Palestinian women played a major role in the intifada of 1987-93, but have not, so far, in the current uprising. In January 2001, the Jerusalem-based magazine Between the Lines asked Eileen Kuttab, director of the Women’s Studies Institute at Birzeit University in the West Bank, to talk about the widely noted lack of women’s participation, and prospects for change. An excerpt from her comments is reprinted here with permission.
Has the women’s movement participated as a movement in the current intifada?
After the first intifada, the women’s movement lost its grassroots. In the early 1990s, and especially after Oslo, women’s issues became institutionalized, professionalized and taken over by NGOs. The political parties declined and collapsed due to the sudden political changes and the absence of internal democracy. This resulted in an overall sense of political vacuum. Recently, the Women’s Technical Affairs Committee (an umbrella group of women’s committees and women’s professional organizations) held a meeting in which they discussed how they could participate in the intifada. But because the women’s movement has lost its ties with the grassroots, not to mention the political parties, they are not able to mobilize women on issues of concern to most women. The Technical Committee is more of a bureaucratic leadership that promotes campaigns, hosts delegations of solidarity, holds press conferences and tries to help families of martyrs in different ways. When these women want to go to a village and talk about participation they will find great difficulty. The people are depressed and frustrated, they see corruption all over, and they identify these women as an elite. Who are these women to tell them about their problems and what to do?
The issue of class is becoming more and more of a variable. When we used to talk of national liberation, there was some kind of unity. Now, how can you build unity when a certain elite is being promoted with privileges and benefits, and class interests are even defining and determining the scope of national rights? This is a major problem. I couldn’t even go to the assemblies and conferences and panel sessions that I have been invited to be part of. How can I approach the people? And what do I tell them? It’s very embarrassing because we are not doing anything as intellectuals. I don’t even know how to define myself anymore. During uprisings, one’s identity can only be defined through one’s role in the struggle. And at present [intellectuals] don’t have that.
Did professionalization disconnect the women’s movement from democratic issues, such as criticizing the Palestinian Authority?
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has been able to coopt the women’s movement during the last few years. They coopt it by accommodating it on token issues that do not threaten them. Take the issue of obtaining passports. The PA’s position was to issue passports only by the approval of male guardians. The women’s movement mobilized itself to demonstrate against this policy of the PA, and they succeeded in changing it. But, if the women’s movement chose to take the refugee issue as one of the main points on their agenda, then they would have headed to a serious conflict [with the PA]. Integrating the gender perspective into national issues, such as mobilizing refugee women to ensure their rights in a final resolution — that would constitute serious input from the women’s movement.
You’ve said that the current situation demands that the women’s movement return to the grassroots. How do you do this when the women’s movement is isolated as you’ve described?
The main thing women need to do is go back to the [left] political parties. The opposition democratic parties are starting to regenerate. Why? Because there is a direct threat to their existence. They either prove themselves now, or they will be forgotten by their constituencies. The parties have a large role to play at this stage as a real opposition. They need to control the national agenda so that no marginalization of the core issues (like the right of return) is permitted, and at the same time argue for redistribution of resources, and stop the trend of increasing marginalization of the poor, peasants, workers and women in the dependent economy.
Will people give the left another chance? What about the Islamist movements, who have been providing basic services for the last ten years?
I think the Islamist movement is losing. For a while, they increased their support because there was no alternative from the national forces. However, now the mainstream Fatah party has taken over the street, and imbibed a sentiment of popular militancy. The mainstream is taking over the whole thing, while the left remains marginal. Nonetheless, there is a sense that the left is growing its own seeds again. They are more mature, and they have evaluated their collapse very well. They are also aware that they cannot continue to make compromises with the mainstream: either they are an opposition or they will become just as coopted as everyone else.
With regard to women’s issues, male leaders of the leftist parties have discovered their mistakes regarding the democratic process, including their failure to define the struggle comprehensively by including women’s issues as a basis for internal democracy. They realize that this was one of their largest mistakes. They think that the only way to be a real tool for mobilization is to go back to the democratic issues of the poor, peasants, workers and women. If they do this genuinely, though it will take time, I believe change is still possible.