Growth and Development of Palestinian Women Movement in Palestine: An introduction

Palestinians have busied themselves since the occupation of 1948 in a daily struggle for survival. That day-in day-out struggle succeeded in eliminating many of the memories of their actual history, which also became, in time, limited to certain people and names and events that eventually women were excluded from.

The exclusion of women comes as a result of aspects ranging from historical prejudices against women in high business and political positions to the rejuvenation of Islamic fundamentalisms that view women as subordinate to men. As in the majority of neighboring Arab societies, Palestinian women were subject to the dominance of a patriarchal Arab culture, which prevailed in the urban and rural areas. Palestinian women, in the words of Masalha, “continue to be excluded, even within the subaltern narrative and the relatively more democratic new global media.”[1] He continues with affirmations through Palestinian female scholars such as Kassem[2] (2011), Hammami[3] (2003), and Khalili[4] (2007), who have shown that gender narratives and women’s voices and contributions to collective Nakba memory and Palestinian historical consciousness are doubly marginalized within the Palestinian refugee story. Often women’s memories are silenced because they are perceived as undermining Palestinian nationalist discourse, and this is an issue that Palestinian subaltern studies have failed to address adequately. Despite the interviews with women and the recording of women’s voices, men are presented as the main protagonists[5].


Edward Said, in his introduction to Serene Husseini’s biography, writes: “for an Arab girl in between the two world Wars, education was limited (she went to the Friends School in Ramallah, and graduated from The American University in Beirut). Education, as such, was unfamiliar but we can see in that an alerting signal of a super energy that pushed the Palestinians and especially women, to revolt against submitting to accepting the role of a lazy or negative viewer. This energy pushed them to contribute to the cooperative campaign in development and collective resistance. A situation that reflects on many of the Palestinians, education and learning self-independence induced Serene to continue what politics and geography obstructed. This, after half a century, became one of the qualities of the Intifada: the formation of a unified front of civilians, men, women and children, uniting in harmony against the Israeli forces across the occupied lands, as a result of their organization, their innovative thinking, intelligence and optimistic will.”[6]


As many of the distorted events and memories in the Palestinian narrative are fading away, so too is the woman’s part in that narrative. This research is an attempt to explore women from an angle that takes them outside their typical household roles, and to check the reality of women’s roles in that period.

In a world that is conquered by veils, narratives and photos show a different reality. This research will be an attempt to dig into the narratives of women who were active and had a participatory role in the society, by forming the women’s movement in Palestine and by being part of a regional and international women’s movement. The photo that instigated this research is part of what comprises a relation between photography and social history:

“The triumphant announcement of photography as the universal language of the future was the first of many grandiose claims made for photographic realism. The notion of a documentary form, which would supersede the frailties of human observation, fitted well with the positivism, which characterized much Western thought in the second half of the nineteenth century. Although many doubts have since been raised about the veracity of photographic images, there is still a lingering sense that a photograph has a documentary value different from, and perhaps superior to, other forms of representation.”[7]



Artworks, as Heidegger explains, are things, a definition that raises the question of the meaning of “thing”, such that works have a “thingly” character. Within that broad concept, Heidegger chooses to focus on three dominant interpretations of things, which are as follows: things as substances of properties, things as the manifold of sense perception, and things as formed matter. Heidegger is famous for using the study of shoesas an example for the analysis of a culture, as he explains the viewer’s responsibility in considering the variety of questions about shoes, for instance, and not just asking about form and matter. He wants the viewer to ask questions that can relate to purpose and reason, source and belonging. For Heidegger it is about us, the viewers, who in this way can get beyond corresponding truth in a “form” representation, but to reality “matter.”[8] Many questions can be asked as a result, and hence, we can relate in our research on this photo. The question of purpose and reason, can be delved in the question of the veil or unveil of the women in the photo . Why the same women seen in the photo unveiled are the same who are seen in other photos in the same period veiled in public areas. This takes us to the question of contradiction women live and face. The controversy of modernity and tradition in the behavior of the same set of women.

The view of Walter Benjamin, on the other hand, in his essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, situates such arts explicitly within the context of history. Whereas his criticism is charged with the task of revealing what he calls the “truth content of a work of art,” which is intimately bound up with its ‘material content’.  Historically anachronistic features of the content aims in criticism to the destruction of this outer layer in order for the work’s inner truth content to be grasped. According to Benjamin, the fundamental philological error of commentary is merely to situate the work in relation to the “lived experience” of its author’s biographical life, instead of the broader medium of historical reception through which it has passed down to the contemporary critic. The research perceives the photo in this sense, it is the content of what the photo has represented , it shed the light on the modernity, and the controversy of the women themselves and the society they live in . It allowed an observation that can fill in the gap of overseeing the society in a certain set of images that filled in certain interests of researchers. Benjamin’s Romantic theory of immanent criticism insists that the work must contain its own inner criterion, such that the critic proceeds from the work itself and not from the life of the author.[9]

As a result , “truth content, in contrast, is not to be sought in the conspicuous features of the work’s technique, but in the unity of its distinct form. The task of criticism is to make this truth content an object of experience.”[10]

Photos represent a preservation of a memory of the past. In the Palestinian case, photos may represent more than a sentimental personal memory of the lived past, but a proof amid the disturbed history of identity under occupation.  The photo in this research may be a good example to show, as well as, understand the contradictions that continue to face women in the Palestinian society specifically and the Arab society at large. The veil as an instrument of reflection on dominance on women within what seems to be a traditionally accepted control. While the majority of  women in the photo do not wear the Hijab, it is undoubtly that many of those women are seen in other photos[11]. Such photos have been circulated in their time in newspapers and different societal and political settings. This means that the women in the picture, without the veils were aware that the photo will not be privately used, knowing they would leave the room wearing their veils in some cases.

Dressing relates to certain aspect of modernity that connects societies together globally. In societies as the Palestinian, the change in dress codes can relate to many indications to help understand the society and the specific surrounding of a setting.

While wearing the veil or removing it, is not what defines women in a specific society, but it undoubtly reveals the texture and the margin of freedoms in the society. How this is connected with gender and nationalist modernity will be a part of the discussion in this research. The notions of modernity that were produced and reproduced effectively as a result of examinations within modern dichotomies that range from modern/primitive of philosophy and anthropology to the modern/traditional of Western social and modernization theories.

[1] Masalha, Palestine Nakba, p. 226-228

[2] Kassem, Fatma. Palestinian Women: Narrative Histories and Gendered Memory. Zed 2011

[3] Hammami, Rima. Gender, Nakba and Nation: Palestinian Women’s Presence and Absence in the Narration of 1948 Memories. 2003.

[4] Khalili, Laleh. “Places of Memory and Mourning: Palestinian Commemoration in the Refugee Camps of Lebanon”, in: Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2005. Duke University Press 2005

[5] Masalha, Palestine Nakba, p. 226-228

[6]Husseini, Serene. Jerusalem Memories. Naufal 2000.

Introduction by Edward Said, p. 17

[7] Graham-Brown, Women in Photography,

[8] Heidegger, Martin. The Origin of the Work of Art (Der Ursprung Des Kunstwerkes). Trans: David Farell Krell (2006). HarperCollins2008, p. 143-165

[9] Osborne, Peter and Charles, Matthew. “Walter Benjamin”, in: First published Tue Jan 18, 2011; substantive revision Wed Jul 22, 2015


[10] Ibid

[11] Please see Annex (Photos)

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