The emergence of the Palestinian Women’s movement and its entanglements with European feminisms

Despite its complex history and the multitude of factors and influences which continuously shape it, including foremost the energetic, impactful and revolutionary contributions of women around the world, feminism continues to be labeled as a “quintessentially Western” phenomenon (De Haan, 2020). One of the important results of this misunderstanding (and perhaps misrepresentation?) of feminism, as Francisca De Haan rightfully warns us in a recent interview, is that countries outside of the imaginary boundaries of the “West” automatically get perceived as “underdeveloped” when it comes to womens’ rights, and in need to follow the leadership of their Western counterparts. The various ideological efforts to conceal the historical role of politically marginalized women (including Eastern European, socialist, non-European women, women of color and others) and to portray feminism as a monolith could be addressed to some extent by the methodological commitment of utilizing the plural form of the term, thereby rejecting the reductionist construction of feminisms as unidimensional. Womens’ movements and feminisms have always existed as a multifaceted patchwork in which different “strands” overlap, coexist, cooperate and challenge each other (De Haan, 2020).

The current paper aims to consider the emergence of a Palestinian Women’s movement in its first decade (1929-1939), and to investigate the similarities in the ways the Palestinian womens’ movement and its European counterparts relate themselves vis-a-vis nationalism and nation state building with the goal of shedding light into some of the ways in which national feminisms are entangled.

The emergence of a Palestinian womens’ movement

The official inauguration of the Palestinian womens’ movement took place as a response to the colonial rule of the British empire as a separate political activity by women within a larger nationalist movement led by Palestinian men. However, it did not represent the first efforts of women groups to mobilize support, and address political and social issues of concern to Palestinian women. Women’s associations had been established and ran by women as early as 1910 in order to address socioeconomic needs, especially in the aftermath of World War I. Through less organized efforts Palestinian women had also protested British policies,  participated in violent disturbances and confronted government officials, demanding independence and ending of Jewish immigration.

The Palestinian women’s movement was created as a response to the political conditions of that period, including the colonial practices of the British Mandate, its support of Jewish immigration to Palestine, and the loss of Palestinian land as a result of the Zionist encroachment which led to the fragmentation of the Palestinian community (Kuttab, 2009).  On 26th of October 1929 Palestinian women deliberately initiated a movement, which was inaugurated along with the convention of the Palestine Arab Women’s Congress in Jerusalem. The congress was attended by more than 200 women from around the country who passed resolutions to address the national problem and pledged support to the Arab Executive, which led the national movement until its dissolution in 1934. A delegation presented the resolutions agreed upon during the congress to the high commissioner at Government House. The movement’s inauguration was also marked by the creation of an Arab Women’s Executive Committee (AWE), as well as city demonstrations and meetings with foreign officials.

While the resolutions passed during the congress and AWE’s activity primarily focused on the demands for national liberation, gender was nevertheless a central facet of the movement’s political consciousness (Fleischmann, 2000, Jadd, 2018). The movement aimed to organize and engage Palestinian women in political action, and to facilitate a “women’s national awakening” (“nahda” in Arabic). The movement also developed connections with women’s organizations in other Arab countries, including Egypt, Iraq, and Syria.

While the gender consciousness of the movement was “subtly subversive rather than explicitly “feminist” in the contemporary sense of the term” ((Fleischmann, 2000, p. 19), the movement of Palestinian women nevertheless consistently referred to itself as a “women’s movement”, and sought to manipulate if not uproot traditional gender norms. The Arab Women’s Association (AWA), whose executive organ was the AWE launched by the October 1929 congress aimed to “elevate the standing of women” through developments in the economic and educational spheres, along with supporting “national institutions” (Fleischmann, 2000, p. 19). Whereas it branched out to a number of cities in the Palestinian territories, AWA largely overlapped with its Jerusalem chapter, named the Jerusalem Women’s Association which established itself as a semiofficial center of the leadership of the movement.

The majority of the women partaking in the movement came from the urban, educated, middle, and upper classes constituting the Palestinian elite, although some came from less prominent families (Fleischmann, 2000). Among the movement’s leadership were both young single women and married ones, however, the ones not married remained active and occupied key leadership positions for longer as was the case of Zlikha Shihabi, president of the Arab Women’s Union, and Zahiyya Nashashibi, president of AWA. The men in the families of many of the leading women of the movement possessed valuable skill sets (some were merchants, lawyers, doctors, civil servants in the Mandate government) or owned land. Many of the leaders of the Palestinian women’s movements had husbands or other relatives among the ranks of the leadership of the nationalist movement, and were therefore very well informed on the latest developments in relation to the national cause. However, the women’s movement insisted on having a role beyond being an auxiliary of the nationalist movement, and protected its independent identity. For example, following the 1929 Congress, the women from Nablus decided to create their own chapter of AWA and collected funds to support its activity. Local men attempted to cease the funds, but the women responded with a resolution to not include any men in their organization, and to take advice from men, but not allow them to take control over their organization (Fleischmann, 2000).

The internal make-up of the movement was simultaneously homogenous and varied. The women engaged in the movement were largely middle and upper class representatives, who had some degree of condescension towards their poorer, peasant and rural sisters. The latter were largely illiterate and lacked the time to participate in political activities (Fleischmann, 2000). Culturally, the members of the Palestinian women’s movement differentiated along their support for either traditionalism, or modernism. Some women approved of the wearing of “modern”, Western, clothing and losing the veil which was a cultural symbol of arab women, while others disagreed with them and felt strongly about remaining close to their cultural heritage. Importantly, religion was no point of tension in the movement which was built upon a secularist Palestinian women’s identity, and included Christian and Muslim women without discrimination (Fleischmann, 2000).

The tactics and discursive strategies of the Palestinian women’s movement during the period of 1929-1939 demonstrated masterful manipulation of the gendered cultural assumptions of public opinion (both within Palestine and internationally), the male-led nationalist movement, and the British Mandate officials, whereby women emphasized their identification with tradition and modernity with consideration of the audience at hand. They engaged in public demonstrations, both mixed and segregated, by utilizing speeches, mass gatherings and some violent behavior, thereby challenging the prescribed social norms to avoid public visibility and be perceived as “unladylike” (Fleischmann, 2000). As a result the British police forces were perceived negatively for attacking women and tradition, and further aggravated anti-colonial sentiments, and male outrage.

By 1936-27 the women’s movement developed further sophistication and readily organized numerous sex-segregated demonstrations which increased their impact. While the movement actively engaged with the media and received enthusiastic coverage and support, evident in the large number of articles (over 50 in a six-month period) detailing the developments of the women’s movements in some of the major Palestinian newspapers of the time, the male nationalistic movement was less pronounced in its position regarding the activities of the women’s movement. Historian Ellen Fleischmann perceives this as a result of both progressivism among male nationalist leaders, as well as a potential mark of threat to male hegemony. Interestingly, in its coverage of the political developments in the country the mainstream Palestinian newspapers frequently compared the two movements, predominantely in favor of the women’s.

The Palestinian women’s movement was exemplary in its mobilization of sending letters, telegrams and memoranda to representatives of the British Mandate government, the British press and public, the League of Nations, Arab kings and heads of state, as well as women’s organizations around the world. With media, as in their correspondence and confrontations with the Mandate government, the leaders of the women’s movement utilized the ethical construction of “British justice”, the fear of upsetting muslim sensibilities, as well as perceived similarities in relation to Christian affiliation. The British government in its turn employed a tactic of  “patriarchal collusion” (Fleischmann, 2000), whereby it encouraged Palestinian male leaders to enforce traditional gender norms and British-dictated restrictions on the women. For instance, in 1936 the Mandate sent government officials to negotiate with the male national movement leaders in order to prevent a meeting of the Jaffa AWA. The tactic, although occasionally successful, backfired in this case as a massive demonstration took place, despite the mixing of men and women, the cultural’s sensitivity of which the British had used as an argument to get the men to stop the meeting (Fleischmann, 2000).

Whereas the male nationalist movement regularly suffered from internal fractions and disagreements, the women’s movement was thought of as an example of unity at least until 1935. An article published in the same year by the Al-Karmi newspaper applauded the women’s movement, hoping that “Perhaps this may influence men and dampen if only a little their factional and clannish ardor” (Fleischmann, 2000). However, this hope was short lived as political tensions and personal affiliations of female leaders with their male nationalist movement counterparts brought division inside the women’s movement, and led to its split into two groups, the Arab Women’s Association and the Arab Women’s Union (AWU), by 1938. The AWU established itself as the more politically active group, yet the two organizations continued to work together.

Following the failure of the Arab revolt in Palestine which was forcefully repressed by the British army, along with the onset of World War II, the Palestinian national movement was largely neutralized, while the women’s movement was forced to focus on social and developmental activities instead of political action (Fleischmann, 2000). The women’s movement, therefore, turned its attention to the creation of medical clinics, girls’ schools, sports and literary clubs, as well as strengthening its ties with the pan-Arab women’s movement. With the escalation of the Jewish-Arab conflict following the war, the women’s movement reentered the political sphere with tighter organization, institutionalized leadership and close coordination with the male-led movement. Threatening their very physical existence, the military occupation following the 1948 war led to the fragmentation and dissolvement of most Palestinian institutions, including the women’s movement whose leaders and members were rightfully distracted by the need to survive (Jad, 2018).

The emergence of the Palestinian women’s movement in a comparative view

            Our contextualization of the emergence of the Palestinian women’s movement shall begin with a brief discussion of the extent to which this movement, along with other early national women’s movements, fit the theoretical label “feminist.”  The words “feminism” and “feminist” entered Arabic in the beginning of 20th century, although they had first emerged in French around 1870s, and by 1900 appeared in many European languages (Offen, 2000). Historian of European feminisms Karen Offen formulates the term feminism as “the name given to a comprehensive critical response to the deliberate and systematic subordination of women as a group by men as a group within a given cultural setting” (Offen, 2000, p. 20). She further distinguishes between two lines of argument in relation to situating feminism as a practical and not only theoretical concern. According to her, feminisms tend to be “relational” or “individualistic”, whereby relational feminism posits a vision of egalitarian sociosexual organization, in which the basic unit of society are nonhierarchical male-female couples. Relational feminism calls for women emancipation and autonomy as embodied female individuals, whereas individual feminism posits the individual irespective of gender or sex as the basic unit of society, focusing on individuals as transcending sexual identification, and minimizing discussion of sex-based qualities and contributions (Offen, 2000). 

According to this typology the nascent political women’s movement in Palestine in the 1929-1939 period could be argued to follow a relational direction, due to its commitment to the inclusion of Palestinian women in the processes of social development and national liberation, in which the struggle of women targets the legitimization of their inclusion in the political and social arena and their recognition as able actors and contributors in the pursuit of their national cause, if not the overthrow of patriarchy.

            Feminist scholars and activists who criticize the eurocentricity and whiteness of mainstream academic feminism argue that traditionally Western feminism has aimed to establish itself as the only legitimate feminism, and has thereby failed to investigate its racial assumptions and chauvinism, as well as to demonstrate concern “with the implications of differences among women’s experiences and understanding the political factors at work in those differences” (Amos and Pratibha, 1984, p. 49). As Amos and Pratibha (1984) write: “it should be of no great surprise to anyone when we reject a feminism which uses Western social and economic systems to judge and make pronouncements about how Third World women can become emancipated. Feminist theories which examine our cultural practices as ‘feudal residues’ or label us ‘traditional’, also portray us as politically immature women who need to be versed and schooled in the ethos of Western feminism” (p. 48).

Studying the women’s histories of other people’s  “for evidence of feminist consciousness and female solidarity” (Amos and Pratibha, 1984, p. 48) is rendered meaningless once we adopt a radical approach abstaining from invalidating the concerns and struggles of women elsewhere, and appreciating the differences in organization, articulation of goals, principles and strategies, stemming from non-European, and thus less familiar, theoretical and philosophical legacies. In the words of Amos and Pratibha: “The failure of the academic feminists to recognize difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. Divide and conquer in our world must become define and empower” (Amos and Pratibha, 1984, p.49).

            In addition to the warnings against the practices of imperial feminism and the tendency to apply an Orientalist framework towards the values, experiences and political struggles of non-Western women and peoples, the theoretical task of evaluating the degree of “feminist consciousness” of the Palestinian women’s movement lacks utility also because many of the emerging national women’s movements around the world initially downplayed their feminist politics. The tactics of women’s movements have been varied, with different political contexts requiring careful navigation in terms of the articulation of women’s movements’ agendas and tactics.

For example, in the context of the defeat of Greece in the Greco-Turkish war of 1897 the Greek women’s movement was able to claim the integration of women into the nation (at least  in regards to middle- and upper-class women) (Avdela and Psarra, 2005). Similarly to the case of the Palestinian women’s movement, the Greek one utilized the dominant irredentist ideology of the period to carve a special role for women, to qualify them as “active citizens”, and as a result to develop public activities and integrate themselves in the national war efforts (Avdela and Psarra, 2005). Both in the case of Greece and Palestine women’s emancipation was tied to the processes of (or attempts for) national reconstruction, and the national aspects of the articulation of women’s role in nation building and preservation legitimized their public activity. In Palestine, as well as in Greece, women had to create space for themselves within the national struggle, because the construction of nationalism had been firmly centered on the image of the male fighter as a liberating force (Jad, 2018), with patriotic struggle and sacrifice linked with masculinity and serving as justifications for the elevated status of men in society.

            Indeed, the case of the Palestinian women’s movement with its strong ties to the Palestinian nationalist movement and identification with the national cause to fight for political autonomy with all available means shows the ways feminist political cultures are entangled. While having their own context-specific characteristics, feminist movements were similarly impacted by global historic phenomena such as the rise of nation states and nation-centered thinking which multiplied rapidly following the French Revolution (Offen, 2000). Around Europe the processes of nationalization opened new opportunities for development of feminist thought and movements (Offen, 2000). This could also be seen in the case of the emergence of the Palestinian women’s movement, whereby women’s commitment to their national cause and their  growing political role with respect to the resistance against colonial rule and Jewish occupation allowed them to transgress various cultural and religious norms. Still, it is important to note that the processes of “nationalization of feminisms” and “feminizing of nationalisms” (Offen, 2000) were not always positive for women. In the cases of Palestine and Greece, the nationalist and irredentist politics and discourses carved out space for women as social and political actors, yet simultaneously posited many restrictions to women and allowed their emancipation only insofar they could prove their relational utility to their respective national causes.


The effort to produce histories of women’s movements which are not Eurocentric, racist or otherwise ideologically skewed requires sensitivity and awareness of both the context-specific circumstances that shape each movement, as well as the political conditions and developments in the world at large which have impacted the lives, degrees of agency, perceived opportunities and threats to women. The brief discussion of the emergence of the Palestinian women’s movement presented here sketches only some of the important and intriguing aspects of the history of the movement. A deeper investigation of the tactics of suppression of the women’s movement employed by the British Mandate government may further reveal important considerations for the historic challenges to women’s rights and emancipation of Palestinian women. We have already mentioned earlier that the Mandate government employed “patriarchal collision” to encourage restrictions of women from within their community as a way to minimize their political involvement and power.

Regimes of colonization enforced by Western powers such as the UK, US and the modern state of Israel have likely had an overwhelming impact on women’s rights in Palestine and other occupied or otherwise controlled territories in ways that are largely concealed. In a 2013 interview Tareq Al Tamimi, founder of “VisitHebron Tours” in Palestine shared with me an interesting perspective about the present-day situation of women and girls in Palestine that sheds light into the ways local culture gets shaped by outside interference:

“People think that the norms here are dictated by religion or culture, but they don’t realize it’s the occupation which has made people the way they are now. The division of the city, the restrictions of movement, the presence of Israeli soldiers and the need to comply with their orders are the factors which have influenced our norms. The restrictions on girls or the necessity to go home early followed the need to protect civilians during the Uprisings. The community became family-centered, because people could hardly often meet anybody outside their families and closest neighbors.”

The outdated metaphor which depicts the developments of feminisms through the “wave” model fails to take into account the multitude of factors that inhibit and propel feminist thought and action. As Karen Offen has suggested a more useful way of thinking about feminism historically is offered by the image of unstable earth whose “eruptions,  flows, fissures, molten lava” constitute the “threathening and fluid forms of discontent that repeatedly presses against (and when the pressure is sufficiently intense, bursts through) weak spots in the sedimented layers of a patriarchal crust, the institutional veneer of organized societies” (Offen, 2000, p. 25).


Amos, Valerie, and Pratibha Parmar. “Challenging Imperial Feminism.” Feminist Review, no. 17 (1984): 3-19. Accessed June 28, 2020. doi:10.2307/1395006.

Avdela, Efi & Psarra, Angelika. “Engendering ‘Greekness’: Women’s Emancipation and Irredentist Politics in Nineteenth-Century Greece”. Mediterranean Historical Review – MEDITERR HIST REV. 20 (2005): 67-79. 10.1080/09518960500204665.

De Haan, Francisca, and Daskalova, Krasimira. “ENTANGLED HISTORIES OF WOMEN’S MOVEMENTS AND FEMINISMS, An Interview of Krassimira Daskalova with Francisca de Haan”. Feminist Encounters, 2020.

Fleischmann, Ellen L. “The Emergence of the Palestinian Women’s Movement, 1929-39.” Journal of Palestine Studies 29, no. 3 (2000): 16-32. Accessed June 28, 2020. doi:10.2307/2676453.

JAD, ISLAH. Palestinian Women’s Activism: Nationalism, Secularism, Islamism. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2018. Accessed June 28, 2020. doi:10.2307/j.ctv14h56f.

Kuttab, Eileen. “The Palestinian Women’s Movement: From Resistance and Liberation to Accommodation and Globalization.” (2009).

Offen, Karen M. European feminisms, 1700-1950: a political history. Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, c2000.

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