Khalida Jarrar on Female Prisoners, Resistance through Education, and Liberation
May 22, 2022

Khalida Jarrar served as the Director of Addameer Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association for over 10 years. In 2006, Khalida was elected as a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), where she headed the Prisoners’ Commission and played an active role in formulating Palestine’s application to the International Criminal Court. She famously resisted an Israeli military order for her forcible transfer to Ariha (Jericho) in 2014, staging a protest at the PLC headquarters.

Her defiance came at a great cost: she was arrested by Israeli occupation forces four times, and spent over 63 months in prison, much of which was under administrative detention, where she was held without charge. During her latest arrest in 2019, Khalida was sentenced to two years in Israeli prison for her political work. In July 2021, her youngest daughter Suha Jarrar passed away. Despite international outcry, Israeli Prison Services denied Khalida Jarrar a humanitarian release.

While in prison, Khalida served as a teacher to her fellow female prisoners, starting secondary and post-secondary educational programs, smuggling writings on the subject, and even conducting her own studies.

Since her release in September 2021, Khalida Jarrar took up a position as a researcher at the Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights at Birzeit University, where she is currently undertaking a seminal research project on the topic of Palestinian female prisoners.

In this interview, Ayah Kutmah, visiting research fellow at the Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights at Birzeit University, spoke with Khalida about her project, the contributions she hopes to impart, prison and education, and the creation of a liberating educational framework.

The interview was conducted in Arabic at the Muwatin Institute at Birzeit University. It was later transcribed and translated to English and edited for clarity and brevity.

Can you talk more about your project? When did it first originate?

The idea for the project began in 2019, following attempts to undertake something academic on the topic of Palestinian female prisoners, that would also serve as a point of reference for scholars and researchers. There is a lack of academic literature that covers the topic. I began the project in 2019 with the Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, at Birzeit University. Shortly after I submitted the research proposal, I was arrested. When I was released in 2021, I decided that I needed to continue the project. I also chose to expand the time period that would encompass the study.

We are in the stage of conducting a literature review and finalizing the methodology of the project. I hope to examine the relationship between Palestinian prisoners, as a whole, and female prisoners more specifically, to the Palestinian liberation project. This project is meant to include national and class liberation, not just a national approach. That is to say that imprisonment or detention is one of the procedures of the colonial system that the colonizer uses against the colonized… [the colonizer] tries to impose subordination and subjugation to him.

To return to your point about examining the topic of imprisonment using a national and class analysis: why class? And why both?

Because we can't separate the practices of the colonial system from its practices and relationship to capitalism.

We talk about national liberation and social liberation in the Palestine movement. You focus on Palestinian female prisoners, so there is a feminist element in liberation project. Could you talk more about it—does it have a role in your research, and how so? 

From my feminist point of view, when we examine the effects of this colonial system on women, we cannot separate - or I cannot separate - the role of this system in promoting the oppression of women for a comprador class,[1] whose interests are linked to the interests of colonialism. Because of this, the type of people who take part in struggle and resistance against this colonial system also aim to declare that they don't want their interests to be connected to that of the system. This is what I want to examine in my interviews with the prisoners. 

Beyond the literature review, you mentioned conducting interviews with former female prisoners; what are the different methodological approaches you’re looking at for this project?

I tried to read, examine, and see how the available literature can be beneficial to my study. I am also looking at comparative cases, such as the Irish experience in the colonial context; the Algerian experience; the experience of the Khiam prison in South Lebanon… because they all took place under a broader colonial system.

Before I was arrested, I was going through readings on understandings of what is prison from intellectuals who lived this experience, such as Michel Foucault, Gramsci, or even its relation to racial discrimination, such as Angela Davis in the US. I also read about how such understandings of prison relate to capitalism, which allowed and escalated the privatization of prisons.   

I I worked for 10 years as the Director of Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, which took on cases of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli occupation prisons. So there [was] a type of direct, or indirect, contact through the lawyers who follow the cases of Palestinian prisoners. This is separate, too, from the fact that I also come from a family of [political] prisoners: my husband was arrested many times, and I was also subjected to arrests, four times now. 

While I was in prison in 2015-2016, I conducted a short study where I tried to examine the relationship between imprisonment, gender, and privacy through interviews. Especially because at the time, there was the Habbet Al-Quds (Jerusalem Rebellion),[2] where a large number of female prisoners were subjected to arrest and injuries. I tried to examine the topic in my study that was published in 2016. But the study was limited, it only looked at one aspect. I thought of writing while I was in prison, but I didn’t feel that the available literature was enough for me to add the type of approach I wanted to pursue. So [these readings] are part of the sources I will pull from. In addition, I will conduct interviews with about 50 former female prisoners in different stages of imprisonment, from the late sixties through post-Oslo; what are the types of female prisoners that were held at each stage, what is the approach that led them to their acts of resistance, what is their class status, etc.

How do your own experiences in prison inform the study?

 What drives this study besides just the literature, is that there is a personal experience towards the subject, whether it be through my work in prisoners' institutions that follow up on the cases of prisoners, coming from a family that was subjected to arrests more than once, or my own experiences of imprisonment. It is not a subject I'm looking at from outside.This is in addition to the interviews that I will be conducting with female prisoners, who will discuss their own experiences.

There are obstacles to conducting the study, but I won't struggle to conduct the interviews or ask questions, because I am a part of the system. That is why there might be more ease for the female prisoners to freely give their answers.

Of course, the female prisoners cannot discuss everything, and not everything they tell me I can write about, because we are still under colonialism, and there are obstacles in terms of how to safeguard this information, because it could expose the female prisoners to re-arrest. 

You serve as an activist, and now as a researcher. Where do you find the two roles come together, and how did you come to research after your activism, or was it the opposite?

It’s an integrated relationship, because even my own previous work at Addameer was following the cases of [Palestinian] prisoners. My academic background was business, but my work in administrative roles in NGOs and institutions related to the affairs of prisoners and detainees led me to continue my studies in democracy and human rights. So for me, it is very important to tie struggle with practice, and with academia.

There is a state of harmony between what you presented. Because when we talk about the idea that munadalin and munadilat (strugglers for freedom), too, can make strides in the field of research and academia and tie the two to be what is known as the “organic intellectual.[3]

[While in] prison, I was convinced that a form of resistance inside the prison was education. That is why, for example, [while incarcerated], I gave a course on human rights. The papers the female prisoners wrote were very rich, because they tied what the conventions stated with the type of oppression or violation they experienced.

I also contributed to the efforts to help the children [female prisoners] - who were arrested and injured, and who were sentenced to long years in prison - to continue their education. First with high school, so that they could get their tawjihi[4] (high school) certificate. After that, we fought for our right to higher education - even though, by the way, education in Israel’s prisons is prohibited. But we practice it as a form of resistance, because we must always find ways [to learn], far from the prison administration, which threatens us with confiscation of books, or declares [lockdowns] when they notice girls gathering in a room. That is why [education] is a form of resistance… I don't find a separation between the two.

What can you say about the [English] term “scholar-activist,” which is closely tied to your own praxis?

I wrote a letter about this for an international literature conference, [Palestine Writes]. (The letter was smuggled from Damon Prison and was written in October 2020). My daughters spoke at the event, even Suha.

In 2015, during my second arrest, there was a huge number of female prisoners who were children, and so I asked, why wasn't there high school education? Because in prisons, for the male prisoners there is, but for the female prisoners there isn't. The reason is that there are academic requirements by the Palestinian Ministry of Education, that there must be prisoners who have a Bachelor’s or Master’s who would be able to teach. At the time, sadly, there were no female prisoners who held a Bachelor’s, and so my presence [in the prison] helped.

Here is where we say that practice also teaches, because there were innovative ideas [from] everyone. For example, there's no board, how can we make one? There was a small plastic window - we'd take it apart and place a paper over it, so we could turn it into a board, and bring a towel to wipe the marker off.

The [Israeli jailers] started entering and searching the rooms a lot. One time they confiscated every pen and notebook. It’s a fight, and here is where we talk about education that is resistance, the education and intellectualization of someone who resists.

What is the role of female prisoners in the prisoners' movement, or in resistance from inside prison?  

Female prisoners are part of the prisoners' movement. [Male] prisoners would look at the female prisoners [and say], “No, we're scared for them, they don't need to take part in any escalatory collective action.” But that was also part of the feminist struggle: to declare that no, we, the female prisoners, are also a part of the prisoners' movement, and we can't be excluded or exceptionalized. This was an ongoing discussion, because the female prisoners wanted to practice their right to be part of the leadership of this movement. It is also a question of nidal (struggle) between a patriarchal mindset that looks towards the female prisoners a certain way—from their point of view it was a form of empathy towards women—but my point of view, women represent something different. We are also a part of this struggle, and so we are allowed to choose too, we don't want people to decide for us. 

How does the prison administration try to separate you [the female prisoners] from the other prisoners and the outside world?

For example, [the prison administration] tries to deny visitation. My last arrest was during COVID-19. Under the pretext of COVID, they implemented procedures to isolate us. There were no family visits, even though the jailers come and go. They greatly decreased lawyers’ visits; we stopped going to courts, so we basically stopped seeing anyone, really. We lived for [nearly] two years in almost complete isolation until they started allowing visits, but even then, they put restrictions. Family members had to be vaccinated—two or three doses—and only one person from the family could visit once every month.

What do you hope to gain from your research study?

The first thing is that there is an absence of studies about [Palestinian] female prisoners that researchers can benefit from. Second, it is an opportunity to create a database - and I believe that Birzeit is especially well-positioned for this, to document not just female prisoners, but also male prisoners - that encapsulates prisoners, not just from 1967, but also the prisoners that came before, even at the time of the British Mandate. The third aim, of course, is to shed light on the issue. At the end of the day, we are a colonized people, we have been through much imprisonment, so it is worth [documenting] these experiences.

How do you find that the university could be an incubator for discourse and research on prisoners , especially as it brings people who have no, or limited, relationship to these experiences with many former prisoners? And what is the role of this research in Palestinian society, or the Palestinian liberation movement?

We must go to the subject or concept of liberating education.[5] I believe that this type of education is fundamentally tied to participation, and teaching by participating. First of all, a large number of students are threatened by arrest, or [death]. So it is very important, if we want to establish the concept of a liberating education - which is very far from market education - our universities must serve as an example, because we are talking about universities that are under a form of colonial control that is practiced against the Palestinian people. The importance of universities is knowledge production, not just relaying knowledge. There are already such innovations in many universities, including Birzeit. For example, Professor Abdelrahim Al Shaikh’s course, Prison' Notebooks: The Palestinian Prisoners’ Movement.

One last question on the recent event that took place at Birzeit that you participated in - Gilboa 2021: The Tunnel and the Horizon[6] - how did it bring together diverse parts of Palestinian society to co-produce this knowledge?

I believe that the process of hosting the event itself - even more than what was spoken - captured this framework. We are talking about what it means to gain freedom, on the concept of freedom from the perspective of prisoners, and the [escape] itself was a form of collective participation in one event that took place across Palestine.

The workshop was an example of what can be a form of liberating education in practice. There was a huge audience, which in terms of the students, is important, because for some time now there has been less engagement in such events. So these huge numbers of students - who are diverse and come from different parts of society - the level of engagement, the silence during the event as everyone was trying to listen to the speakers… if only we could have been able to connect with the prisoners themselves, but at least they were secondhand witnesses to the event. I believe that these types of workshops are really important, and serve as an example of what should be expanded upon to develop a framework of the type of education we want here in Palestine.


[1] Comprador is a term for a person who acts as a native agent for foreign organizations, but which was later developed by Franz Fanon into the idea of a comprador class, or native elite, who took on the role of the colonial ruling class.

[2] The 2015 habba, Arabic for “surge” or “uprising,” began in Jerusalem in 2015 and was marked by individual acts of resistance, attacks, and protests.

[3] The organic intellectual, or المثقف العضوي in Arabic, is a concept developed by Antonio Gramsci, of intellectuals who, in contrast to classical “elite” intellectuals, are organically tied to the classes they represent, and are concerned for the conditions of their class as a whole.

[4] High school diploma.

[5] A concept developed by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1972.

[6] The event, hosted by Prof. Abdelrahim Al Shaikh for the course “Prison Notebooks,” featured the brothers of three of the six Palestinian prisoners from the famed Gilboa prison escape that took place in Sep. 2021, including Yahya Zubeidi, Ahmad Aradah, Sari Orabi, all of whom are also former prisoners. The roundtable was moderated by Khalida Jarrar.

About The Author: 

Ayah Kutmah is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights at Birzeit University. Ayah received her BA from the University of Michigan, and is a 2020-21 U.S. Fullbright ETA recipient to the occupied West Bank. 

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