In this article, I show how feminist narratives on the significance of the Palestinian/Israeli feminist dialogue displaces the question of Palestine, shifting the focus from the settler-colonial nature of Israel to one of “conflict resolution” and “peace-building,” as if conflict takes place between two equal powers. It is not the dialogue itself that I question; it is the false and disabling symmetry designated to both sides. Rejecting this narrative means resisting the notion that such dialogue and conflict resolution initiatives attempt to construct: a notion of a shift or transition not conceptualized within the context of a struggle against colonialism. Although I do not doubt some feminists’ good intentions, my aim here is to bring the perspectives of Palestinian refugee feminists into the narrative as well as to pose questions, not about the dialogue itself, but about the conditions and terms under which this dialogue is proposed, and indeed, imposed.
I will begin by providing examples drawn from a number of events I have attended and conversations I have had with feminists at international conferences. Thereafter I will try to unpack some of the arguments made and questions posed during these conversations.
In July 2015, I was invited—in my capacity as a member of the Jordanian Women’s Union (JWU)—to take part in a meeting of a legal working group on violence against women (VAW) in Washington DC. On the meeting’s opening day, I learned that a representative of Israel was also in attendance. As the Jordanian women’s movement has been very active in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Campaign (BDS) and has opposed participating in conferences that include official representatives of Israel for decades, I protested Israel’s representation at the meeting and objected to not being informed in advance. I informed the organizers and left the meeting.
In 2012 and 2017, I took part in Jordan’s NGO delegation to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee’s review of Jordan’s Periodic report. Knowing there was, and still is, an Israeli member of the CEDAW Committee, the delegation informed the organizers of our position against normalized relations with Israel and asked for that member not to engage us in any discussion of Jordanian women’s rights. The delegation also complained about the irony of an Israeli representative sitting on a committee that questions states on their implementation of women’s rights, whilst Israel commits all types of targeted atrocities against women in Palestine.
In 2008, I and another Palestinian activist participated in a conference in the Netherlands on women’s rights in the Middle East. The Palestinian activist presented a film on so-called honor crimes in the West Bank, and the audience’s reaction and questions mainly focused on the patriarchal nature of Palestinian society. In my speech, however, I argued against the deceptive equivalence given to patriarchy and occupation in the discussion of the film, which infuriated some participants.
At each of these events, I had many discussions with other feminists, both academics and activists. Such discussions would often include statements and questions such as: “I think feminists need to distance themselves from male politics and nationalist accounts of narrow identities, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is so complex and vexing”; “We need to overcome our differences to work together in achieving gender equality and end VAW”; “There are many challenges ahead of us, as women, we need to engage in dialogue with each other and believe in co-existence.”
I will try now to problematize and unpack some of the questions posed during these conversations by exploring a few counterpoints, as follows:
Firstly, organizing meetings that include both Israelis and Palestinians—or Jordanians or any other Arab nationalities (as many feminists in the region take a similar stand on the issue of normalization)—means that either the organizers do not understand the politics of the region and the context of women’s activism, or are trying to impose the politics of normalization on Arab feminists. Needless to say, both explanations are extremely problematic. Over the summer, I asked several activists about their views on this dialogue, and why they are against it. Nadia Shamroukh, for example, who has experienced isolation at international conferences due to her position against normalization, told me that “This is the only means of resistance left to us. What else can we do as Palestinian refugee women?” So, the act of not speaking, in and of itself, is a form of resistance.
Secondly, to emphasize differences rather than the relation between the colonizer and the colonized certainly conveys a skewed message of the struggle. In the Washington meeting, the representative of the settler-colonial state of Israel and I might not have had any differences in understanding domestic violence, but we are undoubtedly positioned differently in the power structure. I am a Palestinian refugee, born and raised in a camp; the daughter of a Palestinian mother who abandoned her dream of becoming a teacher when she was forced to leave her home in 1949; the daughter of a mother who spent years moving from one camp to another, who faced violence and exploitation as a result of her uprooting and the killing of her father and two brothers in 1948 by the Zionist militia. On the other hand, the representative is herself a settler, who voluntarily left England and decided to move to Israel. While I am a refugee, she holds dual Israeli and British citizenship. While she and other settlers live in Palestinian cities, villages, and towns, my mother—along with millions of Palestinians—still lives in a refugee camp in Jordan. She is treated as a second-class citizen and deprived of all rights, not only as a woman, but also as a human being. Therefore, the issue is not about differences, it is fundamentally about power politics: for my family, my mother’s—and indeed my own—continuous suffering is very personal. If feminists consider that the “personal is political,” why should it not be true for Palestinian feminists?
Thirdly, speaking of women’s solidarity—regardless of the speaker’s position in the power structure—is rather an attempt to essentialize women and their rights, to universalize and depoliticize women’s struggles for equality. So, the question here is: is being a woman and/or a feminist enough basis for dialogue? It surely cannot be.
The comment related to challenges shows that colonialism is not considered a challenge and, hence, its impact on VAW is not adequately recognized, if recognized at all. To speak of challenges, one needs to accept, as Said described, “the politics of blame, blame of culture and religion or state” policies, which are seen as related to culture but not political. If one accepts these conditions, they will be welcomed, celebrated and may be rewarded; but, if they instead speak of colonialism and imperialism, they will only become isolated at the international level, but they may also face outright accusations of being anti-peace and anti-dialogue.
Fourthly, the equivalence given to patriarchy and occupation—taking into account Kandiyoti’s conceptualization of patriarchy as a non-monolithic way of looking at male domination—forces us to confront the following question: would we have the same type of patriarchy if Palestinians still lived in their homes rather than in a colonial context as second-class citizens in Palestine, in the big prisons of Gaza and what they call West Bank, and in the camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and elsewhere? I will use some examples from my mother’s life in her village, Iraq al-Manshieh, prior to 1948 to explain my point. Through my mother and grandmother’s retelling of their memories, I did not see women as oppressed. My grandmother was not only a housewife, she also managed the family store, and my mother was in year three at school. Women living in villages were not illiterate, and both my grandparents shared the responsibility of working in the field. My mother used to wear a shasheh (head scarf), which is a very transparent piece of cloth, and my uncles used to wear the same type of cloth as koffyeh—both men and women covered their heads. My mother had never heard of a woman being killed for the sake of honor during that time, and I trust what my grandmother once said to me in this regard: “It all started after the Deir Yasein massacre and the mass rape of women.” Patriarchy certainly existed before 1948, but its nature, scope, and constraints have certainly varied drastically within a context of settler colonialism.
Fifthly, on the issue of Palestinian identity and feminism being about anti-nationalism, for Palestinians being a Palestinian is a necessity, not a choice. With regards to nationalism in the context of Palestine, Judith Butler stated: “It makes sense to be opposed to Zionist forms of nationalism, but do we want to oppose the nationalism of those who have yet to see a state, of the Palestinians who are still seeking to gather a nation, to establish a nation-state for the first time and without firm international support? To this most urgent question I want to suggest that we try to think for a moment not only about whether all nationalisms are the same (they surely are not), but what we might mean by nation.”
My identity as a Palestinian refugee is a form of being, it is not the narrow sense of nationalism but a form of being as well as belonging to a just cause. If I untied my Palestinian identity from my life experience, I would be left only with the refugee experience, configured solely on the daily misery of life in the camp, without any connection to the past. Without this past, I cannot explain the type of existence I have in the present nor define my hopes for future. The identity of Palestine is, hence, what allows us as refugees to make sense of our life conditions; it turns misery into hope, it transforms despair into aspirations and, most importantly, maintains the struggle for justice, not only in Palestine but also in all other problems in the world, as it provides a lens by which to see the world’s problems as interconnected. The living identity here is not nationalist, or to preserve certain aspects of culture, but justice, being a Palestinian in this sense is to maintain a world movement against imperialism and colonialism and is, hence, freed from any cultural claims since it has been linked to the indivisibility of justice.
Sixthly, on the question of dialogue with leftist Israelis, who are not only very few but also quite unsure how to define what is leftist in the context of settler colonialism, there is an important question that must be answered: what does dialogue with me, as a refugee, mean to them? If it is about my right of return, then they must work against the state from outside its framework, because this framework excludes and denies my existence. It is a moral and human obligation to create a movement that recognizes both my symbolic and actual right of return, even if I reject the dialogue. Seeking justice should not be conditioned on my presence in the first place.
Furthermore, Cynthia Cockburn and others have shown that this approach to co-existence—i.e., not tackling major issues related to the colonialist and Zionist nature of the state and the right of return—is not working. Perhaps there is no better example to show how this approach has failed Palestinians than what Sama Awidah, the director of the Jerusalem Centre for Women’s Studies—one of the first Palestinian women’s organizations to engage in dialogue—posted on Facebook about one of tayy’aish protests in Jerusalem:
This protest is part of an organized process of normalization, as if we are telling the world not to worry about us, we agree and live happily side by side, and we call upon you to support our coexistence regardless of the recognition of us as humans and regardless of the recognition of the right of return.
What we need is enlightened and mobilized feminist solidarity, not just any feminist solidarity. Israel could not be committing the kind of atrocities it commits were it not for the absolute support of Western powers and American and European citizens’ passive acceptance of this support, be it in the form of military assistance or financial aid. This type of support needs to be exposed in our work and activism.
What we need to understand is that imperialism has a threefold impact: it impacts gender issues in the context of Palestine; has a connection with other crises in the region; and impacts women’s national activism, international networking, and solidarity. One the one hand, understanding this will take activists’ experiences and everyday activities to show how the settler-colonial state of Israel has not only oppressed the Palestinian people but also empowered masculine institutions and institutionalized cultural aspects that limit the ways in which activists can address gender issues and combat VAW. On the other hand, the lack of understanding highlights the extent to which the dearth of political solidarity with and actions against the killing and detention of Palestinian women—as compared to solidarity around issues related to culture, such as so-called “honor crimes”—have undermined the position of feminists and women activists not only in Palestine, but across the Arab region.
Finally, what we need is a solidarity that engages in answering the questions posed here and beyond: questions such as that outlined by Mohanty in relation to the United States’ and Israel’s myth of democracy (2011:76): “How might we comprehend these imperial democracies and organize resistance across borders, resistance that demystifes and challenges the violent, authoritarian governmentalities mobilized by these militarized landscapes?” . Subsequently, women in Palestine, women in the region, and women living within all area of throughout the world need a solidarity that addresses militarism as “a common context for struggle”(Ibid); a solidarity that exposes and challenges the violent, authoritarian nature of states and globalised militarised systems; and, most importantly, a solidarity that recognises the collaboration between the two in maintaining corruption, fuelling conflicts, and undermining peace initiatives, justice, and democracy.
 Deniz Kandiyoti, “Bargaining with Patriarchy,” Gender and Society 2, no. 3 (1988): 274-290.
 Judith Butler, “‘What Shall We Do Without Exile?’: Said and Darwish Address the Future,” Journal of Comparative Poetics 32 (2012): 30-54.
 Cynthia Cockburn, The Space Between Us: Negotiating Gender and National Identities in Conflict (London: Zed Books, 1998).
 Chandra Talpande Mohanty, “Imperial Democracies, Militarised Zones, Feminist Engagements,” Economic and Political Weekly 46, no. 13 (2011): 76-84.