Making Palestine's History: Revolutionary testimonies from Palestinian women
While Palestinian memory is mostly synonymous with the 1948 Nakba, the ethnic cleansing carried out by Zionist paramilitaries to establish Israel’s colonial enterprise resulted in several strands of experiences; many of which are relatively unknown.
The vast Palestinian diaspora retained its long tradition of anti-colonial struggle.
While many narratives of Palestinian memory are intrinsically intertwined with the initial forced displacement from Palestine and recollections of the land, the personal narratives of Palestinians involved in resistance activities tend to be lost in more collective narrations of resistance outcomes.
"These courageous voices tell how women seized their role in the revolution and began their liberation process, not depending on the impetus of the revolutionary situation alone, or on the encouragement of their male compatriots, but as pioneers grabbing every opportunity to be in the forefront of the national struggle"
Jehan Helou’s new book, Making Palestine’s History: Women’s Testimonies (Spokesman Books, 2022) addresses this gap in Palestinian narratives by focusing on the personal experiences of Palestinian women.
Based on interviews with Palestinian women in Lebanon; the majority of who were involved in the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUWP), the book brings together the individual recollections of navigating the social fabric of Palestinian society in Lebanon’s refugee camps and the role women played in the grassroots anti-colonial resistance against Israeli violence.
The testimonies were first published in Arabic in 2009 by UNESCO. Now available in English, Jehans’s endeavours to make Palestinian oral history accessible reaches a wider audience, ensuring not only the inscription of Palestinian women’s voices but also their dissemination.
In the introduction to the book, Jehan writes, “These courageous voices tell how women seized their role in the revolution and began their liberation process, not depending on the impetus of the revolutionary situation alone, or on the encouragement of their male compatriots, but as pioneers grabbing every opportunity to be in the forefront of the national struggle, boldly breaking the chains that enslaved them.”
Against a backdrop of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) rise to prominence and subsequent decline following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the book prioritises the often marginalised role of women and how central women’s liberation is to the national liberation of Palestine, even if the latter often took precedence over the former. Jehan traces the struggle of the Palestinian feminist movement to the 1920s during the British mandate and the struggle against the early manifestations of Zionist settler-colonialism.
The women’s testimonies in this book exhibit a consciousness of the continuation of their liberation struggle.
Their involvement in military training and operations, literacy programs, and humanitarian and psychological assistance in the camps portray the Palestinian women’s revolutionary consciousness, which unfortunately was neglected by the PLO. Jehan writes, “Historically, Palestinian women were among the first Arab women to take political rights without demanding them and without demonstration.”
Speaking to The New Arab, Jehan explains, “Palestinian resistance never stopped, it evolved in different forms according to circumstances and various developments and the end goal was always the liberation of Palestine. The Palestinian women’s struggle for their liberation was always intertwined with the national liberation struggle, and their motivation to be active participants in their national liberation movement led them to realise that they had to break their chains and end their subordination."
Continuing her train of thought, the author goes on to explain that "the modern Palestinian revolution is a continuation to the earlier one. It arose with a wide zest and support from the Palestinian and Arab people, after the occupation of the Palestinian homeland. It was a revolution to liberate Palestine and a revolution against the complex enemies of Zionism and all the colonialists that assisted in the creating the state of Israel and caused their dispossession.”
"Several women discuss how tradition and social norms were challenged in the refugee camps as women became involved in resistance activities, bringing about more freedom in terms of personal choices as well"
Palestinian women’s testimonies in the book are laden with earlier recollections of the 1948 dispossession which happened with the Nakba. Several women discuss how tradition and social norms were challenged in the refugee camps as women became involved in resistance activities, bringing about more freedom in terms of personal choices as well.
Yet the PLO’s absence of vision in terms of women’s liberation resulted in a situation where women’s involvement in resistance happened within the greater context of Palestinian national liberation, but without reciprocity.
Amal Masri, a Palestinian woman who joined the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and participated in the military struggle, describes the PLO as unconcerned with women’s liberation. “The PLO worked to build female cadres to qualify them for leadership of organizational positions, but the liberation of women was not their concern.”
Another concern voiced by the Palestinian women interviewed for this book was the PLO’s failure to create democratically functioning institutions and how this omission set the scene for current repercussions in Palestinian politics.
Jehan explains the dynamics of the PLO in Lebanon. “The PLO represented the Palestinian people and its revolution, which necessitated the organising and mobilisation of all the people to defeat a very powerful multifaced enemy. Women did not wait to be invited and immediately joined the resistance as pioneers, taking initiatives in military training and activities, defending the camps and in the grassroots mobilisation and socialisation of women.”
The exclusivity of male leadership in the PLO, Jehan continues, was a product of a centuries-old prevailing patriarchal society which subjugated and subordinated women.
“The PLO did not have a vision or a social context program that envisaged how society is transformed into a progressive egalitarian society for everyone and where women have all the rights and opportunities with their fellow men. Consequently, the PLO leadership marginalised women’s liberation and their remarkable achievements. Opportunities were missed and countless inherent potentials vanished, resulting in a great loss to the revolutionary struggle and to our historical memory.”
In terms of oral history, the book makes an important contribution, particularly since multitudes of experiences and voices would be lost without such initiatives, thus resulting in an incomplete collective memory. “Knowing our history is vital to understand our current reality and to build a vision that enlightens our road to liberation,” Jehan says.
“In general, our Arab societies do not have a profound tradition of giving priority to documentation. Moreover, a good portion of our important documents as Palestinians was either lost during wars or looted by the Israelis, so many significant documents are missing. In the last few decades, oral history became an important component to cover our history. Women’s testimonies in this book are a humble contribution, yet they are valuable as they enriched the socio-political situation at the time. On the other hand, there is much more to be researched and discussed, mostly pertaining to the situation of Palestinian women in general, and Palestinian mothers who carried the great burden of the Nakba despite their chains and repressive family laws.”
Reading personal narratives makes history tangible. It is a different experience to read a first-hand account of how the PLO neglected the camps following the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, or how the exact number of victims of the Shatila massacre remains unknown. Likewise, the role of Palestinian women in rebuilding the camp of Ain Al-Helweh is another achievement which reads differently from personal testimony.
Jehan concludes, “Much more should be said about the great contribution of women freedom fighters who had to carry many burdens and struggle in terms of family, society and the national front. My book is a personal initiative, but now we need to have research centres to proceed with deeper research that narrates the untold stories and rich experiences of Palestinian women and their oppression, marginalisation, sacrifices and heroism.”
Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger specialising in the struggle for memory in Chile and Palestine, colonial violence and the manipulation of international law.
Follow her on Twitter: @walzerscent