Palestinian women as our icons

Guest contribution by Fidaa Elaydi

Like every cause, the Palestinian cause is one with a number of icons. Unlike a number of causes, the Palestinian cause has its fair share of female icons.

Because of my fascination with politics and love for rhetoric, the Palestinian icon I generally have gravitated toward is Hanan Ashrawi. Although, like most Palestinians, I am critical of the PLO, I defend Ashrawi by first explaining that she was against the Oslo Accords. I have always been impressed by her, first, because she was always outspoken in expressing to the world the true nature of the Palestinian cause, even when it meant she was speaking against the faction she represented. Additionally, she emphasized the importance of education in empowering our people not merely by paying this institution lip service, but by making huge sacrifices and taking great risks to ensure that one of most fundamental pillars of the Palestinian education system, Bir Zeit University, continued to offer classes even when the campus was shut down during the first intifada. She taught classes in her home, in abandoned buildings, and every other location she could secure and gather students to keep from depriving them of their right to education. But, most importantly, I credit Ashrawi with the beautiful gift of showing me where the power behind our cause lies: in our women.

In her account of her personal struggles during the “peace process” of the 1990s, “This Side of Peace,” Ashrawi stated that “the recognition of world political figures or prominent members of the media, although gratifying, did not have the impact of the words of women from the refugee camps or men from the villages who often made a point of telling me, ‘You make us proud.’” I remember reading this sentence only days after having this exact conversation with my mother. My mother, a woman from a refugee camp, told me how Ashrawi “raised the heads of the Palestinian people,” giving them pride, when she spoke on television. She portrayed us as an oppressed people with legitimate grievances when the world only saw us as “terrorists” and “stone throwers.” She was educated and articulate and spoke better English than any Palestinian leader before her, but even with these distinguishing qualities, she did not lose site of where the struggle truly was being fought: in the classrooms, streets, and homes of Palestine. That excerpt was on page 94 of her book, I stopped reading at page 100. I didn’t stop reading because her story did not fascinate me or because the period in history she described was not important; I stopped because I knew I could learn more about the Palestinian cause by learning more about Palestinians and how the Palestinian cause has taken shape through them.

I no longer obsess over any particular icon, but I recognize what the actual work on the ground has done for the Palestinian cause. And I am filled with pride and joy that very often, these efforts are led by women. I see the efforts of young activists in Nabi Saleh, Bil’in, and other Palestinian villages in the West Bank who risk their lives every week without fail to ensure that walls are not built, wells are not stolen, and trees not uprooted. They do not back down when Occupation Forces approach them, they do not resort to violence or name calling, they retain their dignity and their pride as they engage in the most timeless of resistance tactics: protest. They shout and chant and sing and in return they are shot at, gagged with skunk gas, and suffocated with tear gas, but they do not give up. I think of the protests that take place in front of the Red Cross in Gaza City every week demanding that relatives of Palestinian political prisoners from the Gaza Strip be permitted to visit them and calling for an end to the illegal denial of due process practiced by Israel by the name of “administrative detention.” I think of the writing workshops, BDS activism, and citizen journalism taking place in Palestine today, very often headed by Palestinian women, and I recognize that our cause has changed.

In the past, we had icons and collaborating officials that propelled (or arguably retarded) our cause, but now our cause is being led by normal, everyday individuals and, to a greater degree, by our women as well. People no longer hold out for deals and negotiations and peace agreements to change the facts on the ground, we have assumed this duty ourselves. Simply look to Hana Shalabi, borrowing her methods from Sheikh Khader Adnan, who has not decided to write a letter to her unelected president or exiled political leader when she was illegally arrested, she has not asked anyone to fight for her rights; she took the battle on herself. She has been on hunger strike for 21 days now demanding that she be released. After being held captive, because that is what you call illegal arrest and detainment without charge, for 30 months, she was released in the October prisoner exchange. She was again arrested February 16, again without being charged, and subject to unreasonable brutality and humiliating strip search. Her defiance of illegality and injustice is fearless and commendable and hopefully shaping the new face of the Palestinian struggle.

Not only has the Palestinian cause taken new shape, our icons seem to have lost influence. Maybe we are desperately in need of another election, or maybe our struggle has become people-led instead of faction-led. Either way, I welcome the change and encourage more actions involving Palestinians taking their fate into their own hands by implementing change on the ground through direct people-led initiatives.

For now, my icon fix is being filled by my newest Palestinian hero, my aunt. She is a geography and human rights teacher at an UNRWA girls’ school in Nuseirat Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. Not only is her life’s work the education of young girls about their unalienable and fundamental human rights that they must protect and defend, she is the mother of ten, an enormous feat in itself. She was born and raised in a refugee camp and has never been to her hometown of Beir al Saba’, but is more worldly and can share with you more life lessons than the most traveled of academics. She has the love and compassion that only the mother of ten can possess. But most importantly, she embodies the Palestinian spirit of resistance through hope. I remember her telling me how hypocritical it felt to teach human rights to children who will only grow up to realize that they do not have any. She felt like she was teasing them when she spoke about equal protection under the law and freedom from torture and right to fair trial and the freedoms of movement and speech. Even though these ideas seemed like a farce when she considered the actual living conditions these children were forced to endure, she never doubted the importance of instilling in these girls the importance of these rights and the self-value they should derive from them.

Today is International Women’s Day and I choose to recognize the important role of Palestinian women in our national cause, because even though our faces are not painted on walls 8 meters high and we have not published books, we are the foundation of the movement, the mothers and daughters and educators who propel the continued struggle for justice and equality.

Fidaa Elaydi

Fidaa Elaydi is a third generation Palestinian refugee and BDS activist living in Texas where she was born and raised and presently attends law school. 

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