Comrade Sisters: Women and Armed Resistance in Palestine
Esha Meher talks about Women and Armed Resistance in Palestine, chronicling women’s engagement in various stages of the armed resistance.
In times of war, when the land is ravaged and the soul is dying, the gatekeepers of conscience fight for their community. The men are ready to die and kill for the cause. Where are your women, you ask? Do they speak?
Can the Arab woman, donning a veil and nursing a child, speak?
She answered strongly, with a heart of steel, her resolve remained firm. She paid the price and faced the enemy alongside the martyred men. Poet Dareen Tatour withstood a sham trial and charges of inciting violence. Till her last moment of freedom, she kept repeating that incarcerating her would not be enough. That there would be more. That they would keep coming till the end of time or oppression, whichever ended first.
In Jerusalem, I dressed my wounds and breathed my sorrows
And carried the soul in my palm
For an Arab Palestine.
I will not succumb to the “peaceful solution,”
Never lower my flags
Until I evict them from my land.
I cast them aside for a coming time.
Resist, my people, resist them.
Resist the settler’s robbery
And follow the caravan of martyrs.
Shred the disgraceful constitution
Which imposed degradation and humiliation
And deterred us from restoring justice.
They burned blameless children;
As for Hadil, they sniped her in public,
Killed her in broad daylight.
Resist, my people, resist them.
Resist the colonialist’s onslaught.
Pay no mind to his agents among us
Who chain us with the peaceful illusion.
Do not fear doubtful tongues;
The truth in your heart is stronger,
As long as you resist in a land
That has lived through raids and victory.
So Ali called from his grave:
Resist, my rebellious people.
Write me as prose on the agarwood;
My remains have you as a response.
Resist, my people, resist them.
Resist, my people, resist them.
– Dareen Tatour
The women of Arabia have been the subjects of many a mystical lore across centuries and beyond far away lands. From being the alluring lead in fairy tales to being victims of Arab patriarchy, the women of Arabia have always found representation in popular imagination.
Loud female voices greet you at shop desks and street corners. Some are businesswomen while many are housekeepers, herding their children home while exchanging greetings and wishes with sisters from the neighborhood. In each of them lies an ally of the Palestinian Resistance movement, where they can design, execute and form the backbone of an uprising. Questions of race, identity, religion and nation hood have been central figures of analysis for the Palestinian conflict: Jews v. Arabs, Muslims v. Others and of course, Hamas v. Fatah and the Puritans v. the Moderates. The story has been narrated by those who held the pen. The location of the women formed a sub text in each of these stories. The political debates mostly kept them out of the fold, but in all forms, their position was that of an important appendage aiding the war, not fighting it at any point.
February 25, 2002
Maysoon Al Hayek was a 23 year old woman, who went into labour a few hours into midnight in the Zeita Jamma’in village. Her husband and father in law walked her to the car and placed her into the back seat. The contractions were getting more and more frequent and the pain was getting intense. Teeth tightly grit, Maysoon was breathing in the rhythm that the elder females had told her about.
They hit the road, and the wheels of the car moved steadily. Soon enough, they would be in the Rafidia hospital at Nablus and all would be fine. The 18 km drive would be over in no time.
The car slowed down at the checkpoint. The Israeli soldiers on duty ambled on their war towards the vehicle. Faces covered and armed with their heavy artillery, the gentlemen in their glassy voices proceeded to make their routine enquiry. They were in no particular hurry. They asked the passengers, including the now in labour, Maysoon to disembark as they would examine papers and the car. An hour passed and heated arguments began. The soldiers wanted to take a look at her belly to ensure that she really was pregnant.
After the manual check, they had no option but to let them go, albeit grudgingly. The family left and drove towards a ditch that had been dug to ensure that cars could not speed away. That is when the bullets hit the car! A cracking noise descended and within seconds, Maysoon lay almost lifeless in a pool of wreckage. Charred glass, handful of shrapnel on the shoulder and a deafening silence. She called out to her husband and father in law. None answered.
Maysoon Al Hayek was later taken to the hospital aided by Israeli soldiers and Palestinian Red Cross where she gave birth to a baby girl. She remained unaware of the death of her husband and comatose state of her father in law for hours after the birth.
The story of Maysoon garnered nation wide sympathy. But very little happened in terms of changing conduct of the Israeli military. On the other hand, when accounts of female armed attacks came to the fore, the western media looked on with a lens of curiosity painting them as strange creatures of social aberration.
Scholarship pertaining to armed resistance has been divided on the question of empowerment vis-à-vis active participation is hostilities. Some scholars like Julie M. Peteet and Sophie Richter-Devroe argue that active participation of women herald their empowered status in society, while some like Nahla Abdo see it as a marker of a completely disintegrated society with an upturned social structure sequence. Palestinian women have argued in the past that their community is indeed powerless as they neither have the weapons nor the means to fight in a conventional war. What is left, is for them to engage all their members to tell the world the story of their being and its systematic destruction. They play the role of keepers of memory and pass on stories of identity and ancient traditions across generations. In a society broken by war, the oppressors often rewrite history. The work of women in Palestine is to resist that. They rise in defense of posterity, preserving the box of memory across time. However, to say that their roles remained limited to that would be grossly misleading. They not only assumed traditional roles of nursing victims of violence, but actively orchestrated popular resistance movements and navigated the political conversation, whether with their assigned-authority or self-proclaimed seat at the table. By protesting at the Gaza-Israel border to mark the anniversary of al-nakbah (“the catastrophe”), Palestinian women and men had reminded the world that they were dispossessed 70 years ago and the injustice had never been remedied.
The first remarkable female political activity was in the town of Afula in 1893, when women demonstrated against the construction of a new Jewish settlement. The British mandate era (1917-1948) saw the establishment of charitable organisations and an increase of social work, as well as their political participation in demonstrations. These charitable establishments later made way for political ones where aggression too was not an unheard tool used for the cause. “Publicly, the women’s committees were known for their social work,” says Naima Al-Sheikh Ali, an activist interviewed in a documentary called ‘Naila and The Uprising’, “but, in reality and covertly, it was all political organising.”
The first Arab Women’s Association was formed, in addition to the Arab Women’s Union as a response to the killing of nine Palestinian women in the 1929 Western Wall riots in Jerusalem. These unions embarked on several economic, social, cultural, and national efforts, such as planning and organising demonstrations and writing letters to Arab leaders to support Palestinians. Armed women’s organisations also existed, such as Zahrat al-Uqhawan (the Chrysanthemum Flowers), originally established as a social organisation in 1933 in the city of Yafa by the two sisters Moheeba and Arabiya Khursheed. The transformation into an armed group was a consequence of Moheeba witnessing a British Mandate sniper shooting in the head a Palestinian boy, who was in his mother’s arms. Zahrat al-Uqhawan were involved in fighting the Jewish armed gangs up until Yafa fell in 1948, where most of the city’s Palestinian population were ethnically cleansed, including Moheeba who lived out the rest of her life as a refugee in Jordan. Following the defeat in the June 1967 Six Day War, referred to as al-Naksa, most of the publicly active women joined the Palestinian resistance factions and engaged in political work. The national participation of women continued in that period whether in armed resistance, social work, or in secret organisational work in the West Bank and Gaza strip.
The names are many and the accounts are overwhelming. Stories of interrogation of fighters like Naila Ayesh who started off as a student leader and faced detention as a pregnant woman who miscarried in custody have been told and retold to the world media. Shadia Abu Gazala who was only nineteen went down the pages of a history as martyr who never got to the field. She died in the process of making a bomb where she accidentally detonated it. Her counterpart during the second Intifada however used the detonation to her advantage. Ayat al Akhras, who lived in the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bathlehem, was only 18 years old when she detonated the explosive tied to her body outside a supermarket in Jerusalem in March 2002. But it was Leila Khaled who grabbed global headlines on more than one occasion to become the first Palestinian woman to hijack a plane in 1969, and again the year after. She inspired Dalal Moghrabi, a member of the Fateh armed wing, who was killed in 1978 after hijacking a bus heading to Tel Aviv from Haifa in what came to be known as the Coastal Road operation.
The first Intifada had ushered in a grassroots popular resistance to the violence of the Israeli occupation, but the role of women there was limited and secondary. They demonstrated alongside men in large protests, and the former’s presence was seen as a deterrent to the arrest and brutal beating up of the latter at the hands of the occupation forces. merchants and labourers waged a nonviolent general strike, a symbolic act to mobilise the masses and a tactical move to pressure Israel to end the occupation. Part of that strike was boycotting certain Israeli goods (this call for boycott pre-dates the South Africa-inspired BDS movement), all while women’s committees provided home-grown alternatives.
From 1967 to 2014, there have been more than 10,000 Palestinian women who were arrested. The majority was subjected to psychological torture and ill treatment throughout their arrest and detention, such as beatings, verbal abuse, strip searches, sexual harassment and violence. In addition to living in hazardous conditions and being deprived of visits most of the time, women were and possibly still are exposed to pressure and degradation due to interrogators’ use of patriarchal techniques to elicit confessions.
Even today, as one walks through the hustling pottery markets of Hebron or the bazars of Ramallah, the presence of assertive women is hard to miss. Donning scarves of the Palestinian flag colours, the women of West Bank express their politics loud and clear. The present day streets and the archival statistics both overwhelmingly vouch for the role of the Palestinian women in their liberation movement. The only place where she remains absent however, is in the collective memory of the society, where tales get told from generation to generation dressed in verse and prose, passed on through female lips, about the men of the Palestinian struggle. The literature and poetry still sing praises of the heroes of the war leaving their brave counterparts gracefully hidden in the shadows of history.
Books (fiction and non fiction):
Ibtisam Barakat, (2016), Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood
Laura Sjoberg, Caron E Gentry (2007), Monsters, Mothers, Whores : Women’s violence in Global Politics.
Sandy Tolan, (2006), The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and Heart of the middle East
Julie M. Peteet, (1991) Gender in Crisis: Women and the Palestinian Resistance Movement. New York: Columbia University Press.
Mohammed El Kurd (2018) Palestinian Women: An untold history of leadership and resistance, Al Jazeera available at https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/palestinian-women-untold-history-leadership-resistance-181025114751545.html
Nahla Abdo, (1991) Women of the Intifada: Gender, Class and National Liberation, Race and Class, Vol 32, No 4.
Open Democracy, Role of Palestinian Women in resistance, available at https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/north-africa-west-asia/role-of-palestinian-women-in-resistance/
Rosemary Sayigh (1983) Palestine , Third World Quarterly, 5:4, 880-886
Rosemary Sayigh, (1998) Palestinian Camp Women as Tellers of History. Journal of Palestine Studies, 27:2, pp. 42–58.
Sophie Richter-Devroe, (2008) “Gender, Culture, and Conflict Resolution in Palestine.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 4, no. 2: 30-59.
The Conversation (2018) Palestinian Women: A History of Female Resistance in Gaza and the West Bank available at https://theconversation.com/palestinian-women-a-history-of-female-resistance-in-gaza-and-the-west-bank-96864
Naila and the Uprising
The New Women of Gaza
Testimony of witness: