The observance of International Women’s Day this year led me to reflect upon celebrations past, which have frequently revealed huge gaps in reality: a wine and cheese reception at UNESCO headquarters in Paris where well-meaning bureaucrats sang feminist anthems modeled on “The Internationale,” or a March 8 gathering of angry upper middle-class Anglo-Canadian feminists in Vancouver who shouted egalitarian euphemisms through a loudspeaker.
In both scenarios, “feminist” issues of importance were limited to a social framework reflective of Western feminists’ cultural blind spots and the general lack of relativism so common in Western feminist dogma. As a Chilean friend once complained to me, “Your North American feminism is too narrow; your concerns are too middle-class to be relevant to many of us.” A quick survey of the most prominent feminist icons confirms her observation: Betty Friedan was a bourgeois housewife; Gloria Steinem was a university graduate (and former Playboy bunny) who went soft with the “revolution from within” thing; Germaine Greer’s theories are a little tired now, but I still give her points for feistiness.
In search of a feminist role model suitable for a nice Arab-Canadian girl, my thoughts turned to Palestine and one of the toughest women I’ve ever met: Na’amat Helou, or “Na’amat of Jabalya,” as she is better known in Gaza, where I met her in 1994, when I was a journalist based in Jerusalem. Recently released from an Israeli prison, she possessed a quiet dignity, in spite of her one glass eye and an artificial limb. Na’amat’s story was dramatic: At the age of 19, she witnessed her baby and best friend killed before her eyes by an Israel Defense Forces sharpshooter. Soon afterwards, Na’amat, daughter of an illiterate taxi driver from Jabalya refugee camp, was recruited as the first woman militia fighter for the PLO. Several months later, following a botched grenade attack against an Israeli tank, Na’amat was captured and imprisoned. She was interrogated while wounded and ended up losing an eye and her right arm.
During the 15 years that Na’amat spent in a succession of Israeli prisons, she learned to read and write and studied Marx, Simone de Beauvoir, the Bible and the Koran. During the intifada in the late 1980s, she was released from prison as a dedicated pacifist. But a few months later, she was rearrested for her role in organizing women’s groups in Gaza. At the time of our meeting, she had been released from prison as part of a post-peace accord good will gesture. She was already disillusioned with Arafat and the “peace deal.” “They are Fatah fat cats,” she told me matter-of-factly. “What do they know of our suffering? They come here from Tunis, they buy up all the villas in Gaza, and we are still in the camps. Nothing has changed.”
Now, Na’amat told me, the only way she could envision meaningful change in Palestinian society and politics was through her involvement in grassroots community development programs for women. “This is the way forward,” she said, recounting how the Israeli military governor who arrested her in the mid-1980s had warned her that “organizing women” was a far more subversive and dangerous activity than any kind of violent resistance.
“There is no difference between political, social or economic activism; the fighter is always a fighter, no matter where the struggle is,” Na’amat noted.
She spoke proudly of her work with the Popular Committee for the Refugees of Jabalya, funded through the Swedish Organization for Individual Relief (SOIR). Their most successful project to date is a beauty parlor, a place that, while politically incorrect by most middle-class North American feminist standards, fills a great need in this Gazan community. It is a place where Gazan women — many of whom are the sole breadwinners in their homes since their husbands and sons are either deceased, imprisoned or chronically underemployed — can meet and talk unfettered by any male presence. In addition to being a place where women can henna their hair and have their nails manicured, it is also a place where they can be fitted for artificial limbs and glass eyes. Last but not least, the beauty parlor serves as a training center where women can study cosmetology and receive education in small-business management.
I did not dare tell Na’amat that her project would be considered ideologically suspect by hard-line feminists in North America, where issues such as body hair and makeup still evoke powerful emotions. As a woman who had witnessed much suffering and achieved profound transformation, she would not have been able to comprehend such pettiness. Since I met Na’amat in 1994, she has also helped initiate projects to provide educational and employment opportunities to mentally and physically disabled Gazans (working together with SOIR and FIDA). In a recent phone interview, Na’amat conceded that although “the political situation is desperate” and “people’s hopes have been shattered by the peace process and the lack of any real economic improvement,” she was steadfastly continuing her work, despite her admission that “the women’s movement that gained so much ground during the intifada went backward with the return of the PLO” and the fact that “most NGOs — especially American ones — work through the Palestinian Authority, which means that aid money is going to the elite, who use it to build villas.”
As for the North American “sisterhood,” Na’amat believes that “differences in economic status mean a fundamental difference in perspective.” Feminism, she emphasizes, is about “true freedom — social and political liberation, not just sexual freedom. Our issues are different and we don’t appreciate Western women telling us what our issues should be or what feminism is about.”
So amid the bureaucratically approved, self-congratulatory feminist love-ins this past March 8, my thoughts turned to that beauty parlor in a Gazan refugee camp and the indomitable woman who made it a reality.