Zahira Kamal in the vanguard of the Palestinian women’s movement


Zahira Kamal has played a large part in this modernization of Palestinian society. Starting from the traditional role of woman as teacher, she become a political activist, aligned with the leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and since the 1970s has been in the vanguard of the Palestinian women’s movement.

The New Palestinians: The Emerging Generation of Leaders

By: John Wallach and Janet Wallach

In the town and village meetings where Zahira Kamal, a member of the negotiating team, often discusses the progress of the Israeli- Palestinian peace talks, men file into the meeting place first, then teenage boys. Finally, young girls and then women enter, almost hesitantly, to stand awkwardly in the comer. It is symbolic of women’s subordinate status in Arab society, and the scene is reproduced daily, over and over again.

Along the crowded Salahadin Street in East Jerusalem, within the narrow channels of the Old City, women in their forties and fifties bargain with shopkeepers and peddlers for a kilo of beef or pistachios. They wear the traditional Palestinian dress: solid cotton with color embroidery running down the length of the garment’s sides and a complementary geometric pattern reproduced above the waist. Between marketing and tending to their children and household duties, they meet with one another to discuss their lives. Amongst them they find a comforting camaraderie derived from a common experience. They will tell you, sometimes with a hint of regret, how they married when they were young and had children soon thereafter. Since then their lives have been reutilized, almost always directed outward to others, whether husband, children, or neighbors.

Then there are the daughters, young women sometimes dressed in Western-style clothes surveying the latest fashions. In the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem it is not uncommon to find free-thinking young women, wearing jeans and T-shirts, gathered in the courtyard sipping a cocktail, discussing their jobs, their families, and their boyfriends. They complain of how restrictive their parents are how their brothers are given freedom but they are bound by a set of implicit rules, how they would prefer to be living independently but resist such maverick acts for fear of society’s censure. They are educated and liberal and conceive of a different life, one apart from their mothers "apart from the monotony of domestic work. They believe in having an identity not derived from their husband’s name but from their own set of accomplishments.

Zahira Kamal has played a large part in this modernization of Palestinian society. Starting from the traditional role of woman as teacher, she become a political activist, aligned with the leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and since the 1970s has been in the vanguard of the Palestinian women’s movement.

She is one of the three women (along with Hanan Ashrawi and Suad Amiry) on the Palestinian team participating in the Middle East peace talks. She is outspoken and direct but, to date, less well known than those delegates to whom the media gravitate. She is concerned with substance, and shies away from the TV cameras. While Ashrawi was a familiar image on television, articulating the Palestinians’ position on the progress of the talks, Zahira was much harder to find. She says she shuns the spotlight, believing it takes time away from her work. "If you want to follow the media;’ she says, "You couldn’t work. What I prefer is to have some time to read, to discuss, to have meetings."

Zahira’s almost aloof disposition should not be mistaken for indifference, however. She is intensely committed to two issues- women’s’ rights and liberation from the Israeli military occupation. Her nonconformist choices have been challenged and criticized, both by her society and by her family, and perhaps it has been this pattern of struggle that has strengthened her sense of herself. She speaks without hesitancy, as a woman confident in her personal choices and values. When she talks about the women’s movement, she speaks about solidarity, sisterhood and the need for collective action, and the simple truth that progress in women’s rights will come only with struggle. Zahira is aware that Palestinian women must emancipate themselves from two binding forces, occupation and male domination, and that one cannot be subordinated to the other. This dual encounter with patriarchy and subjugation has been complicated still further by the widening influence of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world.

As she sits on a modern-style sofa in the sitting room of her mother’s home in Shu’afat, overlooking the mountains outside Jerusalem, Zahira is dressed in a knee-length paisley skirt and a soft-pink turtleneck sweater. Her mother, Fakhrieh, is wearing the more traditional bijab, her pink robe completely covering her legs and a white scarf over her head. The contrasting lifestyles are noticeable. ..We are looking," Zahira says, her dark eyes unblinking, "at completely changing the role of women in our society."

Zahira was born in 1945 in the Wadi Joz district of East Jerusalem, into a middle-class family. Ahmed, her father, the son of a Jerusalemite merchant, was a geography teacher and later taught math and religion at Rashidiah School. The Kamal family dates to the time of Salahadin, in 570 A.D. Ahmed married Fakhrieh, a young Palestinian woman, just seventeen years old, when he had reached his early forties. They had eight children-six girls and two boys. Zahira is the eldest.

Ahmed was a progressive man, thoughtful and concerned with the issues of the day. He invited friends to his home to socialize and to talk about everything, from the mundane to serious political discourse. As a teenager Zahira would often be included in their bantering. She would sit in the living room with all the men and sometimes even offer her opinions. It is slightly ironic, then, that l this feminist who seeks to mobilize women, to empower them i. economically and politically, would derive her single-mindedness from her father’s example. Ahmed was the person she cast as her role model.

Zahira was deeply marked, too, by an earlier incident that cost a young girl her life. It was in 1956, less than a decade into the Jordanian occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank. One day a local mob rushed down the Kamals’ usually quiet street near the Rockefeller Museum. Made up mostly of students, the group was conducting protest-carrying placards and shouting political slogans. The protesters stopped at the Turkish Consulate, where the protest intensified. One eighteen-year-old high school student, Raga Amashah, climbed up the facade of the consulate, grabbed out at the Thrkish flag, and set it ablaze. As she did this, the local Jordanian police fired at her. Amashah fell from the building; when she landed on the ground, she was dead.

Zahira and other members of her family witnessed the entire event from their balcony. .’I have never forgotten it," says Zahira now. For her, it was the first display of Palestinian nationalism. ’.The Turkish flag," she says, "was the symbol of imperialism as such though the Ottoman Turkish rule of Palestine was but a forty-year memory, and though the British, too, had relinquished responsibility over their Mandate of Palestine in 1947.

The imprint Raga Amashah’s death left on Zahira was the undeniable truth that nothing could come without sacrifice. This introductory lesson was reinforced during her five years in Cairo between 1963 and 1968, when she received her bachelor’s degree. Whereas during the 1980s, before the closure of Palestinian universities in the West Bank and Gaza, women composed roughly 40 percent of the student body of Birzeit University, in Jerusalem in the 1960s, Zahira was one of only five out of her class of thirty to continue her education. As she recalls, ’ t that time, even if you are from a bourgeoisie family you didn’t go. They waited for the man to come and marry them." Zahira aspired to more. When she reflected on her mother’s life, she could not envision herself in the same role.

Fakhrieh was a literate, intelligent woman. She was sensitive to her children’s needs. But she also married as a teenager-she was "like a daughter" to her husband, says Zahira, "and not like a wife." Fakhrieh conformed to the traditional woman’s role. In keeping with her culture’s norm, she had not attended college; she had married at a young age, had borne many children, and had remained at home while her husband worked to support the family. The six Kamal girls were expected, too, to marry and raise families-attending university was not part of the calculus.

But after Zahira passed her matriculation exams, she convinced her father to permit her to continue her education. Over the objections of his wife and relatives, he backed his daughter, enabling Zahira to attend college abroad. As a teacher himself, he understood the value of education. His daughter says simply, "He wanted me to go on studying." At the Egyptian university Zahira attended formal lectures and discussions on the theater; she joined a Palestinian student union-this, at a time when the Nasser regime had outlawed political organizations; she attended seminars where accomplished and new writers discussed their works. "Cairo," she says, was a ’.very wide bookshop. Whatever you wanted to find, it was there."

By 1968 the Jerusalem that Zahira returned to, after graduating with her Bachelor of Science degree, was vastly changed. Israel’s victory a year earlier in the Six-Day War brought the newly unified Holy City under Jewish control. In order to return home Zahira was compelled to obtain special permits from the new civil and military administrations. This was her first taste of Israeli occupation. When she arrived, she learned that her father, by then in his late sixties, was seriously ill; he would die a year and a half later. Out of necessity, Zahira assisted her mother and her younger sisters in managing the household. It was her first brush as a university- educated woman with the routine obligations of domestic family life. "1 made sure then," she told Ha’aretz in 1990, ’.that no one else would get involved in making our decisions. Basically, I was responsible for a large family comprised mostly of adolescent kids."

Zahira also began working as an instructor at the Teachers Training College in Ramallah, a position she still holds. The training institute was run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Zahira prepared the students for careers in teaching, physics, and science. Her students included poor residents of the nearby refugee camps. As part of the curriculum, they participated in the Host Schools program, in which they worked as student teachers in schools near their homes. .’1 visited them there," Zahira recalls. "1 visited their houses in the camps and such. When I saw the women-the miserable life of a woman, the high number of children they have ..." She sighs. .’Sometimes they have nine girls and they are looking for a boy. To me, it meant we should work on that." As a science teacher Zahira quickly began drawing up plans for conveying the most elementary facts of life to her female students. Her courses included what would appear to Westerners to be basic lessons on genetics, on ’ ’who is responsible for the sex of the child, from the scientific point of view." Her aim, she says, was to help her students understand. That it is the man who is responsible."

The teacher’s experience with the refugee camps was the germ that brought forth more wide-ranging plans for transforming the role of her gender in society. Still, this activist is uncomfortable with the label of "feminist." She puts the matter into its simplest human rights terms: "When we are talking about feminism, it is the right of women to work and get an education." With these, i women can acquire the skills for economic independence, to move freely, to read and to study, and therefore to achieve some quotient of self-fulfillment.

But she has been bucking tradition. There are fundamental social, societal, and religious obstacles to confront in Palestinian life. First and foremost is the patriarchal base, from which the other obstacles derive. The role of man as the protector has evolved from the rural villages, where the culture emphasized the extended family unit. The family stood above the individual, the wife deferring to the husband and the sister to the brother. In this rigid social structure the woman was bound by her father’s will, then, after marriage, to her husband’s.

Throughout recent Palestinian history, women’s roles ebbed and flowed with the political current and the changing times. The roles, to be sure, did evolve over the course of decades, together with the rise of Palestinian nationalism. Indeed, the women’s movement even predated the national movement. As early as the 1920s, during the British period, women banded together for charitable purposes. But charity was accompanied by an air of patronage. Works were administered mainly by upper-class women on behalf of their less fortunate sisters. As the British-Arab-Jewish conflict intensified, so did the activism of Palestinian women. In 1929 the Arab Ladies Committee was formed in response to the killing by British soldiers of nine Arab women-outs of 120 Arabs-at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque.

A turning point occurred in 1948, the year Israel proclaimed statehood and Arab refugees streamed across the land. Many in the upper class left the Jewish state. Middle-class women began assuming the roles in the "charitable organizations" that had previously been handled by wealthier women. Since they, too, had lost a great deal of their property, they were imbued with a strong motivation to fight back politically. But because they were women, their outlets remained limited. They carried on the welfare work of the organizations, though the recipients had by then changed.

lnstead of just the economically underprivileged, the beneficiaries of their welfare work were now prisoners and the families of prisoners, especially other women.

In 1964 the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded, and in 1965 the General Union of Palestinian Women was formed. The General Union quickly recruited members by tapping the vast personal contacts of women themselves-in the villages, in the families, in the towns. Women were brought out, through the General Union, to attend political gatherings com- memorating national events, for example, the anti-Israeli demonstration held annually on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the British document drafted on Novernber 2, 1917, that recognized the right of Jews to establish a homeland in Palestine. But once a demonstration ended, participants dispersed and returned borne.

There was no follow-up, no framework, no structure with which to generate long-term projects and strategy on the women’s agenda. And the group’s raison determined to help, not to organize; to run orphanages and hospitals, not to raise consciousness.

Another turning point occurred after the 1967 defeat, coinciding with the Israeli occupation of the territories. Palestinian women began joining men in military operations directed at Israel. The Israeli forces subsequently began arresting women in increasing numbers for the first time. As a result, women were exposed to prison life. When they emerged, sometimes charging they had been sexually abused, they were inflamed with the passion of revolt. For them, the do-good structure of charitable organizations no longer sufficed as an outlet. Nor were the charitable societies sufficiently flexible to reflect the new political realities. They were intimidated by the stronger, more politically conscious women emerging from the prisons. The organizations lacked the ability to keep up with this new generation of revolution-minded women.

Zahira became a member of the ln’ash al Usra Society in the town of al Bireh, close to Rarnallah. In’ash al Usrah is the largest charitable organization in the occupied territories. Established in 1965 by Samiha Khalil, an indomitable woman, it is led by a group of women whose families were urban traders and landowners. It concentrates on training women in traditional roles, such as sewing, cooking, and secretarial skills, and employs them and then sells their products in bazaars and through a distribution network. Samihah Khalil, affectionately known as Umm, or mother," Khalil for being the foster parent to so many widows and children of martyrs killed in the intifada, once viewed Zahira as a protege. But in recent years, Samihah, who is a supporter of a rival political faction of the Democratic Front, has objected to Zahira’s willingness to meet with American officials and also criticizes, along with other committee members, her attempts to press women’s issues.

Though the society emphasizes training, it does little to empower women politically or to improve their social status. Zahira found her work frustrating. .’We didn’t change the role of the woman in society. It was just very selective women sharing in that kind of work." She found the mentality governing the leaders of In’ash al Usrah not progressive enough. ’.They accepted their [women’s] national role, but they didn’t want them to be socially active and get positions in every place." As Islah Abdul Jawwad, a Birzeit University scholar, says, the task of the charitable organizations ’.is not to organize women. It is not to raise the consciousness of women or to fight for women’s causes or agenda. It’s mainly helping." Zahira was part of a new generation that found the structure of the charitable organizations inadequate. "We i have two generations now," she says: hers, which believes the issue I is urgent, and the ’.other one, feeling that it is not the time" to, press women’s issues, believing that the need exists but that the right time to pursue it is. after the liberation.

So in 1974 she and her colleagues began planting the seeds for a more effective self-help apparatus that grew into the Women’s Work Committee (WWC), founded in Ramallah in 1978. The WWC later split, following the pattern of the trade unions, producing four organizations that mirrored the political divisions within Palestinian society. All the four major political groupings established committees to enlarge their parties through women: the Federation of Palestinian Women’s Action Committee (FPWAC), which Zahira heads, is the largest and is aligned with the DFLP; the Union of Palestinian Working Women’s Committees was established on March 8, 1980 (International Women’s Day), and . Is aligned with the People’s (formerly Communist) Party; the Union of Palestinian Women Committee was established in March 1981 and is affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); and the Women’s Committee for Social Work was established inJune 1982 and is associated with Fatab. Zahira aknowledges that progress has been delayed by "the competition between different committees’, and concedes that ’ ’this affects the programs they are doing. Now, I think, they have come to accept the idea of ...not unification, but I could say united programs." She adds, "Hopefully this will lead to a united women’s movement."

Since the 1960s Zahira has supported the DFLP. While Fatab as an organization used to deny differentiations within society, it was the leftist groups that were concerned with women’s issues. For the mainstream Fatab, the primary objective has been to end Israeli military occupation, so workers, peasants, and women had to subordinate their own cause to that of national liberation. In contrast, the leftists, such as the DFLP and the communists, claimed to help the peasants and the poor, and because women are oppressed they had to pay attention to women’s issues.

The DFLP was established in February 1969, when it splintered off from the PFLP. Based on Marxist-Leninist ideals, it was founded by Nayef Hawatmeh as a movement that sought grass- roots support in trying to mobilize the masses. In 1970 it pursued a strategy of attempting to unite Palestinian villages in northern Jordan with those in the Jordan River Valley in hopes of launching joint offensives against Israel. But later that year the operation was crushed as a result of King Hussein’s bloody Black September campaign to liquidate the Palestinian guerrilla cells.

The DFLP subsequently split into two. The new wing, headed by Yasser Abed Rabbo, adopted a more Maoist line. In August 1973 the Abed Rabbo faction broke new ground in Middle East politics. It spoke of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, in addition to the state on the Jordanian eastern side of the river. The Palestinian entity would exist alongside Israel. To most Israelis, however, this ideology, while appearing moderate, was a more refined version of the old threat: to them, coexistence was merely envisioned as an interim phase, a step toward ultimately supplanting the Jewish state with a democratic, secular Palestinian state. it is the Yasser Abed Rabbo wing of the DFLP that Zahira supports.

Abed Rabbo, former deputy to DFLP chief Nayef Hawatmeh, is a polished, chain-smoking activist-turned-diplomat who was the chief Palestinian negotiator in the talks that the United States held with the PLO in Tunis in 1989-1990. Hawatmeh, based in Damascus, opposes the Madrid peace talks and the "expanded" autonomy that they are aimed at creating; Abed Rabbo supports the peace process and the Israeli-Palestinian talks, leading one senior Israeli official to jibe that his DFLP faction is "the little Fatah." Zahira Kamal, says the Israeli, is a "salon activist," implying that she is a descendant of the "ladies of the salon" who ran the charitable organizations in an earlier era. The Israeli says that the Abed Rabbo faction of the D FLP does not have a mass following. Hawatmeh has the .troops in the streets. "He has the rank and file. Abed Rabbo has CNN." Zahira, however, is used to such sniping. She won’t let it deter her. She stresses the need for a two. State solution. The Jewish settlers, however, must leave the West Bank; she claims they are there illegally. "We believe, in our committee, that we should work for both-the national and the social work. This is the reason why we started the committees, because charitable societies are not working for the women’s issues as women’s issues," she says. The FPWAC aims at reaching the majority of the women. "So we go to the villages and the camps and we work at the grass-roots level with housewives. it is part of the national movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, looking for our self-determination." At the same time, she adds, it stands for "changing the role of women in society."

The FPWAC strove first and foremost to eliminate female illiteracy among housewives-beginning with the basics. ’:-\nd not just reading and writing," Asserts Zahira, "but also to discuss, to let them be open-minded, to accept ideas. Then we could go on." Second, the organization instituted an intensive job-training pro- gram. "We had to train them," says Kamal, "with some kind of skills so that they could get proper work" and earn their own wages. She explains the premise as one aimed at "taking women out of the house, the first step toward social liberation." For example, a Gaza program taught participants to mass-produce biscuits and dairy products. In Ramallah, women were taught to sew and to work with copper. The new skills themselves were supplemented with courses in business planning and marketing. Slowly, the women were becoming cooperative entrepreneurs.

Zahira also introduced family-planning classes. She brought discussions of birth control out into the open, although she considers birth control as a more effective family planning. In Zahira’s view, parents should spread out the births of their children to be no closer than three years apart. "From the health point of view, the general health of the mother and the psychological health of the child, it is needed to have spaces between the children," says Zahira. Furthermore, she considers enlightened child-bearing as not inconsistent with Muslim doctrine. To those Islamicists who question her sincerity, she cites a passage in the Koran that, she maintains, sets family-planning standards.

Finally, the FPWAC began organizing such basic support ser- vices as day care for the new working women. It established twenty- six kindergartens and six nurseries. It offered health care and circulated a health bulletin. It even taught courses in time management, aimed at helping women balance the pressures of outside work with their cooking, cleaning, and laundry duties at home.

One thing it was not necessary to offer was current affairs or education on the internal situation. Politics were, and are, covered in lessons as events dictate and as interest demands, she says. But the day’s events hit so close to home that formal group instruction is superfluous. Zahira says the people "are living the situation. They don’t need education politically."

Establishing the work-study programs brought Zahira into con- tact with a cross-section of Palestinian society throughout the territories. She had to walk the thin line between conveying enlightened progress and posing a threat, between political correctness and radicalism. In the Ha ’aretz interview, she recalls the initial effort this way: "We developed local cadres in villages, refugee camps, and towns. When we’d get to one town, we’d try to form a cadre of local women, bypassing the town elite. We tried to support them and give them ideas. And we tried to educate them, but not to compel them. We also tried to involve the men, even the clergy-but not to go against the tradition, but rather with it." Zahira admits candidly that the issues she raises have no easy answers. When asked how she balances family planning against women’s assumed obligation to produce Palestinian offspring, she replies bluntly, "1 couldn’t say that we resolved this." Although Zahira’s advocacy has not led to consequences more severe than heated arguments with her own people, it has, from time to time, caused her trouble with the Israeli authorities. In 1979 she was held in administrative detention for over four months for alleged security violations. "They didn’t tell me why: she recalls of the officers who came to her house to bring the news.’ They didn’t say anything." But they did attempt, she says, to scare her by threatening to extend the detention in six-month increments. To the Israelis, she represented a dual threat. They were suspicious that she was using her frequent trips to leftist conventions abroad to funnel money from the PLO to guerrilla groups inside the territories and suspected that she supported the DFLP, which advocated an ideology, the Israelis believed, that sought to replace Israel with a bi national, secular state. Thus, to many Israelis, particularly in the security service, her organizational skills were a threat to everything Jewish about the Zionist nation.

Zahira maintains that her imprisonment was unjustified, that she was merely engaged in the day-to-day activities on behalf of the WWC. Perhaps, she infers, her arrest was part of a general attempt at silencing Palestinian leadership. Indeed, the authorities never asked or demanded that she sign a confession. They were always trying to wrangle a confession from the other prisoners. But for me it was, I know, that I didn’t do anything." She believes her arrest was politically motivated, a consequence of her outspokenness against the 1979 Camp David accords, which were signed just months before she was apprehended. Zahira says she was not afraid then to tell anyone that I’m against Camp David" for, in her view, neglecting the Palestinians.

The period of administrative detention placed Zahira in Moscobiyah, the Russian compound, in the center of Jewish West Jerusalem. The first ten days of her imprisonment in mid-1979 were ’.something difficult," she says, filled as they were with day- long and night-long interrogations. Ever the student, Zahira had prepared herself for what she knew would be an inevitable prison stay. She expected not to find a hotel there;it’sa prison." She perused books about prison life. She read the reports of noted Israeli lawyers Felicia Langer and Leah Tsemel, two Jewish women who earned their reputations representing Palestinian detainees before the Israeli military authorities. The prospect of prison experience left Zahira: 1 wouldn’t say scared, but [with] a kind of fear inside." It was a fear of the unknown, of what awaited behind the prison walls. But Zahira was subjected to no physical abuse during her incarceration. Besides, she says, fear is normal- and a prerequisite in the struggle. "If there are no fears, there are no brave people."

Zahira was so incensed at what she believed to be the Israelis, attempt to quiet her that she appealed her sentence. On December 12, 1979, one day prior to the scheduled court date, she was released-forty-five days short of the full six-month sentence.

As the books and writings prepared Zahira for administrative detention, the initial experience served as a precursor to a longer term of confinement. Like prison, it was a period of restriction, one that lasted six and a half years but also meant regular contact with the Israeli authorities in and around Zahira’s own home. It was what the Israelis called "town arrest," an experience Zahira calls "very difficult, even more difficult than prison." For five of the years under town arrest, Zahira’s routine was planned around her registering twice a day with the Israeli authorities. At one hour past sunrise she would venture from her home into East Jerusalem, to her old stomping grounds at Moscobiyah, and sign in. She would then drive to work in Ramallah. She’d return to West Jerusalem for the 2:30 p.m. sign-in.

At the beginning, the routine interfered with Zahira’s UNRWA classes. She adapted by leading classes from her home ’the first,time," she says, "that physics was taught by letters from the ; teachers and the students." Each morning she sent over the lessons to be taught, and each afternoon the students’ homework was brought to her home. Every two weeks she would travel to the school and teach the lessons personally. At the same time, her FPWAC work demanded Zahira’s attention. She would devote herself to her projects in her home during the day, and would encourage friends and colleagues to drop in on her there. By so doing, Zahira prevented herself from being cut off from her work. ’ ll the time that I was at home I was so busy with work that I didn’t feel that I’m isolated," she says. "I had a lot of friends that I didn’t know I had before."

Far from creating a vindictive radical out of her, the experience altered some of Zahira’s preconceptions and broadened her perspective. The Israeli guards with whom she regularly signed in at Moscobiyah were not what she expected. They were among those whom she says she had "a lot of [preconceived] ideas about" but who "are totally different when you meet them. I am not scared at all of security people. she asserts now. "I deal with them ...with anything, as two equal people. I don’t feel that they are above me. I feel that I am one, that I have rights:’

Because of articles in the Israeli press as well as international attention-Zahira was twice cited as Amnesty International’s Prisoner of the Month-the "town arrest’. Prisoner received welcome moral support. Even Israelis carne to her home in solidarity. Some told her: "we believe what you believe:’ All in all, says Zahira, the encouragement she received from some Israelis proves "it’s not the problem of the people,’. But rather of some of the leadership who cynically "want the situation to be like this."

Zahira manipulated her situation to convey a point. Having broken the stereotypes, she made it a lesson of sorts for her two young nieces, Maha and Sheren. She meant for the experience to be "a training for them, so they would not always be afraid of such things. Before several early afternoon signings, Zahira stopped by the kindergarten of little Maha, then four, and Sheren, just three. Their aunt packed sandwiches and the three ascended the hill to Moscobiyah. The nieces at first found the pilgrimage to be anything but the field trip Zahira planned. The younger girl was taken aback the first time she saw the armed prison officials standing alongside her Aunt Zahira as she signed in. But both girls changed. On one field trip to Moscobiyah. with the West Jerusalem lunch crowd going about its business, Maha turned to Zahira. "Oh, Aunt," mewed the niece, contrasting the free scene before her with the measures carried out on occasion in the West Bank, "we hear on television that everywhere there is a curfew. In Ramallah, in Nablus, everywhere a curfew. Why is there not in Moscobiyah a curfew?"

Nowadays, with her nieces approaching adolescence, Zahira sits astonished at their early insight, particularly their ability to attune themselves at such an early age to the different nature of Palestinian and Israeli society. The aunt, single and childless- her mother, Zahira notes with a chuckle, is "worried" about that state of affairs but has no choice but to accept it describes how the two girls play-acted. They sat on opposite sides of the room and one called to the other: "Could you come to visit me?" The other called back: "1’11 come, but 1’11 be a little late because I have to go to the police and sign in." And then she likes to tell about the niece who, in the innocent ways of children, responded to her teacher’s asking for an example of a habit. "To go and sign in with the police," carne the answer. "If you are under town arrest like my aunt, and you have to go there two times a day, then it becomes a habit." Their aunt’s delicately exposing them to the realities of Israeli-Palestinian existence seems to have had a long- lasting effect, making the nieces, in Zahira’seyes, "perhaps much bigger than their age." After the intifada, the girls instituted their own personal boycott of Israeli products-extending even to such usually ideology-free childhood pleasures as ice cream and cookies. Not even Aunt Zahira matches their example. She buys Israeli-made clothes on occasion.

In order to keep the FPWAC accounts on what Zahira calls "the right and safe side," the committee maintains an account at Bank Leumi’s branch in Ramallah. She knows that since the Intifada, the archives of the women’s committees have been closely watched by the Israeli authorities. Thirteen members of the FPWAC have been arrested since the start of the intifada, and hundreds more have been intimidated by the Israeli authorities into skipping committee meetings. They have tried all sorts of tactics, says Zahira. "Since our committee was set up, our offices have been continually raided and names taken from the files. Then the women are called for interrogation," she charges.

The Israelis, she says, also will try to exploit the traditional nature of Muslim society by "not calling the women themselves but by calling their father or their brother or their husband." If he is a merchant, they will threaten to stop his merchandise from crossing the Allenby Bridge into Jordan. "You won’t see your produce until you stop your daughter from going to these commit- tees," is what they warn them, she says. "We try our best to go to the families and convince them not to yield to this kind of pressure. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. In a country like ours, with its traditional cultural mentality, sometimes the women have been forced to skip the meetings. This is the kind of stress we have to constantly put up with. You know," she says seriously, "1 didn’t prepare myself for these situations. But when it happens, you find that there is something specialgoing on."

The words of the husky woman with the short black hair echo with as much relevance in the 1990s as they did in the 1960s, as thought-provoking in the West Bank as in developing countries throughout the world. "The logic behind this work:’ Zahira told Ha’aretz, speaking of her initial involvement with women’s causes in 1968, "was to take women out of the house. Our basic premise was that taking her out of the house was the first step to social liberation." There was more: "We can’t struggle for national liberation without it being accompanied by ongoing achievements in the social realm. One of the building blocks of our state is the creation of a healthy, just society. And in order to do so, we have to liberate the woman."

Yet Zahira also recognizes the shortcomings: "If we are talking about the women’s movement, we should involve all sectors of women in it. And if we want to make the change, we should reach also the young in age. We didn’t concentrate on students. You ’11 find we struggled, for instance, for education and work and these kinds of things. The age that is younger than us, they thought things are paved for them and they are used to not struggling for getting these things. And because of this, you could see differences, like forcing women to put on veils." In Palestinian universities, such as an-Najah in Nablus, Hebron, and Islamic University in Gaza, it is common to find women wearing the the veil, a practice many of their mothers have rejected. Zahira does not oppose the veil, "if they are convinced to put it on, if they are believers." She objects when many are intimidated and wear a veil to escape social censure. It is closely related to other rights, Zahira believes, "other rights that are related, work, the right of choosing their husband, not to marry in a young age, all these things are related together. The veil is only one part of it. If you look to the whole it makes the difference."

She considers the Islamicists part and parcel of a conservative, male-dominated Muslim society. She maintains that restrictions on women demanded by fundamentalists, such as ultra modest dress and avoidance of compromising situations, are in fact not based on Islam but on deeply rooted sexism within her society. The fanatical attraction to religion, too, she says, is merely a by-product of poverty and hopelessness. "Not every Muslim," she says, "is a fundamentalist." They only gain credibility in a conservative society when political and economic conditions worsen and people turn to God. The result is that religion finds a fertile breeding ground.

Having made the point, Zahira then proceeds, surprisingly, to deny that the fundamentalists have had any negative effect on the national movement. "In general," she asserts, “we don’t find that their influence prevents people from participating" in political activity. She says that after the Madrid peace conference, the fundamentalists participated in broad-based community meetings and made no move to block Palestinian participation in the talks. To underline what she sees as the woman’s growing emotional, if not yet actual, liberation, Zahira cites the recent grass- roots backlash against fundamentalism. She mentions that women have been distributing leaflets in Gaza, calling for resistance to wearing the compulsory long, loose-fitting dress, with the head covered. "Women started to fight. I myself saw two fights," she says. "One woman during Ramadan, an annual month-long period of meditation and fasting, was eating an apple. Aman said, ’you are not shy? You are eating an apple?’ She cursed him and insulted him. Then some youths carne and started beating up the man:”

Zahira also says it is important to place Islamic fundamentalism in the context of global events. In the last ten years, she says, we saw an extension of right-wing movements all over the world, and every time they achieved more and more representation in different places," including Western Europe, the United States, the Arab countries, and Israel. "It’s Islamic, it’s Christian, it’s Jewish," she insists. "It is all over the world and we are part of that movement. So it reflects itself on us."

Fear of women’s regressing is backed up by recent history. According to Ori Nir, the Washington correspondent of Ha’aretz. Who covered the occupied territories for four years, the intifada marked the first time Palestinian women asserted their independence? Even in the villages, they joined the demonstrations against Israeli rule. The FPWAC and its sister committees organized women to join rallies, to visit wounded demonstrators, to distribute food during curfews, and to collect financial aid for prisoners’ families. But there followed a male backlash that relegated the women to their long held roles. That regression fueled women’s fears that national aims would outpace their own gains, fears of, once again, being left behind. The observation led Amal Khreisheh, a leader of one of the four women’s commit- tees, to say, We are heroes in the street and servants in the house."

In March 1989 Zahira predicted that once they have achieved their liberation, Palestinian women will never permit themselves to be relegated in the manner that Algerian women were regressing from the revolutionary battlefields to the drudgery of housework. in Algeria, she says, the women made a major contribution to the struggle against French colonialism, but then their efforts did not translate into a change in their status in society. ..The women of Palestine," she asserts, will not be like the women of Algeria; that is, they will not be homebodies." For Zahira, however, both roles are indispensable. ..If you compare these two things, domestic work at home and activities in the street, you could say the women are heroes in the street and servants in the home. But the role at home is the continuation:’ she notes, of the battle in the streets. ..What’s the alternative?"

When the Israeli and Diaspora Palestinian press reported on the regression of women during the intifada, the Israeli civil administration commissioned a special report, says Nir. It found that despite women’s participation on the front lines of the uprising, their social status had indeed not chaged. Nor did women’s organizations in the territories refute the report’s conclusions on the return of the old order, says the Israeli correspondent.

The intifada-induced economic slide has taken its toll on the women’s movement; too, Zahira speaks of a link between worsening economic conditions and a declining marriage age for Palestinian women. As conditions deteriorate, fathers are shifting responsibility by marrying off their daughters. in addition, she relates the decline in the marriage age to the educational crisis caused by the Israelis’ periodic closure of West Bank universities. With education and the consequent employment opportunities threatened, the daughters ’ opportunities are set back once again. The FPWAC has tried to respond to these newer challenges by offering women social and legal aid in its New Jerusalem office.

Zahira demands, then, that the Palestinian leadership, a closely! Knit group of men, yield a fair share of influence to women-and not begrudgingly, either. To date, she maintains, the leadership manipulates women’s nationalist activism while stifling their progress as women. Finally, the various women’s committees must, in her view, unite under the banner of female liberation. An attempt was made in December 1988 to unify the four politically aligned committees in the Higher Women’s Council. The Council sought to prevent a backsliding of the gains women had made by presenting a united front of the main politically aligned committees. But that required a degree of cooperation among the women of the DFLP, the PFLP, Fatab, and the communists that the men themselves had never achieved. Today the prospects have improved, she says. "There’s agreement of all sides on the grass- roots level while on the leadership level it’s still being discussed," she says.

As she sits in the restaurant in the foyer of the Grand Hotel in Washington, D.C, during a break in the December 1991 talks, the seemingly uncompromising Zahira Kamal now finds herself as one of three women on the Palestinian team negotiating with Israel. She says she was chosen not for her sex but because of her experience and politics; she admits that her support for the DFLP- Abed Rabbo wing helped broaden the range of representation on the delegation, and she talks of a meeting she and Hanan Ashrawi held before leaving for Washington. They spoke to several hundred women at East Jerusalem’s al-Hakawati Theatre. The women represented many different groups and committees. They had come to pass on their recommendations-and hopes-to the two women who had been chosen, together with Suad Amiry, to be on the predominantly male Palestinian delegation.

Says Zahira proudly, "1 have been playing a political role since I was a student. I’ve been struggling inside and outside the family. I am respected politically for the party that I’m representing in the delegation and I’ve been accepted by the community, as a people, for whom I’ve worked on the grass-roots level." She expects and demands that the talks will pave the way for complete equality between the sexes. She cites the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence as providing equal rights for her sex. Although there still are no women on the fifteen-member executive committee of the Palestine National Council (PNC), she says that in any self-government scheme, women must be a vital part of the decision-making process. When the Palestinians finally get their state; she adds, women must be able to attain ministerial ranks and serve equally in a national armed force. "If we are calling for equality, you should be part of everything," she insists.

More than two decades as a physics teacher and an activist in the teachers’ union have helped make her name a household word in the territories. .’Because of this," she adds, ’.I’ve been accepted as part of the delegation and become known as one of the national persons in the country." It has been a long, hard struggle. Says Zahira: ’.This didn’t just happen overnight:’ But now that the process is under way, it may not take two decades to see a woman leading the Palestinian people.

15th February 2005


  • > Zahira Kamal in the vanguard of the Palestinian women’s movement
    28th March 2006, by Paul
    It really is a good article, one thing I’d like to suggest: There are many typos in the document, it would make it easier to distribute and read the paper if you checked it’s spelling. As far as I have seen it’s really only typos because of fast writing, but there are about one or two in each line. But first of all: Thank you for the article, it helped me a lot. Paul from Nerlin/Germany


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