Fighting on Two Fronts: Conversations with Palestinian Women

VOL. 8


No. 3
P. 26
Fighting on Two Fronts: Conversations with Palestinian Women


Woman must carry a gun.

Resistance slogan [1]

In the revolution we need women comrades who are intelligent and educated; we cannot reach victory flying on one wing.

Dr. Fatbi Arafat [2]


The salient characteristic of the women's movement in Palestine and in exile has been its identification, since the early part of this century, with the national movement against Zionism. It is this that distinguishes it from the women's movement in Egypt or in Western countries: among Palestinians there has never been a broadly-based grassroots movement for women's rights; the major efforts have been devoted to political, national ends, and the emancipation of women has come as an accidental consequence of their determination to carry out some political action, such as a demonstration, which entailed a flouting of conventional mores.

The Palestinian women who first demonstrated against Zionist immigration in 1921 were heavily veiled and rode in closed cars. Then, in 1929, two hundred delegates from all over the country attended the first Arab Women's Congress of Palestine. "It was a bold step to take in view of the traditional restrictions which, until then, prevented the Arab woman in Palestine from taking part in any movement which might expose her to the public eye." [3]

After this Congress, delegates asked to present a petition to the British High Commissioner's wife, since prevalent conventions made it improper for them to appear before a man; when the British refused this request, they decided that they "had no other alternative but... to ignore all traditional restrictions." [4] In 1933, "for the first time in history a Christian lady delivered a political speech from the pulpit of a mosque" [5] (the mosque of Omar facing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) in which she recalled the, Muslim and Christian conquerors of Jerusalem and compared Omar's honoured pledge to Sophronius with Allenby's broken word, and then a Muslim lady made a speech standing before Christ's tomb in the Holy Sepulchre.

Between these pioneering ladies and Leila Khaled, Dalal Mughrabi, and their contemporaries, lie four wars, a dozen major "incidents," the destruction of a society and the exile of a nation, yet they are recognizably the inspirers and progenitors of the women activists of today. Women still demonstrate, present petitions, make bandages and cook for the wounded, still die from bullet and bomb, as they did fifty years ago.

But in spite of these affinities there are two major differences in the world surrounding Palestinian women today. From 1919, when the first women's association was founded in Jerusalem, until 1969 when the Resistance organizations gained power in the Palestine Liberation Organization, Palestinian women had never had the backing of a national or governmental authority nor had they faced the responsibilities that this backing inevitably entails. The earlier groups were almost entirely apolitical, except for one small Marxist group, and they dealt with alien governments imposing a policy inimical to men and women alike. Since 1969, however, Palestinian women have been represented by the General Union of Palestinian Women (al-Ittihad al-'Am lil-Mara al-Filastiniya), an official section of the PLO, whose executive members represent the various political organizations that make up the PLO. The second difference comes from the significant spread of education. M. Mogannam considers that the British Mandatory government failed utterly to provide any education for girls, but since 1948 there has been an increasing number of girls who receive at least a basic education, as the following UNRWA statistics show. [6] In 1950-51, the first year for which figures are available, 11,110 girls attended elementary school, constituting 26.5 percent of the elementary school body. During the school year 1976-77 the figure had risen to 108,692 (48.1 percent). No girls attended preparatory school until 1953-54, when 62 students constituted 6.5 percent of the total. In 1976-77 the number was 38,187 (45.9 percent). The percentage success in the preparatory cycle examination was 85.9 percent, slightly higher than for the boys (84.3 percent). UNRWA has not run secondary schools since 1961, but there are some figures for refugee enrolment in state schools: 56 girls in 1955-56, 12,445 in 1976-77. In some cases these last figures are an estimate; they do not, in any case, include figures for Kuwait, where until recently the PLO ran its own schools, nor of course, do they apply to any Palestinians except those registered as refugees qualifying for educational aid, but it seems safe to assume that they are more than parallelled by the children of the more fortunate. Personal experience suggests that since 1948 virtually 100 percent of the daughters of the urban middle and upper classes have been expected to complete secondary school at the least.

In their daily lives Palestinian women suffer from the social harassment and legal discrimination imposed on their sisters in every Arab country. The laws, imposed by several countries that have signed the UN Charter of Human Rights, are: (a) the "honour" law provisions which in effect condone the murder of a woman by her husband or any male related to her if she is suspected or accused of illicit relations with a man; (b) the divorce laws; (c) the Shari'a law of inheritance which automatically accords the largest share to men; (d) the law which forbids a woman to travel outside the frontiers of her country without written permission from her husband or other male guardian. Every country of the Mashriq is guilty of imposing at least one, and sometimes all, of these national disgraces. The "honour" law has been abrogated once, by Abdul-Karim Qasim in Iraq, but it was restored when the regime changed.

Before 1948, Palestinian rural women enjoyed the relative freedom of a mountainous country; the necessity of sharing in the work of the fields freed them from the veil and allowed them to visit towns to sell agricultural produce. But after the exile two opposing trends appeared. One, based on the belief that their own ignorance had contributed to the disaster, was a determination to acquire as much formal education as possible. The other was a nostalgic longing to preserve the old society's structures and habits, which led to the metaphysical resurrection of the destroyed villages and urban neighbourhoods within the chaos of the refugee camps and to a strict enforcement of the old mores. In 1967 when the Resistance movement began in Jordan, and in 1969, when it opened up the camps in Lebanon, a new idea began, slowly, to percolate: that women constitute half the available manpower resource, one that a small, embattled nation cannot afford to waste. Women began to participate, publicly, in every crisis, from Wahdat camp in the 1970 Amman battles to the latest Israeli invasion in South Lebanon.

No individual can really be "typical of" or "represent" an entire nation, and the women in these conversations are, as individuals, very different from each other. Their ages range from 22 to 65, their backgrounds from birth in exile and life in a refugee camp to the upper reaches of pre-1948 Palestinian society. All but two have a university education. I have deliberately omitted religious affiliation, on principle. Nor did anyone consider it a decisive factor, but in the two cases where references have been spontaneously made to a confessional factor impinging on their lives these have been left. This is not by any means a sociological study - the only criterion of choice was active commitment to the national cause - but a reflection of a strand of the Palestinian experience.


My mother was a member of the Women's Union8 and very active and aware politically, so my first education in the struggle came from my home. I was born in Gaza and became involved as a child of nine when I joined a political party, or rather, the party joined me to them, as a sort of mascot, I suppose. I went to university in Egypt and then married and went to live in Amman where I joined various political parties. But really I was always looking for the resistance and I always believed that armed struggle was the only way to recover Palestine. When Fateh began I joined it, was trained and became a member of its militia. After the 1970 fighting in Jordan I came to Lebanon and I've been here since then.

I've never felt that there's any difference between the struggle of men and women, but men don't understand the women's problem: not a single political party has handled it properly or even understood its seriousness - the parties don't even have a women's section. After centuries of being treated as second-class citizens women have so many inferiority complexes, they lack confidence in themselves, they have no practice in life, life in the outside world. They need to be gradually prepared to work side by side with men because without this preparation they find men superior, and they lose heart. One often sees them at meetings, keeping silent although they are bursting with ideas, because they are afraid to express themselves. They don't realize that they have been absent for centuries and they just give up and go back in silence to their homes. You mustn't think that it is an insult to have a union for women as though we were a special, subhuman category; you must remember that it is the poor women who suffer. Throughout our history the Arabs despised work and left it to the Persians and Turks; women were the symbol of their vanity and allowed to work even less than the men. If Palestinian women can work now, this is because of the exile and changing social attitudes. But although our women had to go to work after 1948, and the man often left his family in order to work abroad, so that the children saw their mother as breadwinner and head of the house, still, it takes more than one generation to change centuries of social attitudes. And it also takes a lot of structured work. The PLO Charter talks of the equality of men and women and the elevation of woman's role in the revolution. Elevation! Even the word (tarqia) is wrong and suggests that they're going to teach her to play the piano or do watercolours or something equally "elevating"! In fact neither equality nor elevation have been brought about and there is no single organized programme to implement. Abu Ammar (Yasser Arafat) thinks women should go to the bases and fight and live there, but he doesn't understand that we have difficulty just getting women to leave their homes alone in broad daylight. One can't jump several stages just like that, it's as mistaken an idea as keeping women locked up at home. If she goes to the bases she'll be considered a prostitute. I remember when we started going to the camps in Jordan, in 1967-68, all the men used to greet us by lining the streets and chanting, ironically, "Here come the feda'iya." First of all we need legal equality, so that a man can be imprisoned for divorcing his wife just because she's a militant, or for beating her because she has joined the Women's Union. Of course I want women to go to the bases, but they must do it in their thousands, not as exceptional individuals. A vanguard that is too far in advance of the general experience will only delay the advance of the whole; the woman who goes to the bases now only builds a wall between herself and the others. One can't really talk of a general situation, because it's different in every one of the countries where Palestinians live - in Lebanon, for instance, attitudes have changed since the civil war.

In Palestinian literature the mother has always been the symbol, and played the role, of the land: strong, protective. The son leaves and returns, she is there, the recurring protection. And it is a fact that the Palestinian woman dies very young. Over the age of forty men outlive the women, unlike what is found in most other societies. This is simply because the women are worn out, overworked and exhausted physically and emotionally. But the younger writers and poets, like Khalid Abu-Khalid, Yahia Badawi and others, now depict two faces of woman: the strong mother, the home and the land, who encourages her son to fight, and the young woman, the beloved, who is herself a fighter and active in the struggle. These are new depictions of woman: to be loved she has to fight actively for her country; the mother is no longer just generous, making coffee and baking bread, but has become the strong one who celebrates her son's death in battle by songs and who goes side by side with him through the nights of terror. In my own poems I try and emphasize that I am a woman, although I don't feel a second-class citizen at all. I feel the Palestine cause is mine and the work is mine.

The GUPW is hewing a road through rock to change the position of women, to help them to live their own lives and to depend on themselves economically. There are three categories in the camps: women with large families and conventional husbands who do not allow them out of the house; the Union is very interested in this category and considers that it is there to serve them in particular. Then there are women who can leave their homes and move about in the camp and finally those who leave the camp and become cadres and instructors. The most emancipated women are the ones whose children are grown up, and the unmarried. There's no birth control programme in the camps because women want to replace the heavy Palestinian losses.

Before the civil war we offered literacy classes three times a week, which were open to women of all ages. Their men were opposed to this and we had to persuade them one by one. The women themselves were very hesitant and we used to persuade them too to spend at least an hour a week learning how to read and write in order to understand the political situation and to encourage their children to participate in the work of the Resistance. When things get bad and a war breaks out the women rush to classes because they feel enthusiastic and the husbands don't stand in their way during these times.

We've opened kindergartens in most of the camps (not all, because we lack the money) and supply the teachers we've trained and draw up the programmes. We've also opened a couple in Syria, but the need there is less urgent because the state runs free kindergartens itself. In addition we train women to do traditional Palestinian embroidery so that they can earn a living at home. Altogether we've trained about 5,000 in the various Union centres and have organized travelling exhibitions to sell their work in the Gulf and other Arab countries, and in Europe through solidarity committees. We hold political meetings in the camps to explain current events and problems. We don't have a regular publication but have published books, [9] posters and pamphlets. Then there's the foreign relations section which receives women's delegations, organizes conferences here and sends delegations abroad. We have links with Afro-Asian women's federations and are a member of the Women's International Democratic Federation.

The Union-run school, Beit Atfal al-Sumud, [10] was not in our programme, but was a debt we had to pay to the mothers who died in Tell Zaatar. We're trying to honour their memory by creating a new life in the face of attempts to eliminate the Palestinians.


We're from Qiryat Shaab near Acre but I was born after the exile, in Anjar. Later we moved to Burj Shemali, near Tyre, because the Armenians didn't want us to stay in Anjar, although they had come to it as refugees themselves. [11] Finally we moved to Tell Zaatar because my father found a job in one of the factories there. We were ten children, plus my father and mother; the rest of the family stayed in Palestine, but my father had fought in the resistance in 1948 and it was too dangerous for him to stay. My brother Omar was born during the exodus, in an olive grove, and later people sent my mother a sprig of the olive tree under which he was born, in Palestine, and she kept it and used to show it to us. At first life was very difficult in the camp, the rain used to sweep the tents away and we slept in the mud and in summer there was no water. We used to say "in winter we drown and in summer we burn." As children we always joined in the demonstrations on May 15 [12] and after the 1967 war my youngest brother, who was 13, went to Syria and joined Saiqa. Then after the battle of Karameh in 1968 Omar left to join Fateh and after the Resistance opened up the camps I also joined and learnt how to maintain and handle weapons and received first-aid training at a clinic. My father tried to forbid me to do this and beat me because by this time he had lost heart in the struggle and the hardness of the years had discouraged him. But my mother let me go. I joined the GUPW and went to its training camp located inside Tell Zaatar so that the girls could train by day and return to their homes at night. Then in the May 1973 fighting in Beirut, for the first time I slept - for a week - away from my family because we were so busy collecting food and keeping the fighters supplied. When I returned my father was beside himself with rage: the neighbours had spent their time telling him "Aha! Your daughter shows no respect for you!" I used to tell them, "But why? Other girls go out to work in factories or as servants, why shouldn't one work in the Resistance?" I find that people have changed a lot since then. During the Tell Zaatar siege everyone worked and no one stopped his daughter because everybody felt threatened by the danger and the neighbours couldn't gossip because all the women - mothers, daughters, wives and sisters - all worked. And the most traditional women's work, fetching the water, was often the most dangerous - women were killed while doing this night after night.

At the very start of the war my brother was killed in the bus on April 13. [13] He was 17 and studying for his baccalaureate at a Catholic school in Ashrafiya. And it was strange, but the priest who taught him came to our home to offer condolences and praise his memory. My mother didn't cry or say anything. I had to go to the Qarantina morgue to identify his body. During the siege I worked with the others making bread for the fighters - every night we made 200 kilos of dough. I also worked in the hospital, which was very difficult because we ran out of medical supplies and only had salt and water to use as a disinfectant. We made candles out of a huge block of wax that we found in a factory, and as long as there was water we washed the bandages, but after that we collected sheets from every house and used them. The situation was terrible. My niece, who was nine, died in the big shelter that was bombed, where so many were killed. And my sister gave birth on the steps of this shelter; there was no room below. People remembered 1948 and said, "We won't go. This is not our home but we'll die where we are, we won't move yet again." So when a man was killed the women used to bury him in the house, under the earth floor. In the end the men were dead and the women bore arms. When the camp fell my father refused to go down to Dekwaneh and give himself up to the Phalangists; he went off by the mountain road (which led to areas held by the Lebanese allies of the Palestinians) and died on the way. My mother had to go to Dekwaneh because she had the five smallest children with her - the eldest was eight. She put them into one of the lorries that were evacuating us, but when she tried to get on herself the driver said there was no more room. Finally she reached the Museum (the crossover point in the divided city) and there she waited. The children never came. Later she heard that four of them had died suffocated under the crush of bodies in the lorry and that Sonia, who was four, had scrambled out of the lorry, saying she couldn't breathe, and had disappeared. We never saw her again. I stayed in the camp hospital with the doctors and wounded and the stench. When the Chamounists and Phalangists came they killed some of the wounded on the spot; others were carried out on stretchers. Later Dr. Abdul-Aziz and we nurses followed as hostages. On the path down we passed the stretchers and saw the slaughtered wounded, many of them mutilated. The Phalangists began arguing, some wanted to kill us on the spot, others to take us off for questioning. At last they took us to a Lebanese Red Cross office and then somewhere else to be questioned and held. We were saved by an International Red Cross car that passed by; there was a girl in it who knew us from the hospital and she insisted on taking us with her. I reached the Arab University at midnight, having left Tell Zaatar at 10:30 in the morning, and there I met a comrade who told me my family was alright (which wasn't true, but he wanted to comfort me) and who gave me the key to his apartment. I went there and fell down and slept. Now my mother lives in Burj Shemali and I stayed in Beirut and worked first at registering the children of all who died and then in the school the GUPW set up for them and then I married. I'm 27 now and in charge of supplies for the orphans' school, Beit Atfal al-Sumud.

I think that at least half of the new generation has changed in their attitude to women. The Resistance only came to the camps in 1969, it's not yet 10 years, and the road is very long. If a woman doesn't even work outside the home, how can she work in the revolution? She has to persist and persuade her family, but things have changed already, in less than 10 years.


I'm from Haifa but I was born in Libya where my father went to work and I came to Lebanon when I was six. In 1969, when I was at secondary school, we began to hear the news from Jordan and to feel that even if we were only schoolgirls we ought to help the Resistance in some way. So a group of us went to the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) and asked them to assign us some job and they sent us out putting up posters, distributing leaflets and so on. Later on I joined Fateh and got some military training. My family were very opposed to my sleeping away from home when I was sent to the South for a week's training, but things have changed and now I feel thoroughly liberated from the pressures of the home and what the neighbours say. Within the movement I feel the old barriers have been completely swept away and that I'm really treated as an equal.

We are used in different ways just because we're women; for instance, we're sent as couriers more than men because in our society people are less likely to search or even suspect a woman, but I think we should recognize our situation and exploit it for the time being. We shouldn't despise certain kinds of work just because they have traditionally been considered women's work. For example, during the two-year war I learned the importance of social work, and how essential it is for us if we want people to support the Palestinian movement: hungry and abandoned people won't support us, but on the contrary they'll blame us for their sufferings. In 1975 I used to visit the wounded in the Arab University hospital, and realized that the wounded need more than medical care, they need attention as human beings. Once a wounded woman was brought in; she was terrified and kept on sobbing and screaming, "What has it got to do with me?" I talked to her a bit, and at last she showed me what she was holding in her clenched fist - a Lebanese lira note - and said, "I just went out to buy bread, what does it have to do with me? Why shoot me? Now all my babies are alone in the house and they don't even know where I am." She was Jewish, from Wadi Abu-Jamil. [15] I went to her house there and took some food and brought the elder children to the hospital to reassure her and so we got to know her Jewish neighbours and helped them.

I studied agriculture at the American University of Beirut because I want to do extension work in the South. Samed16 started a project there and put me in charge of it, not so much to introduce new techniques as to improve current ones. Of course, there were some problems for a woman in such a job in that part of the country: at first people couldn't imagine that this girl in dungarees and boots was really in charge. I remember when the fertilizer agent came on his first appointment, he chatted to me for a bit and then said: "Well, down to business now: where's your father?" But the workers accepted me. I was very careful how I talked to them; I always respected the pride of Arab men and never, for instance, criticized the foreman in any way in front of other men. One can't just shut one's eyes and go forging ahead regardless; one has to take the general situation into account. I don't feel being a woman is to be different but I do bear certain things in mind and I do take care. I think women are always responsible for the way a relationship with a man develops and it is up to the woman to define the way she wants him to behave. When I hear complaints about the way some man has talked or behaved I feel the woman is to blame. All my friends are men and they treat me as an equal. It's no good wearing tight dresses or short skirts and giggling all the time and then turning round and complaining that men talk about one.

I'm 23 and early last year I married a man from the movement. He helps me in the house when I'm tired, but we don't share the housework on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes I tell him there's no lunch cooked or something and he doesn't nag and ask why I haven't done the work. His working hours are much longer than mine (our project in the South was suspended after the Israeli invasion in March 1978) so it's only fair that I should look after the housework. And after this baby is born I may stop working altogether for three or four years, for financial as well as social reasons. There's no point continuing to work and neglecting the child if I have to pay someone almost as much to look after the child as I earn myself. But I'm perfectly content in my own situation; I know there are many who are not, but things are changing. The pendulum may swing from one extreme to another and this may be what we are witnessing right now, a reaction to the freedom of a few years ago, but it's only natural, and in the end it will come to rest in the centre.


My father knew more about the Zionist movement, back in Haifa in the 1920's, than we do now. As a child I used to sit up at night and listen to him talking to his friends and ask questions and when I was eight or nine I used to join the demonstrations on Balfour Day, without understanding anything. Then Izzeddin Qassam [17] came to the schools to mobilize us. He found the ground prepared in Haifa and organized a group of schoolgirls and we worked for him during the Revolt. I had some training with a rifle but I never fought. Mainly we prepared food and took it to the fighters because the men couldn't move around as freely as we could, and we acted as couriers and collected money for the movement. My family encouraged me because they believed in the cause; in fact as long as we were involved in the struggle no one ever criticized us, although we were in our teens and roamed around quite freely. Even when I went to a village I didn't know and was taken by a guide - a man whom I also didn't know - to the caves to deliver a message, even then no one thought anything of it; on the contrary, the peasant women would salute you if they saw you were in the movement. It was that political work that opened my eyes to the social problems of our country. Time and again we would go to a house to collect money and the woman would say: "You'll have to come back. I have to ask my husband first." We would ask why, since we knew she had plenty of money available. "Yes, but my money can only be spent on housekeeping, and the cause is nothing to do with the house and not my concern."

In 1947, when the partition plan was passed at the UN, we established the Amin Hospital in Haifa and began working with the Red Crescent Society, in preparation for the war that was coming. Sadej Nassar was the moving spirit in this and in the whole women's movement. She always maintained that a popular assise was essential if women were really to liberate themselves; it could never be achieved by a few upper class women doing social work. [18]

Well, the war came. We had very little money in the Women's Union (al-Ittihad al-Nissa'i). I remember we used to train with guns in the backyard of my house because it was the biggest space we could use free. But although we trained, we never used the arms. The situation got worse and worse - lack of supplies, primitive weapons, snipers, terrorization of the civilian population. People go on now about the horrors of the civil war in Lebanon, but Haifa was much worse. The Zionists used to demolish entire buildings with gelignite, with all the people inside, while in Beirut a rocket wrecks one floor but leaves the building standing. There was a lot of individual bravery in Haifa, I remember some acts of outstanding courage, but there was no structure, no organization; the civilians were left to their own resources and the individual fighters acted on their own. Then the Arab armies took over and I took my children to Lebanon. Those of us from the Women's Union who met up again began helping with the refugees. In Tyre we used to find babies washed up on the seashore. King Abdullah wouldn't allow us to continue our work in Jordan unless we changed our name to the Jordanian Women's Union, so in 1951 we established the Union in Lebanon. Our largest project was the orphanage school in the mountains, Beit Is'ad al-Tufula, which has 340 children.

There's no doubt that the Resistance has improved the lot of women since 1969. The Palestinian used to be much more advanced in his own country and women were independent and freer than women in Syria or Egypt or Iraq, but after 1948 this changed: in the camps the Palestinian became ultra-strict, even fanatic, about the "honour" of his women. Perhaps this was because he had lost everything that gave his life meaning, and "honour" was the only possession remaining to him.

'ABIR [19]

When I was 20 I -started working as a teacher in a village near Irbid in Jordan where my family had settled after they were driven out of Haifa in 1948. My parents were pretty backward and I led the ordinary life of most girls around me and was brought up to marry and stay at home, bringing up the children. But I was good at school, came out among the top ten students in Jordan, and decided to go to university. Then my family arranged an engagement for me; I was young and completely unaware socially, but I didn't like my fiancé because he wanted me to stop studying and leave the university. And he kept on trying to impose another personality on me telling me how to dress and how to do my hair and this and that, as though I had no existence of my own. So I refused to marry him and went to court to get the contract [20] annulled on the grounds that I was being forced into it. When I became a teacher I met others who were members of the Baath party, and one colleague in particular, who was in the Arab Nationalist Movement, had a great influence over me and taught me about the political situation. I became strongly pro-Abdul-Nasser and took part in the 1955 demonstrations against the Baghdad Pact and talked to my pupils as much as I could about politics. After the battle of Karameh in March 1968, I joined Fateh and received military training. I spent the battles of 1970 at a military base, sleeping there - at that stage families didn't protest against this. But before it was different. I remember once I returned home after 10 days at a base, stinking, filthy, longing only for a bath and a change of clothes, and my father gave me the most awful scolding. "Where have you been? In America or what? What do you think you are? What do you think we are?" And so on and so on. He used to shout at me but other fathers beat their daughters, locked them up and even threatened to kill them, so I was lucky. But when the fighting was on in September all the girls used to sleep away from home because it was too dangerous to come home every night, so their families had to accept it. Yet when the fighting ended it was back to the old story, home before eight o'clock at night. In October the Jordanian secret police began their investigations in Amman but they didn't come to Irbid, which remained very revolutionary until the army tanks entered the town after the Jerash battles in the spring of 1971. Then I was arrested and questioned but they didn't find any arms because I had already buried them in the garden. I suppose they're still there and one day some farmer will find them. Then I was demoted and transferred from teaching Arabic literature to secondary school students and sent to a kindergarten. Finally I escaped and went to Damascus which was full of Palestinians who had fled the battles. The PLO arranged with the Libyan government to send teachers to Libya as we all needed work and I went to Benghazi. For me this was a real exile. The Palestinian teachers were scattered and unorganized; there was no real PLO presence and people weren't interested in the problem. I spent a year there but I was miserable, feeling cut off, an exile in an Arab country. After a year I resigned, returned to Damascus and then I came to Beirut, where I got my higher education certificate and rejoined my family who had sold their house in Irbid and moved to Lebanon. I was in a state of acute depression because of the events in Jordan and then the shock of Libyan ignorance; I couldn't pull myself together. In 1973 I joined the GUPW and did hospital work during the attacks on the camps in May. Now I'm running a Union project for the bereaved wives and daughters of Tell Zaatar. In Damour alone there are 400 families headed by a woman - all the men are dead. Seventy percent of these women are between 18 and 30 years old and the average size of a family is eight persons. Many are Lebanese, but all are helped by the PLO, which assumes responsibility for the dependents of anyone who dies for the sake of Palestine, including those killed by the Israelis in the South. There are 8,000 widows and fatherless daughters from the Lebanese civil war alone. The Union programme trains women to earn their living by teaching sewing, traditional embroidery, accountancy, typing and secretarial work, languages (English and French) and social services. We also train kindergarten teachers.

Last year I married my cousin, who is three years younger than I am and doesn't have a university education but he is a member of the movement. I love my freedom and I've talked to him about it until he understood what I feel. We've agreed not to have children, neither of us being very young. I don't feel I can sit at home looking after an infant, but we may adopt a three- or four-year old from Tell Zaatar. After all, we got married to live with each other, to be together, not to found a family, but we haven't told his family about this because they never liked me. His sister used to say, "She's a woman, not a girl," as though a sexual relation really changes one's essence, as though a virgin were a separate species of humankind. In fact, we didn't have a wedding party or even tell people that we were married; it wasn't their business. But his family used to go on about me and tell me I was preventing him from marrying until I told them, "The truth is that we are married." My mother was immensely relieved because she could tell the neighbours that I had settled down at last.

All of us women are brought up in a certain way and this affects every one of us. I have progressive ideas but I can't implement them fully because of my upbringing. I can't be too open in discussion with men because they may misinterpret what I say, even though I've received military training and fought in battles. Men are my comrades but deep down they don't believe I'm really their equal. Socially we haven't caught up with our political development - we're all walking on an advanced political leg and dragging a backward social leg behind, impeded and crippled. I'm 36 and I haven't yet met a man who has really shaken off the old conventions about women. I feel that an Arab woman has to marry if she wants to live in society. We can't live freely on our own; even my brother, who's a revolutionary, wouldn't and couldn't accept my being involved with a man, so in this social situation you are forced to marry if you want to relax and be happy. One can't live with someone in secret and if you do it openly everybody else changes in their relations toward you. And the leaders are hypocritical about it all. At public meetings they talk about liberating women but they really believe, and some of them say it openly, that a woman does her revolutionary duty by ironing her husband's shirts, cooking his dinner and providing a cosy and restful ambiance for the warrior.


I was born in Amman in 1945 and from the age of 12 I was determined to go abroad, to Paris or Italy, to study art. I started drawing then, but I didn't dare tell my father, and I wanted to live abroad because in Jordan there was no art at all then, one was stifled. This was my reason, not the oppression of women that f saw around me; from the time I was at school I had refused to accept this. I didn't talk about it but I did as I saw fit, I went for walks by myself and I drew, although my family thought this was an ignoble thing for a woman to do. But actions change the world surrounding us, and after I left my younger sister actually went to Paris to study medicine with my father's permission. Medicine! When I was 18 I took all my drawings and went to visit my brother in Beirut. There I exhibited at the Café de la Presse and most of the drawings were sold and I had enough money to buy my passage by ship and I went to Paris without telling my parents. When I got there I wrote a very long philosophical letter to my father about the meaning and importance of art and he finally accepted what I had done. I earned my keep by working in the Arabic-service radio and babysitting and all the odd jobs students do and applied to enter the sculpture section of the Beaux- Arts. Until I went to Paris I knew nothing of sculpture, which wasn't taught at all in Jordan, but I had always preferred black-and-white drawings to colour and when I went to the Louvre and saw the Egyptian and Sumerian statues I knew that I wanted to do sculpture. They were a bit doubtful about it at the Beaux-Arts, as I had never tried it, but I sat for the examination and came third out of the 300-400 applicants, so they accepted me. A year and a half later when I told my family that I was doing sculpture they said, "Don't tell father, he will be appalled," because my father is a religious teacher (sheikh) and a hajj and of course sculpture is forbidden in Islam. So I told him it was abstract sculpture and had nothing to do with living forms.

I had never been involved or interested in politics until May 1968 in Paris when I saw how a popular movement starts - and ends. I saw the contrast between a city of the future, revolutionary, alive, and a city controlled by police. So I began to think it over and I thought that a revolution should be permanent, a continuous process, and that one should be in one's own country, on one's own earth, and that it was senseless for a foreigner to be involved in a Parisian movement. So in 1968 I returned to Jordan. I decided that the best way to serve the revolution was to go to a refugee camp and work with the children, not to sit in Amman and paint and sculpt martial subjects. So after greeting my parents I went to Baqaa [22] where I lived, off and on, for eight months. It was there that I met the Resistance.

I came from a bourgeois background and knew its outlook and I felt that the PFLP's political analysis was genuine and correct: the masses were the ones who would really work and an Arab revolution was a prerequisite to solving the Palestine problem. So I joined them. Armed struggle is one form of expression of political and revolutionary thought, just as art is. People fight in order to say something, just as they paint to do something, and one can't draw a line between these forms of self-expression. But my permanent work is art, not fighting, although I don't refuse to do military work. Art and literature and poetry are not enough to support a revolution, however; one has to do other things as well, and I did. One of these actions got me arrested in Copenhagen in 1969 - I spent a month in prison there and then was expelled - but they were secret and I still can't talk about them.

At any rate, the work in Baqaa continued until the children had produced enough paintings to hold an exhibition in the camp. People had wanted to hold it in Amman but I said no, let people come to the camp and see what it has produced, why should the camp go to Amman? I went to the surrounding villages and invited the villagers to the camp - this was one of the first contacts between Jordanians and Palestinians. In 1969 we exhibited the paintings in Stockholm and then in Beirut, Paris, Amsterdam and Japan. A book of these paintings was published in 1970. [23] I planned to establish a permanent atelier in the camp but the September massacres put an end to all that.

The Resistance has changed women's position enormously in the past ten years. In Baqaa in 1968 most families refused to let their girls go to training sessions or even to political meetings because it was all so new and startling. Even the fighters thought it a disgrace to allow their sisters to attend meetings. The PFLP treated me at the beginning as a special case because at first I was the only woman, but then they began to realize that other women could and should join. The refugee woman was more liberated than the middle class Amman woman - she really worked for the Resistance. The same is true in Lebanon now - there are lots of girls in the training camps and fighting in Shiyah and in the South. But women have to be aware of what they want for themselves - it's actions that break the mold, not words. It's not enough to be "liberated," one has to be productive as well.

In 1972 I left the PFLP, took up sculpture again and went abroad and exhibited in Paris, because I couldn't return to Amman where everything had changed and I hated Beirut. But finally I came back to live in Beirut and taught art in the camps and worked on my own, and later as an illustrator for Filastin al-Thawra. [24] Fateh is important because it's a wide-based national movement, not a political party. I haven't changed my political ideas and I haven't been asked to. Anyway, it's really the PLO that I work for now. I'm in charge of the Plastic Arts section - the only woman running a department in the PLO. Palestinian artists are so separated from one another, they live in different countries and there has never been any coming together, any pooling of ideas or work in common. Every one works alone, as much as he or she can, according to his or her isolated ability. I think that we must bring together all these potentialities and give them the encouragement they need. Most of the best work that has been done in the Arab world has been about Palestine, there's great support and solidarity among artists. We started our activities with an international exhibition, to which artists and galleries from all over the world contributed works. I had hoped to interest about 50 painters and got 200. There was tremendous enthusiasm for our plan to establish a Palestinian museum of modern art and we were given 400 paintings and sculptures. With this substantial nucleus we want to found a museum, which for the moment will have to be in Beirut, but ultimately in Palestine. In January 1979 we held an exhibition of posters and are collecting all the posters produced on Palestine to keep in our archives and at the end of the year we will hold an exhibition of Palestinian painters in Moscow. We want to help all Palestinian artists, wherever they are, so that they don't feel abandoned and alone. A first step is to publish books on their work; the first to appear will be on the Moscow exhibition, a second on the naif painter from Tell Zaatar, Ibrahim Ghannam, and a third on artists in the occupied territories.


Six years ago, when I was a student, my family used to object very strongly when I took part in demonstrations, but their opposition got worn down bit by bit because they were really only worried about what the neighbours would say. And the neighbours were given so many subjects of conversation, first by my joining in demonstrations, then by my being wounded, then arrested, that at last my family gave up and now they don't worry when I sleep away from home. Also I'm financially independent now and if I could find a cheap place I would live on my own.

I first became involved in the women's question in 1974, when about 50 girl students, who were semi-involved in politics, began to work on it with the help and encouragement of Dar al-Fan. [26] But when the civil war broke out in 1975 they decided that social problems were not important and went off to fight. I think this was a mistake and that the women's problem is inextricably related to everything else that's wrong. (For instance, in a poorer suburb of Beirut like Shiyah girls were forbidden to join in the struggle, simply because they were girls, not for any political reasons.) At any rate, at the beginning of the civil war we tried to bring women together to discuss the problem, but this failed. The war was very difficult for me because I was living in Ras Beirut and working and sleeping in Shiyah and I couldn't study things or think clearly. There was danger and fighting and confusion. I was fighting in a small Trotskyist organization, and the men in it tried to push me forward: "Why are you sitting passive? It's your problem, not ours." After one year of war Shiyah was virtually empty, the only girls there were fighters who had left their families, but who had acted as individuals, not as part of a larger social transformation. I concentrated on political problems but this was a mistake. The women's problem is the most difficult one facing us and it's so difficult that one gives up because one feels that all the efforts one makes are useless, they collapse under the inertia all round. We once tried to do something about birth control - got films from the UN family planning office and a woman doctor to give explanations. Some of the women agreed that they were worn out - "God damn all these children" - but most were frightened that the pill would harm them or that their husbands would change toward them. If I could I would found a sort of popular club cum social centre for women in a poor quarter and teach hygiene, literacy, politics, and so on, but unless one has a big organization to back one it's impossible. And in the political organizations they don't think about the situation of women, they're only interested in recruiting women as members for their respective organizations. Still, one of the first steps is for girls to become politicized, because then they gradually start thinking about their situation as women.

When the Israelis invaded the South in March 1978, my organization sent me to run a military base there. They began by appointing me assistant to the man responsible for the base and that made the introduction easier because the men got used to me giving orders. They were very liberated but all the same I was surprised when they accepted me so easily - perhaps it helped that it was night when I first arrived and I couldn't see the expressions on their faces. I was in charge of the base for ten days, assigning guard duties, organizing supplies, reconnoitring the terrain, and so on. At first I was frightened of the responsibility, but I forced myself to do more than I really could, to prove myself, because I know that if a woman doesn't show herself more capable and braver than others, no one will respect her. I liked the time in the South so much and was greatly encouraged by my success. In Shiyah the men are very petit-bourgeois and macho and find it very difficult to accept a woman over them. Whenever I gave an order to a man I knew he would go home and brood about it all night, even if he said nothing. But in the South it was different. Also what helped was that we were small groups, never more than fifteen and usually less, which wasn't enough for social attitudes to harden. And I was careful about my behaviour. For instance, if someone made a joke I would laugh a little, not too much, because men take these trivia seriously and might think I was laughing because I liked the man who had told the joke. So my laughter was always balanced and held in rein, and I would never greet an acquaintance too warmly, and all the other little details that matter. Some of the other girls in the South would exaggerate a bit and then there would be trouble; one has to take care and remember that attitudes are deeply ingrained however progressive the political ideas may be. When my organization appointed me they sent another woman to the base with me. They didn't want me to go alone. But there were quite a few women fighting in the South - I know that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) had five there and I heard there were others.

I'm a Palestinian, from Acre, but I work with a Lebanese organization because I wanted to fight, not sit in an office. In 1973, when I was 17, I joined a PFLP workcamp but all that happened was that I got my hands joined a PFLP workcamp but all that happened was that I got my hands calloused digging and then I returned to university. I didn't want to play at it and to boast of having work-hardened hands; I wanted to be really part of a refugee camp, not just be taken in and out, and then returned to my "proper place." And the PFLP is one of the most radical and least bureaucratic organizations.... So I work in Shiyah now - anyway I consider it's all one and the same cause, there's no difference.

The situation of women is the most difficult of all the problems facing us and it's going to take the longest to solve.


Soraya Antonius was formerly Editor of the Middle East Forum and has served on special committees of the General Union of Palestinian Women.



Research and scholarship requires investment. Generous contributions from people like you allow us to provide invaluable resources as a public good. Make a tax-deductible donation today!




1 A Palestinian Resistance slogan that first became widespread in 1969-70.

2 Dr. Fathi Arafat, Majallat al-Hilal al-Ahmar al-Filastini, No. 50 (January 1978), p. 18.

3 Matiel E.T. Mogannam, The Arab Woman and the Palestine Problem (London: Herbert Joseph, 1937), p. 70.

4 Ibid., p. 74.

5 Ibid., p. 95.

6 UNRWA-Unesco Department of Education, Statistical Yearbook 1976-77 (Beirut, 1978), No. 13, pp. 35, 68, 80, 93.

7 May Sayigh is well-known as a poet in the Arab world. Her first book, Iklil al-Shawk (Crown of Thorns), was published in 1968. In 1971, after the battles in Jordan, she published QasaidManqusba 'ala-Masalat al-Asbrafiya (Songs Engraved on the Ashrafiya Memorial). She later published Qasaid Hub li-Ismin Mutarad (Love Songs to a Name Pursued) in 1973 and 'An al-Dumu' wal-Farab al-Ati (On Tears and Future Joy) in 1975. She is the vice-president of the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW).

8 The Arab Palestinian Women's Union (al-Ittihad al-Nissa'i al-'Arabi al-Filastini) was founded in 1921 and still exists in Lebanon and the occupied territories. It is independent of the PLO and the GUPW.

9 Including Tell Zaatar al-Shabeed wal-Shabid (Beirut, 1977) and Marie-Rose Bulos, Shabada min Jirab al-Watan (Beirut, 1974).

10 The "Home of the Children of Steadfastness" was set up after the 1976 siege and massacre of Tell Zaatar to provide an emotional and psychological haven for Palestinian and Lebanese children whose families had been killed. It has expanded since the civil war to accommodate 120 children, but financial problems prevent it from accepting all the dozens of applicants.

11 Anjar is a town in central Lebanon largely inhabited by Armenians who fled from Turkey in the 1920's.

12 The date of the establishment of Israel.

13 The incident which marked the formal beginning of the Lebanese civil war, when Phalangists ambushed a busload of Palestinians returning to their camp.

14 Pseudonym.

15 A Beirut quarter that includes the Orthodox synagogue and a large Jewish school.

16 A PLO organization that was founded to provide work for Resistance orphans and disabled in its factories and farms.

17 Leader of the Palestinian Revolt, killed in 1935.

18 Sadej Nassar was the first known Palestinian woman to marry a man of a different religion. She edited the newspaper al-Carmel, actively supported the 1930's Palestinian Revolt and was imprisoned by the British. She died in exile in the 1970's.

19 Pseudonym.

20 In Islam the engagement contract has the legal force of marriage, though a girl is considered as engaged so long as she lives in her parents' home.

21 Mona Saudi is a Jordanian but she has been more committed to the Palestinian cause than many Palestinian women. She has published a collection of her poems and drawings, Ru'ya Ula (First Visions), (Beirut, 1972). English translations of some of her poems appeared in Women of the Fertile Crescent, edited by Kamal Boullata (Washington, 1979).

22 The biggest camp established after the 1967 war, when the Israelis drove out the refugees of the 1948 war from the West Bank. Baqaa housed 50,000 people in tents for a year and a half on the icy plateau not far from Amman. Primitive housing units were built by the end of 1968.

23 In Time of War: Children Testify (Beirut) is a remarkable collection of children's paintings and their accounts of their experiences in the 1967 war and in the refugee camp. It was published in Arabic, French and English.

24 A PLO weekly published in Beirut.

25 Pseudonym.

26 A cultural club in Beirut.