News & Politics

Women of the Promised Land

The televised battles between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians have been framed as a battle of angry, armed men. But in the beginning, it was women who were the first to take to the streets -- loudly and non-violently.
"A climate of fear and an obsession with reprisal now grip our two peoples. We women refuse to be paralyzed or polarized by such fear."
--Statement from The Jerusalem Center for Women and Bat Shalom, April 15, 2002

"We cannot afford to waste any more time, or any more lives. We need to think of a new approach. We as women want to bring a new understanding to the situation in the Middle East."
--Palestinian feminist Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas, in a speech before the UN Security Council, May 7, 2002

"Where are you men of Ramallah?!"

Such were the cries of Palestinian women who took to the streets, en masse, in the nascent stages of the first Intifada.

Today, the televised battles between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians have largely been framed as an ongoing battle of angry men locked in a deadly and senseless spiral of armed conflict.

But in the beginning, it was women who were the first to take to the streets. All throughout the West Bank, they demonstrated loudly and non-violently for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, the members of Palestinian women's and neighborhood committees devoted their lives to building a comprehensive and concrete resistance movement -- effectively carrying the Palestinian revolution to a point where the world sat up and was forced to take notice. By March 1988, in fact, there were an average of 115 women's marches in the Occupied Territories per week, many of them in protest over miscarriages suffered from tear gas, as well as in grief over the injuries and deaths of children, parents, friends, and husbands.

The demonstrations themselves thrust Palestinian women into a new role in their society, sparking debate over difficult gender issues including "honor killings," bride prices, spousal abuse, occupational status, and equal payment, as well as the physical safety of women who rejected the rules and constraints of Islamic shari'a dress, including the wearing of the hijab.

Yet then, as now, the televised images broadcast into homes across the world were of rock-throwing Palestinian boys and men, engaged in David and Goliath-styled skirmishes with the heavily armed young male soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Lesser known -- and rarely reported on -- has been the remarkable extent to which Palestinian and Israeli women have worked together and organized for a peaceful end to the 35-year occupation.

Away from the public spotlight, Palestinian and Israeli female dissidents and journalists have endured torture in Israeli prisons, while dedicated Orthodox Jewish women have objected loudly, on religious principles, to the Occupation. Feminist Jewish lesbians have joined the likes of the internationally-recognized Women in Black in organizing protests and vigils. Palestinian and Israeli women academics have written declarations, essays, articles and books about their opposition to the Israeli government's brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and have issued stinging criticisms of the Palestinian Authority's summary executions, jailings and squelching of dissenting viewpoints.

More so than any other Palestinian woman, the high-profile negotiating skills of the articulate and analytical Hanan Ashrawi defied gender lines and societal expectations. Replying to a 1992 question about how it felt to be the only woman in the Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams, Ashrawi told a Ms. interviewer the following:
"It is a tremendous responsibility, a great challenge. It is also a great victory for women in general, and in particular for Arab and Palestinian women. Because this didn't come out of a vacuum but as a result of a long history of women's struggle in the Occupied Territories, Palestine. I came buttressed by a clear feminist vision and agenda and a new definition of value ... My role legitimizes women's struggles; I can speak out on behalf of all the women whose voices have not been heard. This is collective work, not tokenism."
Pushed Out of the Spotlight

In 2002, the feminist peace movement continues to try to advance a shared vision similar to Ashrawi's, but women's voices now barely register in the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict except in the roles of vitriolic settlers, terrorized mothers, shellshocked refugees, and bloodied, frantic shoppers rushing to get away from a suicide bombing.

"Those of us who remain committed to the joint work and have sustainable relationships are continuing to meet when possible, but the closures and curfews mean that scheduling is improvisational and crazy-making," explains Terry Greenblatt, the director of one of Israel's more prominent feminist peace organizations, Bat Shalom.

Bat Shalom and the Palestinian women's peace organization, The Jerusalem Center for Women, comprise what's known as The Jerusalem Link -- a group that works together toward "a real peace -- not merely a treaty of mutual deterrence, but a culture of peace and cooperation between our peoples."

Women's organizations like these have made a difference, in keeping the prospect of peace and cooperation alive and visible in the face long odds. But, as Greenblatt explains, "We are [still] struggling against chauvinism, misogyny, stereotypes, and the fact that in Israel most of our political leaders are catapulted from distinguished army careers right into the Knesset."

Sexism is hardly unique to Israel, where women have worked hard to attain proportionate representation and leadership positions in the political system, in labor unions, and in the workplace. But misogyny in the Holy Land wears a particular face. Jewish and Arab Israeli feminists openly talk about problematic gender relations when the predominant construction of masculinity is that of a sabra (native-born) strong Jewish man, born out of the ashes of the Holocaust, and raised with the intertwined narratives of Arab anti-Semitism and anti-Arab Zionism.

A different reality looked possible for Israel from the early 1910s through the 1950s when the anarchistic kibbutzim -- the largely self-sufficient communal farms and settlements that became the backbone of Israel's early agricultural success -- promised the idea of a new, egalitarian future for Jewish men and women alike.

In the wake of the 1967 and 1973 Israeli-Arab wars, a markedly more militaristic, male-dominated Israeli identity began to emerge. The creation of the new, macho Israeli identity existed alongside other troubling developments: increasingly influential and right-wing ultra-Orthodox Jews and a growth in the number of fanatical settlers in the Occupied Territories. In this context, the prospects for Israeli women's true equality dimmed immeasurably.

Such losses, of course, have not taken away from the fact that Israeli women, Jewish and Arab alike, are still free to pursue nearly any occupation or lifestyle that they choose, and are among the most well-educated, politically-informed and independent women in the Middle East. Despite this, women's peace activism has not yet been accorded the legitimacy and import that it deserves.

Today, in the midst of the second (and more deadly) al-Aqsa Intifada, Palestinian women are no longer playing a central a role in organizing, whether in street demonstrations, campaigning, or the writing of the bayanat leaflet communiques which circulated widely among Palestinians in the first Intifada. In a Jerusalem Post inteview, Professor Eileen Kuttab, the director of the Women's Studies Institute at Bir Zeit University, explained that Palestinian women have struggled to find a constructive, nonviolent role in the latest uprising, which has created widespread hunger, poverty and suffering.

"Oslo came, and it didn't deliver for women," she told the Post in February 2002. "We weren't really included in the negotiations. When the political structures were established in the Palestinian Authority, women were not given the opportunity to become more involved."

Today, only five members of the Palestinian Legislative Council are women. Hanan Ashrawi herself moved on from Arafat's cabinet in 1998 to found the East Jerusalem-based Miftah (the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy). And earlier this year, Ashrawi agreed to become an information attaché for the Arab League, something which has been interpreted as a "defection" from a Palestinian establishment that did not seem to take kindly to her ardent support of women's and Palestinian civil rights -- despite her pivotal and longstanding role in fighting for Palestinian independence.

In an address before the U.N. Security Council in May 2002, Palestinian feminist and Director of the Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counseling Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas explained the situation facing Palestinian women this way:

"The Palestinian women's movement has succeeded in making inroads in addressing cultural values and attitudes particular to the Arab world that handicap the healthy development of girls and women. We Palestinian women were in the process of engaging ourselves in legislative development at the local as well as the international levels ... We were witnessing the development of a budding but vibrant young feminist movement, an essential sector for democratic development within the Palestinian society. However, the last so-called Israeli re-occupation of Palestinian-controlled areas has manifested itself in the systematic destruction of all that we have been able to achieve in the last ten years."

As it currently stands, the political future of these two peoples -- Semitic cousins to one another in religious and ethnic heritage, cuisine and culture -- has been left in the hands of the corrupt, male-dominated Palestinian Authority on one side, and the warmongering Sharon and his fractious Knesset on the other.

Upcoming Israeli elections may indeed help to bring down Sharon's scarred and violence-riddled term as prime minister, but they are hardly likely to bring about true gender parity -- or a peaceful solution to the ever-deepening political crisis -- as long as Israeli-styled military bravado remains the order of the day.

"Is it not preposterous that not a single Israeli woman, and only one Palestinian woman, have held leadership roles at a Middle East peace summit?" asks Gila Svirsky, who has been a key figure in both Women in Black and the Coalition of Women for Peace. "Instead, the negotiators have been men with portfolios of brutal crimes against each other -- military men who have honed the art of war and who measure their success by the unconditional surrender of the other. Is it any wonder that we are still locked in combat?"

Women's Proposals for Peace

Suicide bombers, who could fairly be characterized as the most visible and barbaric consequence of a conflict gone mad, are openly criticized by Israeli and Palestinian feminists alike for their murderous actions. But for all of the Israeli government's demands for an end to such violence, peace activists insist that Israel will not see an end to the mounting death toll until it is willing to withdraw, unilaterally, from the Occupied Territories and dismantle Jewish settlements.

Toward that end, Israel's Coalition of Women for a Just Peace -- consisting of nine different women's peace organizations -- has made these five demands its platform:

  1. The Occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip must end.


  2. The Occupation must end with a sovereign, independent and secure Palestinian state.


  3. Jerusalem must be the capital for both Israel and Palestine.


  4. Israel must acknowledge its responsibility for the refugees and negotiate a just solution.


  5. There must be a shared cooperative destiny between Israel and Palestine which removes the enormous present economic disparity between Israelis and Palestinians.


"There is one future for us both," read an April 15, 2002 peace declaration by The Jerusalem Center and Bat Shalom. "We believe that women can develop an alternative voice promoting sound approaches and effective peace initiatives between our two nations and peoples."

And it is toward this overreaching goal that women's groups from Israel and Palestine have continued to devote themselves to the prospect of a peaceful and equitable solution to over thirty years of conflict.

Earlier this year, both Bat Shalom's Greenblatt and Abu-Dayyeh Shamas took precisely this message to the U.N. Security Council with the support of the U.S.-based feminist organization, Equality Now. The women asked member nations to recognize "the vital role of women in the resolution of the current conflict in the Middle East," and to create a means "through which women can contribute ... to conflict resolution efforts."

Greenblatt, Abu-Dayyeh Shamas and other organizers have called for the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325, particularly where Israeli and Palestinian women are concerned. SCR 1325, adopted in October 2000, affirms the importance of equal participation and the full involvement of women in all efforts toward the maintenance of peace.

"A process that should lead to a political solution ... should not be left to the confines of the generals, and should be transparent to the relevant societies," said Abu-Sayyeh Shamas in her presentation to the Security Council.

"We have to address and understand each other's history with an open mind," she added. "If we leave it only to men we get Israeli generals and Palestinians who will not be defeated and there is no room to negotiate ... The participation of women in any future peace process is essential to maintain connection to the realities of the relevant societies and their yearnings for peace and security."

Thus far, the request has received an encouraging response. The next step, says Greenblatt, is to ask U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to convene a special commission of women peace activists through the office of the U.N. Special Advisor on Gender Issues.

Such progress and cause for optimism notwithstanding, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "going to get much worse, and it is going to be bad for a very long time," admits Greenblatt. "The price of peace is going to be expensive and painful -- for both sides."

Greenblatt adds that the impending war against Iraq has Israelis and Palestinians worried about another counter-attack on Israel, which not only poses danger for innocent civilians, but also gives the Israeli government further justification for land expropriations and crackdowns against Palestinians.

"As an Israeli woman," Greenblatt says, "I know that if war is the answer, we are still not asking the right question."

Silja J.A. Talvi is a Santa Fe-based freelance journalist and co- editor of LiP Magazine.
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