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Palestinian culture and identity and the role of Palestinian women

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Palestinian culture and identity and the role of  Palestinian women

By Sai'da Nusseibeh

[Women's NGOs annual meeting-1997 ]

Good morning ladies-

Throughout ancient and modern history, the historic land that was called Palestine has been a veritable melting pot, wherein diverse people and civilizations succeeded one the other. As each civilization waned and lost its hold, its heritage was assimilated with the civilization that followed. Modern Palestinian identity has taken shape, under the influence of the various civilizations that reigned over the historic land of Palestine: Jebusites, Canaanite, Philistines, Hebrews, Amorites, Nabateans, Armenian, Persians, Greek, Romans and Arabs.

The various Semitic and non- Semitic inhabitants of Palestine were first unified ideologically through Christianity. Between the seventh and ninth centuries, when many Palestinians converted to Islam, they exchanged their various dialects for the Arabic language, the language of the Qur'an and that of the Muslim rulers.

The seed for a modern Palestinian cultural identity were sown.

Palestinian villages are ancient. They were mentioned in the Old Testament and their names are once again present in the New Testament. Many of the Palestinian Christian villagers take pride in the fact, that Jesus Christ himself had evangelized them. El-Taibeh, thirty kilometer from Jerusalem, remains a living example of the continuity expressive of the deep historic roots binding the Palestinian peasant with the Holy Land from ancient Canaanite time to the present time.

The collapse of the social structure and its effect on the role of the Palestinian women

The collapse of the Palestinian social structure did not take place overnight. Nineteenth Century international foreign policy and corresponding campaign into the Near East had deleterious economic and political effects. Napoleons Egyptian Campaign did not stop in Egypt. His armies swept through the costal plain of Palestine using Gaza as his headquarters, the French army soon occupied Jaffa, and reached all the way north to Acre, producing great destructions and disorder. Following Napoleon's demise, Palestine was in a state of total collapse. Poverty and disease spread through the Holly Land.

During the reign of terror, the era of the notorious El- Jazzar, the Ottoman ruler of Acre stunned economic growth, and suppressed any fomenting indigenous form, of self-expression.

The first immigration of the Palestinian men to the Americas started whilst they left the women behind.

The depopulation of Palestine was brought about by the depressed economic situation, the result of the political Arab/Jewish conflicts in the thirties. The violence escalated into endless battles, culminating with the loss for the Palestinian from their greater part of their land in 1948.

With the destruction and division of the country a way of life came to an abrupt end.

The depth of the scars left in the collective memory of the Palestinian psyche by the 1948 Nakbah [disaster] is very difficult to imagine. Within a brief period of time, often under the direct threat of arms, the Palestinians were terrorized out of their homeland.

Three Israeli historians wrote about the horror that happened in 1948: they are Simha Flapan, Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe.

As the final moment drew to an end, a majority left their home in haste.

The image of a distracted mother, running into a boat in Jaffa, with a pillow in her arms believing it to be her swaddled baby is a recurring theme in the mythology of the Palestinians Diaspora.

What gives the Palestinian struggle its dramatic pathos is the paradoxical position of the other victim of the Second World War, the victimized Jew, and their transformation into a vindictive Israeli victimizer.

The Role of the Palestinian women

Until the beginning of the century, patriarchal relationship of authority, and the tribal clan structure of the Arab society have restricted the development and meaningful societal participation of Palestinian women.

In farming communities, women were always responsible for a large part of the work in the field such as plowing and planting crops, taking to the cities the fruits and vegetables to sell, as well as taking full responsibility for the up-keeping of the home and raising of the children.

However important the economic role of the woman, it did not improve her social status. In cities women had a better chance at attaining education.

The first institutionalized woman forum, was established in 1921, under the name of 'The Arab Women's society in Jerusalem'

Until 1948 women's organizations work was predominantly centered on teaching or charitable issues, with some participation in the nationalistic struggle against occupation -Ottoman, British and the influx of Zionist immigration to Palestine.

After 1948 with the dispossession and displacement of the Palestinian nation, and the loss of the material basis, that sustained the patriarchal family, the need for extra income became paramount. Women as well as men had to go out to work, and education became a must for them both.

The role of women became important in the refugees camp, after many men seeking work immigrated to the surrounding countries particularly the Arabian Gulf, leaving once again the women behind and this was the second exodus.

This resulted in more destruction of the traditional clan and family structures as viable social, political and economic entities.

The new situation gave women more freedom of movement, but not the freedom of full participation in decision-making. The new situation enhanced the role of women without seriously undermining the status of men.

Many women's organizations were set up to provide services inside and out of the refugee camps and the Diaspora.

The struggle to live through the hard times that the Palestinian people were going through has denied the Palestinian women's struggle for equality and freedom [the movement of equality and freedom that their sisters in the world were slowly gaining]. The struggle remained within the boundaries of the national struggle which by necessity has taken precedence.

By the late 70's a generation of young women activists started a number of grassroots committees and movements in the West Bank and Gaza. These included volunteers work committees, trade and students unions, youth movements and centers for health education.

Politicized urban educated women worked hard at involving university students, village and camp women as well as urban poor women and workers. They also recruited intellectuals and urban middle class women in a united women's movement.

By now, society's perception of the role of the woman has improved in many ways as the result of the greater participation of women in the labor force, and the increased level of education. Women's involvement in the national struggle became more prominent but remained subservient to the patriarchal system, which governed the national movement, just as it governed the national liberation movement.

Intifada- Uprising

Intifada connotes the removal of unnecessary elements: shaking off pre-existing weaknesses, strengthening previous structures, constituted as a positive and in the process updating and revitalizing the system violently.

In was under the Intifada in 1987 that women were to affect a major change in their role in society. The Intifada as a social phenomenon is highly symbolic. It expresses a passionate unleashing of pent -up anger and channels the Palestinians sense of frustration.

The Intifada was a violent search for self -identity on the individual and cultural social levels. Being Palestinian, and recognizing the characteristics of our culture identity, permeates all our actions. Although it is an awesome moment of confrontation between us and history in its various discourses, the Intifada remains first and foremost a moment of self-discovery.

Palestinian women played a major role in the Uprising from the beginning. They actively participated in the demonstrations and in the stone throwing. They broke the taboos of women being physically involved in the political arena. They were beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. The Palestinian home, which has been the place of seclusion and sanctity for women, became violated on daily bases by army searches and demolitions.

This brought the issue of female sexuality, from the private domain to the public sphere. Female sexuality, which is so sacred to the honor of the Arab family and clan, was threatened by the Israeli soldiers, through sexual harassment in the home and the prison. But this did not intimidate these women neither it prevented them from further participation in the struggle. On the contrary, it made them more determined to fight and this in turn accorded them a lot of respect and regard from the male population, who by now have come to depend on them, for much more than participation in the political struggle.

During the Intifada Palestinians faced curfews, that went on for days, schools and universities were shut for months, borders with Israel closed so the Palestinians workers could not get to earn a living, families went without income for months, thousands of men, young boys and women were detained imprisoned, hundreds killed injured and many expelled from their homes across the borders to Jordan.

It was a heavy burden on the Palestinian woman, who has lost children, husbands' father of other close relative/family members. Not a single Palestinian home was untouched by tragedy. Women became the guardians of the family, and took over the responsibility, previously held by men.

The grassroots committees which were formed before the uprising, now created these structures. Which sustained this uprising. Women's organizations assumed a major role in these committees and they came to the forefront helping with every aspect of daily life. They taught the children when schools were shuts, they protected the teenagers from the Israeli soldiers pretending every young one is their own child surrounding the soldiers, and they started home production to boost the economy and many other countless services.

Palestinian men were showing signs of accepting the more active role of women in the struggle and the social life;

The perception of women changed from frail creature to saviors and active members of society. The struggle of the Uprising gave women a new self-confidence and strength it advanced them from their previous situation, but it did not achieve for them great gains in their struggle for social freedom and equality. The new climate helped them to criticize in public the restriction placed on their social life.

With the end of the Intifada and the advent of the peace process the gains that the Palestinian women have achieved are being questioned and threatened. For coming out of the Israeli prison, thousands of men are again requiring their wives, daughters, and sisters to go back to the old social role. Men are afraid that these newly gained freedoms might threaten their position in the household and society.

And women? They are also afraid that they will suffer the fate of their Algerian sisters, who had a great role in the struggle against the French, yet lost all their right after liberation.

Palestinian women are theorizing about the future and are looking at issues such as class, religion and patriarchal structures. Women are hoping that the newly found Palestinian authority will be transformed into an independent democratic state in which they can translate their political activism during the uprising into social gains.

Thank you

Saida Nusseibeh is a member of a prominent Palestinian family. She lives in Amman. Formerly, she lived in London, where she was active in refugee aid work and in dialog. She has helped to found dialog groups including MidEastWeb for Coexistence and has served on the board of directors of Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP).


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The Growth of Palestinian identity
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Palestinian Refugee Problem and Right of Return.
Population of Palestine prior to 1948

Must Palestinian Nationalism And Zionism Change For A Lasting Middle East Peace?

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