During the early stages of national political formation in the Middle East, when crises prevail and mass mobilization is a major organizing strategy, political movements often recruit women and the domestic sector into the political arena. Continuous crises, from which the domestic sector is not immune, compel women to participate. This was the case in the pre-1982 Palestinian community in Lebanon.

Nevertheless, women’s participation in the Palestinian national movement has been uneven in form, content and meaning. Some women incorporated political activities into domestic life with little challenge to traditional definitions of female propriety and domains; for others, activism temporarily challenged the onset of married life and child-raising. For very few, however, did it pose a permanent alternative to domesticity. In addition, women’s political participation itself has had an uneven impact on male-female relations. In some instances, rapid change is evident. Women’s relatively new voice in the process of choosing their marriage partners is a prime example. In other instances, such as the division of labor, there has been minimal transformation of relations between men and women.

Integrating the National Movement

The Palestinian women’s movement began in the national ferment of the 1920s. Upper-class urban women, usually kinswomen of prominent political personalities, organized charitable associations and women’s organizations to assist in the national endeavor. Their goals and activities were oriented to achieving national independence and social development. Demands for improvements or reforms in women’s positions were negligible, largely overshadowed by the pressing immediacy of national struggle. There was little discussion of changes in women’s predominantly domestic roles or subordinate legal status. Palestinian women were aware of the organic links binding their movement to the national movement and made little attempt to extract their own problems and prospects from those of the larger social body. The absence of an independent Palestinian state structure in which to agitate for and materialize women’s demands seemed to inhibit any such movement, much like today. As one of the early organizers and leaders commented on reforms in women’s status, “such measures of reform can only be introduced by National Governments, or by persons deriving their authority from the people.” [1]

The asymmetrical relationship between the national movement and the women’s movement was evident in the latter’s circumscribed autonomy. Matiel Mogannam, one of the early leaders of the movement, related that the men encouraged their protests and charitable work, but that

We always combined our forces with them, that is with the men on the Executive Committee. For instance, if we were to send a memorandum to His Majesty the King of Britain, we wouldn’t do it without having the Executive Committee look it over to see if it is alright. [2]

The year 1948 was a major turning point in the history of the women’s movement. Peasant women were uprooted from their land and made into refugees overnight. Middle-class and elite women also became refugees. For the next decade their movement was dispirited and fragmented between those remaining inside Israel and those scattered in the various countries of exile.

With the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1960s, the women’s movement was reformed and officially made a component part of the larger national body. This major transition was accompanied by another: the movement’s attempts to transform itself into a mass-based organization that would represent the bulk of Palestinian women. Whether this class transformation in leadership and mass base has been successful is highly debatable. The leadership, though, is clearly no longer composed of women from the elite, sharifian, landed or mercantile families. [3] Women of the new middle class that emerged in the wake of 1948 prevail in the leadership, though a corps of camp women cadres entered the resistance bureaucracy and middle-level leadership positions in the women’s movement over the past decade.

From the late 1960s until 1982, the Palestinian national movement in Lebanon recruited women and instituted a variety of social services geared to their needs, such as day care centers, after-school activities, clinics and health education programs, literacy classes, vocational training projects and home industries. Though still a minority in the political organizations, women joined all spheres of the resistance. Few attained leadership positions, and most were concentrated in the social services sector. Nevertheless, women were now more than wives and mothers; they were fighters, leaders, workers, students, activists, cadres and martyrs. These roles and statuses informed a new sense of identity and aspirations.

Women’s entry into the domain of formal, national politics did not necessarily marginalize the women’s movement. But the process of formal integration into the national political body diluted their movement’s potential commitment to women’s issues and autonomy over their policies, positions, and development. Ostensibly for the sake of national unity and the allegiance of a perceived conservative mass base, the resistance leadership was careful to avoid any actions by the women’s movement that might cast the resistance in a role challenging patriarchal structures and authority. At the same time, and more important, the leadership itself with its petty bourgeois values has remained ambivalent on the issue of gender equality.

Activating the Domestic Sphere

Integration into the national movement did not diminish women’s participation in informal popular community level politics. If anything, it gave these actions a new impetus and militant setting. Women’s activism was grounded in domesticity on two levels: Politically unaffiliated camp women incorporated political actions into their domestic routine, and activist women’s political tasks were frequently an extension of traditional domestic duties and visiting patterns. Peasant women’s tradition of spontaneous village level activism now assumed a national context.

This was not an entirely new phenomenon. Elderly women vividly recall their actions during the 1936 Palestinian revolt. Umm Yasir, the 85-year old mother of a political leader, told me that she hid fighters in her house and kept the horses they had stolen from the British. Her guerrilla husband was often holed up in a cave for days at a time, where she would carry him provisions. When the British attacked their village, the women ululated and danced to “encourage these brave men to be even stronger.” Such women did not escape the attention of foreign observers and colonial officers. Women were reportedly involved in attacks on Zionist settlements and victims of the spiraling cycle of violence. Stirling mentions that “some Arab women lying wounded in the fields were seen to have their breasts scythed off by Jewish colonialists.” [4]

Palestinian camp women today, descendants of these peasant women, continue a tradition of women as both victims and participants in struggle. During the 1976 siege of Tall al-Za‘atar refugee camp by the Maronitist Lebanese Forces, women nursed the wounded and organized relief activities and the sustenance of the fighters, and substantial numbers fought alongside the men. They were not spared from intentional harm; many died from sniper’s bullets while fetching water from wells during the siege, and untold numbers were killed after the camp fell to its besiegers and the population was evacuated.

The mobilization of the domestic sector during protracted crisis disputes any facile dichotomy between formal and informal spheres and domestic and public domains. When a community is under attack, as in the massacres of Sabra/Shatila and Tall al-Za‘atar, domestic boundaries are shattered, revealing the illusory character of domesticity as the realm of private, familial relations distant from the spheres of formal politics.

Nor did women retreat to the domestic sector in the interludes between crises. In the camps and surrounding poor neighborhoods, it had become an accepted part of domesticity for women to attend militants’ funerals, demonstrations, national events, political lectures and films. When a lecture or women’s gathering was to take place in the camps, women went from house to house to pass the word and collect their friends and neighbors to attend. Women arrived in groups of kin and friends, with children in tow. Traditional domestic functions were mobilized for service to the larger community and accorded a national context, and domestic duties were expanded to include popular political activities. Domesticity came to be associated with struggle and militancy. The words women used to describe their activities poignantly express this process of transformation.


A sector of Palestinian women did formally affiliate with the national movement. Largely young, middle-class and educated, these are the women members, militants, and cadres attached to the various political organizations. These affiliations clearly had repercussions for their management of domesticity and presented women with conflicting loyalties and demands. To the activists, the popular, community-level actions of camp women were more in the nature of the pre-political, insofar as for them the hallmark of political awareness and commitment is membership in an organization.

The educational requirements of organizational and administrative positions made it nearly inevitable that middle class women rather than poorer, uneducated camp women would initially staff the emerging movement bureaucracy. Women were highly visible in administrative work and in the movement’s social infrastructure. They were less visible in the work of building the political organizations.

There was one area of organizational work, however, where women formed a majority: mass work (‘amal jamahiri) carried out in the camps and surrounding poor, urban neighborhoods. The aim of mass work is to mobilize the community to support the resistance, to raise their level of political awareness, and at the same time to keep abreast of and provide for their needs. Informed by a political ideology that stresses the cultivation of popular support, mass work serves to maintain and extend genial relations between the resistance and the bulk of camp Palestinians. Its purpose is to let them know they are part of the resistance. Miriam, a 30-year-old married activist and one of the small but growing number of camp women to occupy a middle-level leadership position, describes her full-time mass work in Shatila camp:

Mass work is political work — it is social care, health care and home visits to recognize the problems of poor people and help them. We conduct political education meetings in homes and we try to deal with women’s everyday problems and activities. Mass work also includes mobilizing people into organizations.

Mass work is carried out in ways that do not fundamentally deviate from women’s traditional visiting patterns. Mass workers visit camp homes in an informal fashion but with a clear political intent. Traditional visiting and mass work visiting serve similar purposes: to promote community integration and harmony. Women’s traditional domestic functions were being put to the service of the national cause.

Stirring Consciousness

Women’s activism may have awakened the stirrings of a feminist consciousness. As women yearned to join political organizations and contribute to the national struggle, they confronted familial and societal obstacles. The implications of their subordinate position were made clear to them. Yet this newly awakened consciousness did not prompt the formation of a women’s movement ready to confront patriarchy. The level of crises, the protracted nature of the national struggle, and the communal bases of resistance clearly militated against such trends. This coincided with a history of national movements incorporating women’s movements. Nor did women wish to extract themselves or their problems from the social fabric and the ongoing process of national resistance.

Women are vitally aware that their political consciousness and activism affects them as individuals and as members of families. Munifa, a 23-year-old, middle-class university student, used to say, “For a girl like me there is no going back.” She meant she had shattered certain boundaries of female behavior. Community consensus holds that unmarried activists are likely to engage in disreputable behavior as a consequence of political involvement which gives them fairly free access to men. In Munifa’s view, girls who have managed to remain active in spite of their families’ opposition and who have broken the reins of family control cannot return to a state of existence where others make decisions for them. For women, formal political participation, a traditionally non-female arena, implies a challenge to what is considered proper female comportment, tasks and the social rules governing the use of space.

The seemingly radical impact of political activism must be weighed against the high female dropout rate closely corresponding to major events in the female life cycle, such as marriage and childbirth. This usually indicates, if not a return to domesticity, at least a lessening of activism. Political activity has become an accepted part of “girlhood,” the period just before marriage when women are now active in the labor force and in politics. After marriage, commitment to and identification with domesticity tend to override political commitments. It is not always a simple matter of male opposition to a wife’s activism. Domestic duties can be onerous and incompatible with sustained activism. Just as important, many women feel housewifery and motherhood are women’s primary roles. The seemingly radical nature of political activism must also be juxtaposed with the reshuffling of domestic labor among women rather than between men and women.

The PLO leadership has not dealt with this transformation in women’s intimate and personal lives in a consistent manner. On the one hand, it has reacted positively and swiftly in some instances where women face a backlash from their families as a consequence of political involvement. Local resistance cadres occasionally intervened to prevent acts of male violence against women within the family. When 18-year-old Khadija was threatened with a beating by her brother, who opposed her growing association with the political organization that sponsored the sewing workshop where she was employed, Abu Tariq, the local responsible for this same political organization, went to her home to try to calm down the irate brother.

At the same time, with slight modifications, traditional forms and mechanisms of patriarchal control continue to govern women’s behavior within the resistance. In the past, structural mechanisms such as separate quarters, veils, single-sex socializing and complex sets of social rules governing male-female relations, buttressed by the threat of damaging gossip and violence, usually ensured female adherence to societal norms. The site may have expanded from the family to include the political arena, and the forms may differ, but contemporary political activism has not freed women from these fetters. New mechanisms of control rely more on ridicule, censorship and negative labeling than on the threat of violence or family dishonor. Men intimidate women by poking fun at women’s concerns and implying that women’s issues are not really “political” at all. Women suffer political censure for behavior that, if males had engaged in it, would have only raised a few eyebrows. For the most part, men are exempted from criticism if they are involved in premarital sexual relations. In contrast, women in a similar situation are the butt of jokes and lose respect.

Some of the more potent but subtle ways of both silencing women and ensuring their adherence to modest demeanor is negative labeling. The sexual slur, calling women who interact with men too easily and in a non-bashful way “loose women,” makes it difficult for them to sustain their political involvement and gain the respect of their fellow activists. Political slurs can be just as harmful. The epithet “bourgeois” is quite powerful in silencing women when they try to raise women’s issues in a movement that considers itself revolutionary.

The Palestinian leadership has consistently failed to grasp — or perhaps grasps only too well — the long-term social implications of an autonomous women’s movement. However closely linked it may be to the national political body, it would have the potential to challenge social structures and tenets; it would go far beyond the immediacy of national liberation to a form of social change that the resistance considers secondary or is not ready to consider at all. Palestinian women nevertheless argue adamantly that their struggle for equality is an inseparable component of the national movement. The women’s movement does not have a wing, or individuals, agitating for a separate women’s organization with a feminist agenda.

Deflecting Consciousness

That women’s participation in national politics has had a definite effect on their lives and relations is hardly debatable. What is debatable is the extent of change and its unevenness. Militant national liberation movements may inspire women’s movements; they do not necessarily ensure equal rights and opportunities, nor do they restructure asymmetrical gender relations. In participating in the formal political sphere, women do challenge societal norms of proper female behavior. But the impact on gender relations does not include a radical transformation in the division of labor or in the bases of patriarchal control. How does this process of deflecting an emerging feminist consciousness proceed?

The emergence and consolidation of states often marginalizes women’s former spontaneous activism. With militant national liberation movements, a different process unfolds. The movement, rather than distancing the domestic sector and women from the sphere of formal politics, recruits them as part of a strategy of mass mobilization. When these formerly militant national liberation movements become states, and mass mobilization is no longer an imperative, the domestic sector and women are pushed to the periphery.

In the Palestinian case, a number of questions need to be considered, though only provisional answers are available. Has participation in the national struggle challenged women’s domestic roles and patriarchal structures of control, or has national struggle simply been grafted onto women’s traditional roles in reproduction and production? Has the domestic sector itself taken on nationalist political meaning in addition to its reproductive and productive functions? Has there been a transformation in relations between men and women and between women?

Palestinian women’s political activism has often been an extension of their domestic roles. Activists tend to be concentrated in social services such as nursing, teaching, social work or in clerical work or vocational training projects. In addition, politics has entered the domestic realm in full force, mobilizing domestic duties for political action and in the process politicizing their meaning. Women’s activities during military crises crystallize around the home and the provision of sustenance to the fighters — women bake the bread, prepare the food and tend to the wounded. They also make visits to the shelters to provide solace to the people and encourage them to remain in the camps.

Women’s reproductive roles have been politicized, too, as they, and the community in general, now perceive their childbearing capabilities as a direct contribution to the struggle. The “mother of the martyr” exemplifies this: though she herself may not be politically active, her maternal sacrifice is a supreme political act that translates into respect and prominent community stature. She is often invited to attend resistance events in the camp with the leadership, and they visit her. This newly acquired stature serves to cushion her loss. The “mothers of martyrs” have become symbols in the camp community of the trauma of exile and resistance. They are presented to journalists and visitors as personifying a community in suffering, as living commentaries on resistance and sacrifice. [5]

The reproduction of labor which takes place in the domestic sector takes on an added imperative in a society where young men are recruited into the ranks of fighters. The socialization of children to be nationalists is widely recognized as primarily the responsibility of women in the family, supplemented naturally by the schools and resistance institutions.

Women often justify their choice of domesticity over politics by imbuing child-raising with patriotic meaning. Jamila is a nurse by training and mother of two children. Her husband did not mind if she worked as a nurse in a camp clinic. But she decided against the attempts of women cadres to mobilize her. She justified her decision by telling people, “If a woman raises children she’s contributing to the revolution one way or another.” Rather than challenging domesticity, such redefinitions of women’s roles expand the tasks associated with it.

Contradictory Relations

Women’s discourse underscores the multidimensional and contradictory nature of their relations with the resistance. Reproduction and fertility take on an added imperative in a community engaged in protracted struggle. Raising children in a militant, nationalist environment is considered a primary contribution to the struggle. Women refer to themselves as the producers of fighters, and to their domestic chores and life as women in exile with the same terms — struggle (nidal) and steadfastness (sumud) — used to signify military struggle and political militancy. Frequent self-descriptive use of terms formerly the preserve of men attests to women’s entrance into the realm of formal politics, and underscores their own sense of empowerment and expanded self-definition. Nonetheless, this transformation in the female lexicon does not indicate any lessened identification with domesticity.

Related to the deflected impact of politics on domesticity is a new pattern of relations between women along class and generation lines. Rather than repositioning men and women in the gender-based division of labor, political activism is reshuffling labor between women, or adapting prior patterns to new uses.

In the case of poor camp women, domestic labor is shared between women members of extended families or between mothers and daughters, particularly the eldest daughter. Umm Tariq used to leave her children next door with her mother-in-law while she pursued political activities. Umm Khalid, who had no extended family in the camp, regularly left her eldest daughter Muna in charge of the younger ones while she was out of the house for political duties. Muna had little time for her homework and at age 14 faced many of the duties associated with motherhood. Huda, active in mass work in the camp, could take her young daughter around with her while she worked. Her guerrilla husband, who was away most of the time, shared little housework even when he was home.

For middle-class women with access to financial resources, poorer women often become their “shock absorbers,” mediating the impact of political commitments on domesticity. Saada hired a maid, allowing her to work actively with a political organization. Families hire maids for the express purpose of freeing women (not men) from domestic work. This does not entail a redefining or restructuring of the sexual division of labor; it simply shifts the burden to other women.

Palestinian women, by becoming politically active in such a manner as to maintain their commitments to domesticity, have not posed a fundamental challenge to the asymmetrical division of labor between men and women. Indeed, their activism has engaged the domestic sector for political purposes and intensified existing labor-sharing relations between women of different generations and classes. Participation in militant national politics may initiate the process of challenging those patriarchal structures and ideologies that confirm and legitimize women’s assignment to the domestic sector and men’s exclusion from it, but it does not ensure any permanent and comprehensive sort of transformation. Indeed, community mobilization devoid of ideologies and prospects for gender equality may further institutionalize women’s association with the domestic sector by infusing it now with national, patriotic meanings.


[1] Matiel Mogannam, The Arab Woman and the Palestine Problem (London: Herbert Joseph, 1937).
[2] Interview conducted jointly with Rosemary Sayigh in Washington, DC in August 1985.
[3] For a discussion of Palestinian women’s political activism in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. see Rosemary Sayigh, “Encounters with Palestinian Women Under Occupation,” Journal of Palestine Studies 10/4 (Summer 1981), pp. 3-26.
[4] See Lt. Col. W. F. Stirling, “Palestine: 1920-1923” in Walid Khalidi, ed., From Haven to Conquest (Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1971).
[5] See R. Kessing, “Kwaio Women Speak: The Micropolitics of Autobiography in a Solomon Island Society,” American Anthropologist 8/1, pp. 27-39, for a discussion of women as representatives of colonized, or post-colonial cultures.

How to cite this article:

Julie Peteet "No Going Back?," Middle East Report 138 (January/February 1986).

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