It was difficult to ignore. The iconic image from the late 1980s of a well-dressed Palestinian woman carrying her high heels in her left hand and throwing stones at Israeli soldiers with her right hand. The identity of the woman, from the Palestinian town of Beit Sahour, whose image represented the struggle of Palestinian women and their important place alongside men in the first Palestinian intifada, remained unknown to the world for 30 years even though the image was used in various publicity posters and campaigns.
On Dec. 21, 2017, Women in the World Magazine published an article titled, “Identity of mysterious woman seen in iconic protest photo revealed after 30 years.”
Micheline Awwad, a mother of two who works in a hotel, was quoted in the article saying, “I was wearing a black shirt and top, a yellow scarf and yellow heels. There was a special mass at the church, otherwise, I wouldn’t have worn that outfit for a protest.”
Yet despite their long history of presence at protests, Palestinian women remain isolated politically.
Joost Hiltermann, a sociologist and researcher who is now MENA program director at the International Crisis Group, reflected on the gap between action and political empowerment for women in an essay published in the “Palestine Journal of Studies” in 1991.
“The early days of the uprising in the occupied territories yielded striking images of Palestinian women marching in the streets, schoolgirls throwing stones at soldiers, older women carrying baskets of stones on their heads to supply younger demonstrators, women arguing and tussling with the authorities to win the release of an arrested boy,” Hiltermann wrote.
Hiltermann continued, “Already by the third year of the uprising … despite women's activism, their social and political position in society had remained essentially the same.”
It is clear today that the gap between the image and reality has become a sad truth in Palestinian politics, where the struggle of women is often praised and boasted about but is rarely translated into political power.
President Mahmoud Abbas praised Palestinian women in his opening speech at the 23rd regular session of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) held in Ramallah April 30. “We [ratified] the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and we are working on amending it, and we promise you [women] to positively respond to all your requests,” Abbas was quoted by Palestinian news agency WAFA as saying in his opening speech.
Zahira Kamal, the secretary-general of the Palestinian Democratic Union Party (FIDA) and a member of the PNC, took Abbas’ words and organized a petition among PNC members calling for a guaranteed 30% quota for women. “I was very excited when we were able to get more than 500 registered PNC members out of the 605 attending to sign the petition,” Kamal told Al-Monitor.
But the sad reality soon dawned on Kamal and other women’s rights activists. The names of the new executive committee and central committee members were announced May 3; it was clear that the petition had little or no influence on Palestinian men making decisions. “The idea was to create [member] lists based on consensus. The male politicians had plenty of choices to reflect the role of women in Palestinian politics, but unfortunately they didn’t,” Kamal said.
Out of the 15 members of the new Executive Committee of the PLO, only one woman, Hanan Ashrawi, was included. And out of the 35 new members of the PLO’s Central Committee, only three women were added — far short of the 30% quota hoped for and included in the signed petition.
Nour al-Emam, a Jordanian human rights lawyer of Palestinian origin and one of the three new women appointed to the Palestinian Central Committee (PCC), told Al-Monitor that the issue of female representation can’t be pushed under the carpet anymore. “We will not waive our demands of a fair representation in all PLO bodies,” she said. Emam added that the PCC will be meeting after the holy Muslim month of Ramadan and she was certain that this issue will be discussed in full.
Kamal told Al-Monitor that the idea of expecting change to happen based on the rhetoric of leaders is a mistake. “We need to create a strong lobbying group that ensures that this problem doesn’t happen again,” she said.
As secretary-general of FIDA, a faction that nominates its own candidate for the PLO Executive Committee, Kamal bears some responsibility. “It may have been a mistake not to have nominated a woman for our own seat,” she conceded. FIDA renominated Saleh Rafat to the position in the Executive Committee.
In a separate context, Palestinian women were even behind their fellow Jordanian sisters in repealing a decades-old law that allows a man to escape punishment if he marries the woman he raped. Despite demanding this change for years, it was only on March 14 that Abbas signed Law No. 5 of 2018 abolishing Article 308 of the 1960 Penal Code enforced in the West Bank. Jordanian Law No. 308 conferring the same waiver to rapists was repealed in Jordan in August 2017.
Palestinian women have been in the forefront of Palestinian national activism and sacrifice since the spark of the Palestinian revolution. Despite this well-documented fact, Palestinian men in political power, like men in society itself, will not easily give up power. The change will only occur as a result of consistent and united efforts by both Palestinian women and men.