Palestinian women’s participation in nonviolent resistance is far more complex than this. While significant numbers of Palestinian women participated in collective nonviolence during the First Intifada against the Israeli occupation, in the post-Oslo period they have largely withdrawn from such activities.3 Although this trend accords with the general decline in Palestinian involvement in collective popular resistance actions since Oslo, disengagement has been particularly pronounced among women. In order to understand the composite factors that influence Palestinian women’s involvement in popular resistance, then, it is necessary to trace the dynamics that shape their mobilisation and demobilisation. Central to this analysis is the intersection of feminist, social movement, and nonviolent action theorisation.

Gender and women’s resistance in Palestine

A feminist approach to conflict seeks to illuminate the gendered relations, logics, and dynamics that are produced and reproduced in different ways and in different sites in processes and practices of conflict, resistance, and peacebuilding.4 As a corollary to the different ways that women experience violence, conflict, and insecurity; their strategies, practices, experiences of, and routes to resistance also tend to be different from those of men.5 While resistance can act as a dynamic site with regard to gender, in that it ‘not only produces and reconfirms social hierarchies and power relations, it can also motivate people to transgress cultural boundaries and reconsider their self-images and identity constructions’.6 Indeed, at various moments in the history of the Palestinian resistance struggle, women have transgressed existing gender boundaries, for example by occupying public space more conspicuously, undertaking directly confrontational tactics, or by acting as guerrilla fighters and suicide bombers.7

Crucial here, however, is the question of whether such practices create long-lasting shifts in gender roles, or serve as temporary or exceptional ‘transgressions’.8 For example, while the role Palestinian women played in the First Intifada was initially regarded as opening up social and political spaces to women and a redefinition of gender roles, in Palestine - as in Algeria following anti-colonial struggle, in Egypt following the 2011 uprising, and elsewhere - the cessation of hostilities reversed most of these changes, and women were once again marginalised and excluded from decisionmaking processes.9 A number of scholars have attributed this pattern to the subordination of women’s specific interests to nationalist objectives. While the experience of political activism and organising can increase women’s feminist consciousness, in many cases the focus on the nationalist element of the struggle has meant that specific demands or direct challenges to patriarchal structures and ideologies are often subsumed or marginalised.10

Adding an extra level of complexity, women’s traditionally gendered positionalities - such as their roles as mothers - frequently become politicised and imbued with greater nationalistic importance in times of crisis: during the First Intifada, for example, when women attained the status of‘mothers of martyrs’, and ‘protectors’ of the home.11 This stretching of boundaries in Palestine was also facilitated by particular circumstances -for example, during the 1936-39 revolt and the 1987 Intifada when British and Israeli forces, respectively, effectively moved the frontline into Palestinian homes, operating to blur traditional distinctions between masculine and feminine spaces.12

On the other hand, periods of conflict or crisis often serve to reinforce traditional gender mores. As Cheryl A. Rubenberg argues, the family, as the primary locus of male domination, is where gender hierarchies are first encountered and prefigured for other social institutions.13 Female bodies and sexuality, with their relationship to the continuation of the family, as well as their association with male honour, have therefore historically comprised key sites of battle for both Palestinian men and the Israeli occupation forces.14 Broader studies of gender and conflict have shed light on the use of sexual violence not only to attack women but also the masculinity of the male population.15 For example, as will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 2, Israeli forces during the First Intifada exploited the concept of honour and its association with women’s sexual ‘purity’ and employed the threat of sexual abuse and harassment to create a moral panic. This resulted in a greater policing of the public sphere and the reinforcing of gender hierarchies. In addition, however, the threat of harm in itself, as well as the stigma attached to victims of sexual violence, generated such high anxiety among women and girls that they often turned to self-restriction and confinement.16 With the tightening of mechanisms of spatial control in the post-Oslo period, women are not only restricted in their movement due to closures and increasingly onerous travel within the West Bank, they are also confronted with a growing number of sites where sexual violence and humiliation frequently occur.17

However, while women’s mobility post-Oslo has been significantly limited and their involvement in resistance actions concomitantly circumscribed, Sophie Richter-Devroe shows that these restrictions give ‘everyday’ acts like travel for the sake of leisure new significance, given the manner in which they defy both Israeli spatial control and male domination.18 According to Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, such examinations, in calling attention to ‘small-scale’ or everyday acts, ‘reiterate the feminist notion that the “personal is political” and allude to the ways in which the everyday is a space for oppression and domination, but also subversion and creativity’.19 Analyses of everyday acts of resistance further capture the fluidity and ambiguity of many of women’s resistance choices in contexts where they face numerous and overlapping layers of oppression. Thus, an act can at once challenge one mode of domination and accommodate another.20 As shall be seen in this book, this fluidity is frequently highlighted by Palestinian women themselves. For interviewees’ aversion to actions and behaviours that could be classified as ‘normalising’21 Israeli oppression and asymmetrical relations of conflict, as well as their sensitivity to perceived efforts to ‘pacify’ Palestinian resistance, has forced many women to continuously and reflexively re-examine their own conceptions and practices of resistance.

This study is rooted in the work of postcolonial feminists - in particular, the strong feminist strand of scholarship on Palestinian politics and history. Within this strand, a rich body of research explores the reflexive negotiations and practices of resistance by Palestinian women within the national struggle.22 Particularly relevant, however, is work that focuses specifically on the shifting dynamics of women’s activism in the post-Oslo period. These studies are especially useful in terms of identifying processes that have contributed to the decline in women’s participation, including the erosion of participatory mass-based organisations and the simultaneous rise of formal politics as the locus of political activity.23 For example, studies by Islah Jad, Nahla Abdo, Rema Hammami, and Penny Johnson explore the impact of efforts by Palestinian women post-Oslo to lobby for issues such as women’s citizenship and voting rights (in a future Palestinian state).24 These authors undertake robust critiques of such approaches on the basis that the PA’s status as an unstable, quasi-state structure subject to Israeli control makes such statist, citizenship-rights-focused strategies problematic.25 Such analyses have drawn attention to the difficulties of applying liberal ‘post-conflict state-building’ paradigms that proceed as if the Israeli occupation has been dismantled and the PA is an embryonic post-conflict state, when this is far from the reality. As a number of scholars argue, this approach acts to divorce issues of development from their intrinsic connection to occupation, and this has created pervasive cynicism and distrust among Palestinians in relation to paradigms of ‘development’.26 Palestine, of course, is not alone in these experiences, and the Palestinian case study resonates strongly with the wider literature on the use of international development discourse as a means of control.27

Closely linked to the debilitating impact of neoliberal development agendas has been the process of ‘NGOisation’ of civil society within Palestine post-Oslo. As the literature on this issue outlines, NGOisation has resulted in a process involving the ‘straightjacketing’ of issues into a globalised project logic, and in attempts to organise ‘movements’ around an institutional structure rather than a participatory mass base and radical ideology.28 Ham-mami argues that as Palestinian NGOs increasingly tailored their operations to donor conditions and expectations they underwent ‘retrenchment from a popular constituency’ and therefore now retain little capacity to mobilise the grassroots.29 In Sari Hanafi and Linda Tabar’s view, the validity of these analyses was demonstrated during the Second Intifada when Palestinian NGOs acted primarily as ‘spectators’ whose activities and pronouncements occurred in isolation from the main events of the uprising and which, for the most part, failed to resonate with the Palestinian population.30

A number of scholars stipulate exceptions to this general rule. For instance, Sibille Merz describes the formation of activist networks and nonviolent resistance organisations since the Second Intifada as having the potential to ‘give rise to a new national collective identity that transcends political cleavages and, surely, will continue to play a significant role in the political processes of the region’.31 Norman, meanwhile, characterises village popular committees in the West Bank as ‘grassroots in the truest sense of the word’32 that ‘echo the first intifada in both spirit and practice’.33 Unfortunately, however, as this book will demonstrate, such optimistic assessments have not been borne out in the longer-term. While the activist formations described by Norman and Merz comprise important initiatives, their efficacy has ultimately been undermined by the wider structural ‘legitimacy’ issues of resistance within Palestine. Indeed, the uneven (and overall minimal) involvement of women in these linkages of grassroots and NGO efforts demonstrates that legitimacy issues are so entrenched that they cannot be adequately addressed by looking at isolated resistance campaigns. For this reason, it is crucial to examine how such campaigns interact on the micro level with existing identity frames and various group and individual subjectivities.

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