Swaying in the Crosswind

By Helen MackreathMay 8, 2016

Swaying in the Crosswind
All photographs by Helen Mackreath. All rights reserved.

“WOMEN TODAY are lazy and complain all the time,” says an elderly Palestinian writer, sitting stiffly on a slab of rock balanced against an olive tree. She is over 70 but wears a tight spotted shirt and her dyed hair punk short. She was the first girl to go to school in her village in 1959, and today is revered with an intense small-village idolatry. She is guided to her resting rock by two local young women, one a karate teacher and the other a graphic designer. The women gather round under the shade of the tree, rough trails hewn in the soil of the olive groves, light reflected off rocks carved into surrounding hills. Cacti trace the walk there, marking curves in chalk white roads. An Israeli guard tower menaces the horizon. In the opposite direction, a church tower and minaret stand within one frame.

The Palestinian hills are scattered with villages populated by strong-minded women, but their voices remain trapped — they are rarely raised outside the welcoming circle of the sisterhood. Even the sisterhood can be a place of suppression. Doha is a young Palestinian woman seen as fallen — her honor lost — by childhood friends in her hometown of Jenin. The fact she has a boyfriend is attributed to the death of her father — her father died, her mother can’t control her, therefore she has a boyfriend. Crucially, this judgment is passed by fellow young women, not men or the political system.

“Feminism in Palestine still hasn’t got beyond the basics,” she says. “But for me, I’m not going to accept catcalling in the street, I’m going to stay out late if I want. When my uncle gives me a lecture about wearing ripped jeans, I tell him ‘my body, my rules.’” She drinks late into the night with her friends (both male and female), who know each other from the same school in Ramallah; they drift in and out of the country, studying abroad and then throwing house parties at big homes emptied of their cosmopolitan parents. There is still a large class divide here, and the idea of gender rights is stratified by that chasm.


Swaying in the Crosswind

The “women’s movement” in Palestine is difficult to assess, not only because of ambiguous metrics (how does one measure a movement?), but because a multitude of other struggles taking place there so often overshadow it. Palestinian women have always been in the crosswind of larger forces — of occupation and nationalism, the paralysis of Palestinian politics, the professionalization of humanitarianism, the increasing presence of religious social welfare and international tentacles reaching further into local concerns. They don’t have the luxury of being faced on their own terms, there are so many forces pushing them into a corner.

“Is there a woman’s movement?” asks Professor Eileen Kuttab, a sociologist at Birzeit University. She answers her own question by defining the word “movement,” which, she explains, refers to “a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social or artistic ideas.”

Intrinsic to a “movement” is putting one foot in front of the other and making steps forward. That’s not what has happened here.


In Palestine, women exist at the paradoxical boundary between deity and invisibility — deity, only in the sense of their omnipresence, not their being the subject of worship.

In a small village close to Nablus, Maha spends three hours rolling vine leaves for dinner, hollowing and stuffing zucchini with rice while Ashar, her only son, age 15, sleeps. He eats them within three minutes of waking up, removing the rice filling and leaving the zucchini carcasses scraped and uneaten. His portrait is the only one of the children that adorns the wall. The father is known as Abu Ashar, the mother Um Ashar. They couldn’t have children for 13 years — two of those years Abu Ashar was in jail — then three came along in a rush. The first two, twins, they treat with the detached patience of grandparents.

Such a great weight of desire and expectation exerts pressures. “She is so fat,” Um Ashar confides to me of her youngest daughter, who is slightly chubby with the natural puppy weight of an 11-year-old. “I don’t know what to do, she eats so much food.”

Nour, a young kindergarten teacher with a beautiful face, slips around to Maha’s house every evening for company. Her husband of seven years, of the same age and from the same village, is infertile. He is also a bully and dogmatic company. Any one of these things might be grounds for divorce; the combination of all adds insult to injury. But this is Palestine, and divorce for a woman is social suicide. If a man wants to divorce his wife he must repeat three times, consecutively, the words “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you.” If a woman wants to divorce a man, he has the privilege of choosing whether or not to accept.


Two middle-aged women sit and discuss polygamy in the upper room of the Tubas Charitable Society offices in a small town in the north of West Bank. The heat is so stifling up here their faces glisten with sweat; a pregnant colleague is overcome by it. “Yesterday we heard that a 45-year-old woman (‘very old’) was discarded by her husband, because he wanted to marry someone else to have more children. She is destroyed by this.” In resigned tones, the women say, “If a man wants a divorce there is nothing the wife can do.”

Everything about female identity here is a struggle. At the checkpoint on a busy day, long hours crushed against one another, too far from the gates to even know which direction to face, women hold the hands of all the children together, five at a time, so as not to be separated. In the mornings they are the first to rise before spending a long day at work, returning to the house to cook, clean, eat (briefly), wash, prepare dessert, coffee, clean again, bed (more servitude awaits here). Young girls wash concrete floors in the same motion as their elders. During Ramadan, it’s the same routine but with no food or water. “By the end you feel dizzy and weak, but you get used to it.” The men fast too, but they preserve energy by sitting and waiting to be fed.

Liberties are fought for, won and lost on the smallest of scales. One small moment of pleasure comes in solitude, often at the end of the day. Maha stands in her doorway dressed only in her bra and spandex, rejoicing in her closeness to her husband’s male friends who are gathered for coffee just out of eyesight. She jiggles in cheeky delight. In the late afternoon light the girls are roller-skating, two of them sharing a pair of skates.



“We cannot reach victory flying on one wing,” declared Dr. Fathi Arafat — brother of Yasser, and founder of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society — speaking of the fundamental role women should play in the Palestinian resistance movement. This was 1978, a time of endless setbacks for the Palestinian cause, which, having just lost a state, continued to bleed land. Palestinian women were playing a leading role in political agitations against Israel while trying to establish their position in the hoped-for Palestinian state.

Women first began organizing themselves into a semblance of a movement when Palestine was fighting another oppressor, the British Mandatefrom 1917-1948; this was a small core of educated “new women” who were responding to the neglect of women by the British (and the Ottomans before them). They established charitable organizations, devoted themselves to social work, and began to participate in political demonstrations. Following the killing of nine Palestinian women in the 1929 Western Wall riots in Jerusalem, the first Arab Women’s Association was formed. During the First Intifada, starting in 1987, women began organizing themselves organically. Most of the publicly active women joined the Palestinian resistance factions and engaged in political work. It was a departure from the previous organizations among women, which had been purely social and marked by the charity provided by “elite women.” This was marked instead by decentralization and mass-based committees that adopted participatory democracy, which were able to reach rural areas and refugee camps and thus respond to the interests of ordinary women. The concerns of these women were oriented almost entirely toward resistance and national liberation; women assumed multiple roles: as militants, political party members, community leaders, and leaders of popular committees, alongside being wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters.

Then came the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), a shining beacon of hope for a new state. The accords created the Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-governance over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It was a golden possibility for women’s rights to be embedded in the very foundations of the state, right from the start. There was just cause, a vision, articulation, mass support, and mobilization. “Institutionalize, institutionalize, institutionalize,” was the refrain. “We want a state, we want frameworks, we want guidelines, rules, managers, accountability, transparency.” But women only received the vestiges of institutionalization, the shell of the thing without the vigor of the real deal. They got a Woman’s Minister and technical committees and a foot in the door of state-building. But the foot was still wedged firmly at the threshold, and they were left on the outside looking in to a wholly patriarchal system.

Instead of a jump forward, it was a leap back. Palestinian women’s voices were drowned out by the deluge of well-meaning international support: NGOs, codes of practice, theories of development, and human rights. Many grassroots committees adapted themselves to the laws and established their own community-based organizations (CBOs). Their leaders went to work in the government to help lead the charge for embedding women in state governance, but in contrast to the horizontally equal system of grassroots societies — where all women are empowered and part of the decision-making process — they discovered that civil society is instead made up of a mixture of big and small organizations, where big organizations tend to dominate.

Zahira Kamal was in the vanguard of the feminist movement in the 1970s, and has since made a comprehensive tour of grassroots, private sector, and high-level government activism. She was one of three women to be involved in the peace negotiations in 1993, before being made the first minister of women’s affairs in the Palestinian cabinet. She resigned from government in 2006 — today she sits in the office of her party, the Palestinian Democratic Union Party (PDUP), in a small network of rooms tucked down a Ramallah side street. The walls are bare except for one enormous image of Al-Aqsa Mosque. She talks with a vivacious tenacity that belies her years, which are only made apparent when she stands to walk. “We have to renew the grassroots organizations,” she maintains.

“But it’s too late,” Professor Kuttab responds a few days later in her paper-strewn office in Birzeit University, “It’s too late for the pioneering vanguard to claw back the women’s ‘movement.’” “They — the elite, middle classes, NGO workers, charitable organization workers, government officials, first-generation feminists — must step back.” She includes herself in this bracket, her offhand tone hardly surprising — she’s been saying the same thing since the late ’90s, when it became clear that the institutionalization of women’s rights was moving them in the wrong direction:

Women ask themselves why they are so irrelevant. It seems that whatever they do now, it is not improving the situation. Women are more separated and isolated, poorer, withdrawing from the public sector. There is no space to go back to other than the domestic sphere. In this context, how can we go back to the grassroots?

And yet, going back to the grassroots is still the only solution for both of these activists — not a grassroots molded by institutional forces above, but one which arises from the strength, determination, and ideas of its own constituents. At the moment, it’s not clear that this is a thing people want. Paradoxically, the women of the First and Second Intifada can no longer be part of the solution to a civil rights movement because of the very extent of their commitment to earlier forms of activism for these rights. Their endeavors led them to institutions and government where they have become detached from the common woman. “There should be a border between the activist and the catalyst. These are not the same anymore. Ordinary women talk of the elite women as sitting in their empires,” says Professor Kuttab.

Lost in the dark spaces between international codes and religious agendas, between united against a state and dividing between various organizational capacities and agendas, the way forward is muddled. There is a crisis of representation and entrenched uncertainty reflected at all levels in the women’s movement. Who should speak for the future of women? The older generation, who have been the voice of change for so long, or the younger one, some of whom don’t see their lot as being that bad? The old guard has different templates for the future — should there be a return to the grassroots or an embrace of a new era for all women at all levels? Where are the men in this frame, and what do they think? Is it the cities or the villages or the camps that are most significant? How much should religion, which is playing an increasingly important role in women’s lives, be acknowledged and incorporated? And who exactly should a “Palestinian woman” be?


Amid the many questions a grassroots women’s rights movement must face in Palestine, perhaps few are as significant as whether this movement can ever be dissociated from the fight against occupation. Take, for example, the high commissioner in the UN Human Rights Council, Navi Pillay, who argues that, “The combination of decades of Israeli occupation” and “the use of force against Palestinians by Israel […] expose women to a continuum of violence in all spheres of life.”

Ultimately, no one, whether man or woman, can be free under occupation. Palestinian villages are full of ordinary men and women carrying their silent, patient, and protracted wound. In a village near Nablus, olive groves have recently been burned down by Israeli settlers. The land is bare and scorched; blackened carcasses of olives hang limply. Olive groves take 15 years to bear fruit — their burning is both economic violence and a symbolic political attack. Every Palestinian exists in a cycle of violence (for an increasing number of Palestinians, it is all they have ever known). The psychological violence of occupation is a given, but there is also the manifest violence of arbitrary arrest, house demolition, raids, or abuse by Israeli soldiers. There is nothing normal about living in an occupied territory: movement proscribed, thought controlled, action displaced. It is a performance of power in which each person is assigned a role, not of their choosing, and their rejection of that role is an assertion of self.

But for a Palestinian woman the occupation carries a double threat — she is stamped with two roles, one from her Israeli suppressors, one from her male “protectors.” She may reject one at the expense of the other (rejection is exhausting) but rejecting both simultaneously is even more difficult. And yet she does it, often without comment or recognition. She carries all the struggles — gaining a Palestinian state and fighting the occupation and economic security — inside of her simultaneously. And as much as she is sidelined, as much as she grows ever heavier with their burden, so her fate grows in importance.


A young man in Bethlehem articulates in perfect English the problem women in Palestine face, as he sees it, acknowledging their unfair position. Men cannot protect their women against the occupation and Israeli aggression in the way that their “traditional” male role demands, he says. Palestinian women therefore face the same physical dangers as men. This is the source of the problem, he believes — not the division of the gender roles, but the inability for those roles to be practiced. For him, the struggle against occupation is reduced to a patriarchal struggle — man against man, violence against violence. When a woman engages on that level, through violence, it’s seen as a transgression. When she responds in other ways, through peaceful protest or dialogue, her efforts are confined to “women’s issues,” and not given due credit.

The young man outlines his belief in equality for men and women, repeating Yasser Arafat’s famous words: “Women are our main project, they are the patient we must support.” The next time he addresses the word “rights” is in the context of his relationship with his future wife — “I don’t mind if she has a job on the condition that, one, she bears me children, and two, my rights are protected.” His “rights” included having his dinner cooked for him every night and his home kept in order. Whose rights take precedence here? In the traditional relationship between man and wife, the male offers protection while the female gives everything of herself in exchange; it’s not necessarily perceived as unequal. On the contrary, the system is one for which many women are grateful. And this, explains the man, is exactly why the current inheritance laws, which grant the male twice as much as the female, are justified — to reward the greater “responsibility” of the male.

The Palestinian word “nasawiya,” which translates into the English word “feminism,” doesn’t necessarily hold the same meaning as its counterpart. It’s a loaded concept, one meaning different things to different people, no more so than in Palestine where there are so many layers of discrimination against women, from fundamental legal prejudice to social, religious, and cultural pressures. Zahira Kamal knows how much can be gleaned from a Palestinian’s choice of words:

In government everyone is talking about women’s rights but it’s not genuine. If a man starts his speech, “Our beloved mothers, sisters …,” you know he’s going to be spouting blurb. They’re not speaking from a position of equality and women’s rights, but speaking emotionally.

Women are not “victims,” of torture or culture or the occupation, they are “survivors.” This use of sympathy is manipulative. It doesn’t allow women to stand on their own terms — women continue to be spoken for and their best interests decided by men.

Many young women identify their lack of legal rights as the main inequality between the sexes in Palestine (according to one report, 43 percent of surveyed women believe that women enjoy the same legal status as men, while 57 percent disagree [1]). But they don’t necessarily perceive an erosion of rights in everyday situations. They are more free now, they say. They recognize the advantage of women going to university; they all want a good job when they graduate. One teenage girl in Bethlehem smiles in response to a question about her career aspirations, saying, “I want to feel the warm glow like the first time I received money I had earned” — although she has no idea of what constitutes a “good job.” “Forty years ago women could not go out of the house, she couldn’t go to school,” the girl goes on to explain,

Today all girls go to school. Before, she was never asked her opinion about her future husband, and the groom went directly to her father. Today she is asked, although it is still impolite to say no — her family tries to convince her that the groom has a house, a car, money to go to university.

In the 1990s, the percentage of women who finished secondary education was 18 percent; today it is 50 percent. Progress has been made, but it still doesn’t feel adequate.


In April 2014, Palestine joined, without reservation, seven of the nine core international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The signing without reservation was an unprecedented step for an Arab country. According to article 15, paragraph 2, “State Parties shall accord to women, in civil matters, a legal capacity identical to that of men and the same opportunities to exercise that capacity.” The CEDAW establishes legal rules to protect women, and stresses that rights are whole and not partial nor debatable. Its signing is considered to be a turning point, and hope remains that existing Palestinian laws will be reformed. But there remains a void between their signing and enforcement — and in the act of reneging on CEDAW, the Palestinian Authority may be delegitimized further.

Professor Kuttab argues that the tenets of the CEDAW agreement actually distract local NGOs from progress that’s been made on a national level:

There are national documents that are not being used, even though the 1993 [Oslo] document is relevant, contextual, and unique, and is part of the process of women’s heritage and activism. CEDAW becomes detached from the context, detached from the local. Ordinary women talking about CEDAW is like [Anglophones [or Palestinians]] talking Japanese.

There are other international schemes to “empower” women. The Italian government has been co-sponsoring the Tawasol Project, the name for the Local Democratic Reform Program, since 2008. Tawasol Centers are present in each of the 11 Governorates of the West Bank, representing the Ministry of Women’s Affairs at a decentralized level, targeting the “promotion of women’s participation and empowerment in the society.” But they remain top-down initiatives. The paradox is that although the UN and other international and national bodies, and even individuals, are aware of the need to support the grassroots, by the very act of trying to assist them, and drawing them into the web of international support, they may unintentionally disempower them.

Many of the issues women face are local. Violence against women, particularly incest, does not go through formal criminal systems since it is often too sensitive, or women are unaware of their legal rights. Help, then, also usually comes from local initiatives.

Dima runs the women’s shelter in Jericho, one of the oldest inhabited settlements in the world. “I started working with women in 1978. I can see there has been a little change, but nothing major.” The shelter is a small building with orange walls in the middle of a vast swath of arid fields, the Judaean Mountains rising in the distance. There are two bedrooms, one kitchen area, and a living room. Two “housemothers” are on call at all hours, on a rotational system. The women who come here, all emergency cases fleeing domestic violence or worse, are already fighting a battle on multiple fronts: the immediate threat to their life, and the perpetual impact on their life from the taboo of seeking public assistance. Local power-holders initially objected to the emergency protection shelter, insisting it be demolished unless a razor-wire-topped wall was built around the compound and security cameras installed. The community still believes that women should deal with the issues within the privacy of their home, not expose themselves to the shame of making their case known.

“In Jericho, it’s a matter of prestige that they have a shelter [one of only three in Palestine],” says Dima. “But they still don’t fully understand the need for it — ‘Let her go home, the man will sign a paper saying he won’t hurt her again, and that will be the end of it,’ they say.” As it happens, all of the women must return home eventually anyway, whether after a few days or a few months or up to a year. It’s impossible for a woman to rehabilitate her life outside her family. For these women, CEDAW seems irrelevant. “A woman who comes to the emergency shelter doesn’t care about CEDAW. She just wants to protect her life, however she can.”

There are signs of improvement. The police launched a Family Protection Unit in October 2008 in recognition of the growing demand for specialist policing capacities. At the end of 2012, the prime minister, the ministers of Interior, Justice, Women Affairs, Social Affairs, and the chief of police participated in a nationwide TV and radio campaign to raise awareness for the need to reject, prevent, and combat violence against women. And today, the coordination between the government, the police, and NGOs to protect women in emergency situations is better than ever, Dima tells me. Still, the support of the Ministry of Social Affairs can also be a curse — women often prefer to go home than stay in a shelter, but the police and Ministry of Social Affairs have the power to keep women in shelters against their will.

Despite occasional government intervention, women’s issues continue to be seen as a familial issue. Courts rarely enforce decisions, preventing women from claiming their rights, particularly in cases of alimony, divorce rights, and custody. This is in part due to a malfunctioning national legislative system. Following the Hamas win in the 2006 elections, and the ensuing Israeli and foreign policies toward the party, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) has been unable to convene. Even if the PLC were to reconvene, if its membership retains a Hamas majority, the important amendments to the 1960 Jordanian Penal Code concerning women’s rights risk being revoked.


Outside of parliament, religious and cultural forces are also grappling with the demands of the women’s rights movement, and the realities of new technology and increasing interaction between males and females. “Sheikhs are concerned about Facebook and WhatsApp and tell us to be careful,” recounts a young woman in Hebron. “They preach how to be good daughters and good wives, how women should be dressed.” And yet, she describes how women in Hebron often still prefer to seek the help and advice of local sheikhs or local clans than going to law courts. “It’s not in our culture for boys and girls to be friends. But in the last five or six years, we’ve started having more male friends, although we’re always told, ‘Don’t trust people 100 percent.’ Parents are starting to understand the concept of ‘colleague’ a little more.” But women are still behind the curve of change. Brothers stand over sisters as they surf the net, forbidding them from befriending men virtually or posting pictures of themselves.

Alia, another young woman living in Bethlehem, asks me how to make “fashion rips” in her old jeans. She wears an Adidas neon pink tracksuit top, large gold bangles, and highlighted blonde hair. She lives among a family of women who exist in rhythm together — mother, aunt, daughters still living entwined. They sleep in the same bedroom, the same bed, not out of necessity (the house is generous in proportions) but out of closeness. Mother and daughter curled together against the world, aging in years as one unit.

Much of the living space is closed off, like a theater outside performance hours. Statement furniture is cast in shadows, heavy curtains, ornate trimmings, velvet brocade, gold trinkets. On the walls, the face of a man — the father, who is dead — stares out. And yet, here too a man heads the household now — the son, the youngest of the siblings. He exists outside the closeness of his female relatives yet remains in charge, despite his youth. When he enters the home there is a flurry of choreography in the kitchen as his meal is proffered for his satisfaction.

Alia’s mother hasn’t always worn the hijab; her sisters only wear it when they return to Palestine from abroad in the United States and Belgium. But they don’t like being judged by their peers for not wearing it. It was a lack of self-esteem, Alia believes, which made her mother and other female family members more religious. It became easier for them to wear the hijab and become more pious than to answer questions; they didn’t want to be the center of attention in that way.


The movement to advance women’s rights is actively discussed at almost every level of Palestinian society, regardless of whether that discussion takes place publically, or behind closed doors. It is a conversation that continues to be overshadowed by the social, political, and economic ramifications of occupation. In the West Bank, one in three Palestinians aged between 20 and 24 are unemployed (in Gaza this figure is 60 percent). Extreme poverty prevents many women seeking legal or social support. According to UNDP, women’s economic empowerment comprises economic opportunity, legal status, and rights (such as improving women’s property, inheritance, and land rights), and including women’s voice in economic decision-making. UN Women has initiated a One Stop Shop scheme (under their 2015-’16 “Transforming Economies, Realizing Rights” strategy). The National Committee for Women’s Employment (NCWE) was formed in 2011 to work on improving policies that control the entry of women into the workforce, and was recognized in 2012 as an official consulting body. Young women in Hebron discuss the focus on economic health and awareness of women as if it is common knowledge. “The idea is that if women are financially independent, they will be in a better position against men.”

This is not a new position. The 1967 occupation compelled women to confront the economic hegemony of Israel. Palestinian women, among them Samiha Khalil, known as Um Khalil, sought to make women independent of the Israeli economy by providing training and employment opportunities in Palestine. This was not necessarily aimed at empowering women, but rather at providing a form of liberation — another example of the intertwined nature of women’s rights with the national struggle. “When a girl begins to earn money, she may begin to impose conditions on her family,” Um Khalil stated. “We don’t encourage such a spirit in our girls. To open the door too wide would cause a bad reaction.” [2]

Economic empowerment for women can be seen as both improving their status and aiding the struggle against occupation. The Jericho governor identified the lack of job opportunities in the West Bank as the single most important challenge facing women currently working for the Israelis.

Despite myriad complex obstacles, progress is being made for Palestine’s women’s movement. Linkages between the national and the local, the international and the national, and the international and the local are being sought, constructed, and consolidated. But key questions remain — how can the international attention be harnessed as a positive, rather than detracting from national initiatives and fragmenting the cause even further? Will economic empowerment have the desired impact? And how can women’s issues become ingrained within everyday life when views about language, tradition, religion, and culture remain so disparate?

“We cannot just push a button to make it better,” warns Professor Kuttab, referring to Palestinian women as a whole. “We have to really stand back and think — what do we really want?” The use of the collective pronoun is a defiant gesture in the face of divisions. Divisions between the grassroots and the women working for NGOs, political parties, and government. Divisions about priorities and agendas. Divisions in opportunities. Palestinian women are survivors, but disillusionment is rampant.


[1] Palestinian Businesswomen’s Association, "Women’s Economic Empowerment in the West Bank, Palestine," 2010

[2] Sayigh, Encounters with Palestinian Women under Occupation, Journal of Palestine Studies Vol 10, No. 4 (Summer 1981), p 3-26


Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the LA Review of Books based in Istanbul, previously in Beirut and the West Bank. She is currently researching issues relating to Syrian refugee governance in Turkey.

LARB Contributor

Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books based in Istanbul, previously in Beirut and the West Bank. She is currently researching issues relating to Syrian refugee governance in Turkey.


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