On March 8, Palestinian women rallied in Gaza and Ramallah to mark International Women's Day. Activities were held in various cities, villages and refugee camps. Women in Palestine are united by a shared struggle, untold hardship, and also a legendary ability to withstand, survive and flourish under the harshest of circumstances.
Even those women who are unable to articulate a discourse that can be validated by western academic standards in fact represent an unparalleled model of women's empowerment. The human spirit can thrive in times of hardship, and Palestinian women have led the way of popular resistance to injustice. This is hardly a sentimental or poetic assertion, but a historic fact that goes back many decades.
Currently, Hana Shalabi is the lead symbol of the struggle and resistance of Palestinian women, if not women everywhere. Hana went on a hunger strike on February 16.
Hana's story is troublingly typical. She has spent 25 months under what Israel calls ‘administrative detention', a bizarre legal system that allows Israel to hold Palestinian political activists indefinitely and without charge or trial.
She was released in October 2011 as part of the prisoner exchange deal, only to be kidnapped by soldiers a few months later. "She was beaten, blindfolded and forcibly strip-searched and assaulted by a male Israeli soldier," the Palestinian Council of Human Rights Organisations said, as reported by Maan news agency (March 9).
Hana's hunger strike followed that of Khader Adnan, who recently ended the longest hunger strike ever staged by a Palestinian prisoner. Both Hana and Adnan had decided that enough was enough. Hundreds of Palestinians, including Hana's aging parents, joined her hunger strike and quest for freedom.
Indeed, neither Hana's case, nor that of Khader is isolated by any means. Charlotte Kates, who is active with The National Lawyers Guild, recently wrote, "Imprisonment is a fact of life for Palestinians; over 40 per cent of Palestinian men in the West Bank have spent time in Israeli detention or prisons. There are no Palestinian families that have not been touched by the scourge of mass imprisonment as a mechanism of suppression".
Gaza's Minister of Women's Affairs Jamila Al Shanti reportedly told Reuters TV that all Gazan women are heroines. "I tell this woman who is a heroine and is brave, whether she is a house wife or a working mother, she is a prisoner, a wife of a martyr, a mother of a martyr."
Hana and her mother are from the West Bank. No amount of political disunity or factional strife can separate these two entities.
However, the heroism of Palestinian women has no boundaries. Hanin Zoabi is one of the most dedicated fighters of equality and human rights. She is an MP in the Israeli Knesset, representing the Balad party. In 2010, she courageously took part in a Gaza freedom flotilla which attempted to break the Israeli siege on Gaza, along with hundreds of other Palestinian and international activists. She was arrested after Israel stormed the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, killing nine and wounding many more.
Since then, Hanin became the target of some of the most racist attacks by Israeli media, politicians and other MPs. The Knesset Ethics Committee maliciously stripped her of parliamentary privileges, as right-wing, religious and ultra-nationalist parties continue to scrutinise her every move. However, she remains steadfast and adamant that Israel must shed its ethnic-based identity and become a state of all its citizens. She demands equal rights for Palestinians, and the respect of international law by the Israeli government. This has turned her into a pariah in a state that has no room for criticism when it comes to its racial and militaristic agendas.
While political division has wreaked havoc on all aspects of Palestinian society, women, as per their historic role, continue to bridge the gap. In an interview with Reuters in Ramallah, Palestinian Liberation Organisation executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi said: "The women's movement, as a result of hard work and the support of open minded men, has been able to change the reality and to break the barriers and borders that had been set in place."
Unlike men, however, Palestinian women — especially those in traditional areas — tend to be silent fighters. Their role is often overlooked, and their daily struggle barely makes headlines. Nonetheless, they are the balancing core that keeps Palestinian society functioning despite occupation, infighting and an impossible number of challenges.
I recall with endless gratitude Umm Ali Al Shubaki, a woman from my old refugee camp in Gaza. Her strength of character was incomparable. During Israeli military raids of the camp, she literally ran after tanks and jeeps, ready to throw herself between the soldiers and any man or boy they were about to unlawfully apprehend. Although she was herself poor, she organised with other women in the camp to ensure that every house of a martyr or prisoner received the needed financial and social support. I last saw her 20 years ago. She was bandaged after being beaten up by Israeli soldiers.
Umm Ali, Hana and Hanin have been the targets of an intense attack on the very core of Palestinian society. Yet somehow they prevail, and they represent Palestinian society's strongest asset. They organise beyond party affiliation, political agendas or factional divides.
They give Palestine its name, its essence and together they knit its ever promising future.