Jerusalem Women Remembered For Role in Palestinian Politics

Although traditionally neglected from written history, Palestinian women have played a key role in the country’s national struggle.

al-monitor A Palestinian woman gestures in front of riot police during a demonstration against renewed peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Sept. 7, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman.

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women's role, resistance, palestine, memory, jerusalem, female participation

Oct 27, 2013

History books contain very little information about the women of Jerusalem’s contributions to Palestinian politics or feminist action since the 1920s.

Two demonstrations that actually had a profound effect on the course of the Palestinian struggle do stand out. The first was comprised of 120 automobiles that cruised the streets of Jerusalem — following the annual conference organized in Jerusalem in 1929 — and stopped by the various foreign consulates to hand their consuls memoranda about the conference’s decisions.

The second took place on April 15, 1933, when women voiced their objection to the visit of British officials Lord Allenby and Lord Swinton to the country. Despite the pouring rain, women marched through the streets until they reached the Omar Mosque, where one of their leaders — Mathilde Maghanem, a Christian — delivered a speech from the mosque’s tribune. The demonstrators then continued on to the Holy Sepulcher, where another of the women’s leaders — Tarab Abdel Hadi, a Muslim — delivered her speech from in front of Christ’s tomb.

What political wisdom did Palestinian women in general, and women from Jerusalem in particular, possess at that time?

Jerusalem women’s political contributions were not limited to demonstrations and the organization of political conferences. They, in fact, established unions for women and charitable organizations, and participated in direct and indirect political action.

In addition to the participation of urban women, rural women also played an important part, as chronicled in the early 1990s through the study of oral traditions that are passed on.

Yet, the testimony of many of the narrators demonstrated that the urban women’s names were the clearest in their minds; their memories made permanent by their activities in women’s associations and unions in particular.

Dawoud Ereikat talked about the struggles of Palestinian women before 1948. He mentioned the names of urban leaders such as Zuleikha al-Shihabi, and proudly spoke about his own mother’s (Aisha el-Hajj Khalil al-Maki) political participation as well as that of his maternal aunt (Rakiah el-Hajj Khalil al-Maki); both of whom he only named after the researcher insisted.

Sheikh Zuhair al-Shawish explained that women’s names were deliberately not mentioned due to social traditions, as doing so was considered shameful. This partly explains why recorded history neglected to mention the names of these women who contributed to public life in the 1930s.

The testimonies of narrators also highlighted names that were mentioned in recorded history as well as names that remained alive in their minds alone. Among the names of Jerusalem women whose memories staunchly endured in the minds of people are veteran pioneers such as Zuleikha al-Shihabi, Hind al-Husseini and martyr Hayat al-Balabseh. Female pioneer Essam Abdul Hadi remembers the names of many women who rose to prominence through their activism. Among them was Zuleikha al-Shihabi, who established, with Milia al-Sakakini, the first Palestinian women’s union in 1921; and Hind al-Husseini, who established the Arab Children's House to take care of the daughters of fallen martyrs.

Other Jerusalem women are also remembered, most prominent among them are Qudsiyah Seif Eddine, Nahed Abdo al-Sujudi, Nazha Darwish, Hilwa Zeidan, Salma al-Husseini and Badria al-Husseini.

Pioneer female activist Widad al-Ayyoubi talked about her colleague Fatima Abu al-Saoud, and the distinguished political role that the latter played: “Fatima worked with a particular group of female students who filled baskets with figs or grapes and went about visiting shops and homes to distribute pamphlets, that they hid under the figs and grapes, calling for strikes or demonstrations.”

Doumia al-Sakakini, on the other hand, in addition to talking about known names, spoke with admiration of a previously unknown lady who worked in first aid: Kokon Talil.

Pioneer activist Salma al-Husseini recalled the distinctive role played by militant Wajiha al-Husseini, who was only known for being the wife of martyred leader al-Kader al-Husseini. She talked about Wajiha’s role in smuggling weapons to her husband and his comrades, and characterized her tribute to Husseini as a sort of redress following history’s neglect of the woman: “Why did I speak about Ms. Wajiha? Because history neglected her memory. She worked hard. There isn’t always a woman behind every great man, but, in this case, she was a great woman, just like her husband was a great man.”

According to the testimonies of those interviewed, rural women also played their part, despite the fact that their names have been forgotten.

Dr. Sobhi Ghosheh talked about the nature of rural women’s participation in the revolution of 1936: “Women participated in all manner of national action. They smuggled weapons in and out of towns, particularly those among them who wore traditional robes, who hid weapons, grenades and pistols under their clothes. There are stories about a woman from the Dkeidek family as well as other rural women who smuggled weapons to the rebels inside Jerusalem under bales of parsley and chard. We also remember many rural women who smuggled arms, food and news to the rebels.”

Militant Bahjat Abu Gharbiyeh confirmed women’s participation in political and military action: “They carried rifles just like their husbands. No names, I can’t remember them. The one that comes to mind used to be known as Um al-Moumineen (mother of the believers). I saw her. She belonged to the Arab Sawahrah clan. I also saw other women in Balaa and during the demonstrations that took place in Jerusalem, where I saw them clash with the police.”

Ahmad al-Issawi, from Beit Hanina in Jerusalem, remembers some of the women’s names: “God be my witness, I remember one who came from our village. Her name was Mansia from Beit Hanina. There was also one called Latifa al-Salman and another one named Hasna al-Qatnawiyah.”

Zuhair al-Shawish also remembers the effective role played by rural women during his march with his comrades to come to the aid of commander Abdel Qader al-Husseini in Al Qastal: “Who was guiding us along the way? Two men and four women from the villages. The women showed us the way, and were, even more than us, exposed to gunfire.”

And so the story goes. Pioneer women recounting the achievements of other pioneer women. Old generations handing the torch to new ones, forever and ever.

There is still a lot to tell about Jerusalem women, and the roles that they played. Their stories necessitating endless study and research.

Oral history remembers a lot of known facts and some previously undiscovered ones. There are still aspects that remain unknown, requiring collective effort to elucidate. This is a debt that we hold, a duty that our conscience needs performed, in honor of those who paid and are still paying the ultimate price, for the independence and freedom of our land.

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More from  Dr. Faihaa Qassim Abdel Hadi