On International Women’s Day, Honor the Palestinian Women (PHOTOS)

Palestinian women rally in Gaza. (Photo: Mahmoud Ajjour, The Palestine Chronicle)

By Benay Blend

On March 8, 2021, several days after being fined and imprisoned by Israel, Palestinian politician Khalida Jarrar sent a letter to Palestinian women commemorating International Women’s day. A member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Jarrar served a two-year prison sentence.

In her message to “companions and sisters in Palestine, the Arab countries, and around the world,” Jarrar honored the voices of women resisting “injustice, persecution, and oppression.” International Women’s Day, she noted, stands as symbol of “oppression, racism and colonialism,” against which she hoped that women might “remain at the forefront of this resistance, and March 8th as a symbol of liberation.”

Indeed, International Women’s Day enjoys a radical history. Writing for Red Flag, a publication of Socialist Alternative, one of Australia’s largest Marxist revolutionary groups, Janey Stone argues that historically it was a socialist event, originally organized by Clara Zetkin, a prominent member of the German Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the early 1900s.

Understanding that the working class needed women to win its battles, she organized a working women’s movement that grew quickly in Germany. In August of 1910, she organized an international working women’s day, inspired by US socialists who had held women’s demonstrations and meetings the year before.

On March 19, 1911, International Women’s Day took place for the first time in Europe. Several days later, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City burst into flames. That fire, which exposed horrible working conditions for mostly immigrant women, provided the impetus for International Women’s Day in the US.

In the 1970s, the federal government declared March to be National Women’s History Month, and with that move International Women’s Day became mainstream. The radical history of the women’s labor movement has been relegated to one day within one month, while much of the radicalism has been excised in the interest of the government.

In an engaging blog by Hood Communist, the writers talk about the ways that Black History Month has been taken over by the capitalist state. It cites the “liberalizing of ‘Black Lives Matter’” as an example of how “Black political agendas can be stolen and repurposed.” In just a few years, activists have “gone from fighting white folks about the meaning of the phrase to seeing it plastered across billboards and city streets.” The slogan once “fulfilled a specific purpose,” but now it “threatens almost to squander the radical potential that is fighting to outlive it.”

In some circles, International Women’s Day has also been consumed within a framework of capitalist consumption. Moreover, many Women’s Day commemorations are one-day affairs that do not call for continued struggle, plus there is seldom mention of global movements for liberation in which women play a role. Moreover, International Women’s Day around the world commemorates the past—the courage of women in the labor movement, the Triangle Fire, and so on. There is also attention paid to current issues, but still, the past remains the past. In Palestine, on the other hand, the past impacts the present, al-nakba al-mustamirra (the Nakba is ongoing).

If the organizers for such events stayed true to their roots, Palestinian women’s two-front struggle would be centered.  Palestinian women in the U.S., however, have been partly shut out of feminist spaces sue to groups like Zioness, an organization of Zionist women that seeks to normalize Zionist “feminism” within mainstream feminist circles. As the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM)  states: “there is no way for a ‘women’s movement’ to be feminist and liberatory if it protects and defends ethnic cleansing, military occupation, and the degradation of an entire people and land.”

Furthermore, for Palestinians in the U.S., any meaningful acknowledgment of Palestinian experiences – let alone Palestinian women – has been suppressed within US mainstream feminist spaces as a result of the too-long accepted ambivalence to Zionism as a structural form of gendered and sexual violence and oppression.

In addition, the western notion of “women’s rights” has been imposed on Palestinians by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as by liberal Zionist and Orientalist feminist discourses that “reproduce racist notions of Arabs and Muslims.” These notions promote the view that violence against Palestinian women is inherent in cultural and religious dogma.

In an interview with Collectif Palestine Vaincra, Zainab Younes, a member of the collective, discussed the challenges that women face as mainstays of the cause. She listed first the oppression that all Palestinians faced under occupation, then discussed barriers that women face due to marginalization in their own communities. She was careful to note, however, that intra-community issues are entwined with oppression that all Palestinians face, so it follows that there can be no national liberation without the kind of social liberation that honors women’s voices.

Indeed, as Nada Elia makes clear, when Arab American feminists are invited to speak at “progressive” events and conferences, they are expected to speak about “the oppression of Arab women by Islamic fundamentalism” (“The Burden of Representation: When Palestinians Speak Out,” in Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence, and Belonging, edited by Rabab Abdulhadi, Evelyn Asultany, and Nadine Naber, 2011, p. 141). Placing gendered violence within a larger context of settler colonialism and the criminal nature of Zionism is usually met with hostility and charges of anti-Semitism.

Similarly, in the early days of organizing the U.S. women’s movement split between working-class women who fought for better wages and working conditions and the mainstream who struggled for the vote. Excluded everywhere, women of color formed their own two-pronged organizations—against racism which men and women equally were affected and, subsumed within that, women struggled against sexism in their own communities as well.

According to Samidoun: Palestinian Prisoners Solidarity Network, recognition of women’s participation in the struggle for national liberation does not just happen in one day. Women have always been part of the movement: “in the streets and fields of Palestine, in the home, the school, the university; in all forms of struggle, from the cultivation of Palestinian agriculture and the education of Palestinian children to engagement in political leadership and all forms of struggle and resistance.”

At times, women’s engagement falls outside the bounds of mainstream feminism, which is why it is important to remember that there are many kinds of feminisms, including some that include women’s role as the keeper of the home. As Sarah Ihmoud declares, Israeli home demolitions also place women’s role as upholders of sumoud (resilience) at the forefront of anti-colonial struggles (Nadera Shalboub-Kevorkian and Sarah Ihmoud, “Exiled at Home: Writing Return and the Palestinian Home, in Biography: An Interdisciplinary Study, Vol 37, No. 2, Spring 2014, p. 381). According to Ihmoud, women’s ability to create nurturing spaces within the home represents for Palestinians a radical act ensuring “re-rooting and daily survival.”

Within Ihmoud’s “Palestinian feminist analytic,” creating such safe places for their families constitutes the very essence of sumoud; in doing so, these women are challenging the “monstrous manner” (p. 382) in which Palestinians are portrayed in mainstream media. Rather than a site of oppression, as viewed by some Western feminists, home for Ihmoud represents a space for preserving memories and tradition, thereby challenging the “rationality of Israeli and Western Eurocentric hegemony” (p.382).

Accordingly, women have endured political imprisonment, torture and repression. On January 21, 2023, Middle East Eye staff reported that Israeli jail officials recently assaulted women prisoners as part of a move to enforce strict new measures against inmates introduced by Israel’s far-right Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir.

The Palestinian Prisoners’ Society said in a statement that Israeli forces beat women prisoners in Damon jail, fired tear gas at them and used pepper spray. “The punitive actions taken in the Damon prison will have consequences in all prisons. The situation is getting worse because of the measures taken by the fascist minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. The Israeli government bears full responsibility for the situation and its consequences,” the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society said.

As a consequence, the Higher National Emergency Committee of the Palestinian Prisoners Movement has called for a series of steps, beginning with disobedience and ending with an open hunger strike. Entitled “Freedom or Martyrdom,” the protest singles out an “attack on our dignity and the dignity of our women prisoners,” and freedom is the “sole demand.”

While it is true that Palestinian women face oppression on a daily basis, it is also true that Palestinians should not be reduced solely to the role of victim. As Ramzy Baroud declares, the Palestinians are “a nation of people with political agency who are capable of articulating, resisting and, ultimately, winning their freedom as part of a much greater fight for justice and liberation throughout the world.” On International Women’s Day, it is important to remember that this nation includes women.

(All Photos: Mahmoud Ajjour, The Palestine Chronicle)

– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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