Cultural resistance in Palestine through the eyes of women

Cultural resistance in Palestine through the eyes of women
6 min read

Zoe Lafferty

17 August, 2022
Zoe Lafferty explains how the first Palestinian Feminist Theatre Festival, which opened in Jenin Refugee Camp, is an antidote to Israel’s gendered violence.
Areej Haseeb whose performance in Us Too about the rights of Palestinian women will be screened at The Feminist Theatre Festival. [The Freedom Theatre]

As artists and audiences celebrated the opening of the first-ever Palestinian Feminist Theatre Festival in Jenin Refugee Camp, they were unaware that hours later, another mother would mourn the death of her son.

That evening the Israeli army entered Jenin Refugee Camp in a raid that included heavy gunfire, tear gas and concussion grenades. Shooting 17-year-old Dirar al-Kafrayni, the bullet entered through his shoulder, exploding internally and causing his immediate death. 

The next day the streets filled with men carrying the child’s body, and the festival was postponed to respect his family's morning. Kafrayni is one of 20 children killed by Israel in the West Bank and Jerusalem this year. 

When the festival opened here were powerful yet optimistic speeches from Fidaa Zidan and Mariam Basha, part of the all-female artistic committee, addressing the urgent need for women’s equal representation in all aspects of society, from the workplace to political parties.

Double oppression

The festival is driven by The Freedom Theatre, including Artistic Director Ahmed Tobasi and Producer Mustafa Sheta. Inspired by the rise of feminism in the sixties and feeling despondent that it has since been put to the back of the agenda, Mustafa said she was determined that “the festival be a space for women to present their vision of equality, re-awakening the call to find answers and take action.”

Those involved in the project are keen to address the double discrimination that women face both from Israeli occupation and within Palestinian society – whilst also highlighting how these are connected and challenging racist Western stereotypes of men in Arab society.

It's a complex challenge, especially for a theatre that lost 80% of its core funding in 2021 after rejecting conditions that stipulated they must depoliticise their work.

Taking place on The Freedom Theatre’s stage in Jenin Refugee Camp, it’s impossible to ignore the context this feminist festival takes place in. The camp is under constant military invasion, with boys and men being regularly killed and imprisoned. Families already in precarious economic situations due to 80% unemployment, are put under further strain with the burden falling on women to make ends meet. 

Furthermore, the relentless brutality experienced across four generations creates an endless cycle of humiliation, disempowerment and trauma, with toxic masculinity becoming a survival mechanism. Violence and oppression sometimes turns inwards, resulting in domestic violence and restrictions on women being able to choose their own futures. “This is why it is just as important for the festival to address not only women's rights but that of men’s and the racist and Islamophobic stereotypes that allow Israel to go unchallenged by the West”, added Mustafa.

Israel’s gendered targeting

However, this doesn't mean women and girls are spared in Israel's military attacks on the camp. Recently, 18-year-old Hanan Mahmoud Khdour was shot as she walked to school, and renowned journalist Shireen Abu Akleh – who was an inspiration to so many female journalists across Palestine – was murdered as she covered an invasion. 

The festival aims to connect global struggles with performances from Chile, Iraq, the UK and Germany happening alongside those from Palestine. Poet Shareefa Energy, who is set to perform, was living in North Kensington, London, when 72 people were killed in Grenfell Tower, clad in flammable material provided by company Arconic, who also supplied parts for Apache Helicopters and F-35 Fighter Jets used to bomb Gaza. 

These links are all the more crucial as Israel recently began yet another bombing campaign, killing 49 people, including 17 children. 

Continuing a legacy of feminism in theatre

Some performances will also take place in Ashtar Theatre in Ramallah which was founded by Iman Aoun and is one of Palestine’s most renowned theatre organisations, all founded and run by women.

Rania Elias from Yabous Cultural Centre, who was arrested in 2021, is certain that gender has played into Israel’s attempt to censor her with harassment continuing until this day. “They cannot stand a strong Palestinian woman who leads an institution that strives, who can speak to the media and has relations with thousands of people around the world. A Palestinian woman who defies the stereotype they wish to paint,” she explained.

Feminism is also embedded in The Freedom Theatre’s history, with co-founder Juliano Mer Khamis inspired by his mother’s cultural work in Jenin Camp in the 1st Intifada, both passionate that women’s equality was a key part of any liberation of Palestine. Additionally, Rania Wasfi, the first female employee, joined after her fiancée was killed in the 2nd Intifada. Engulfed in grief and with little to lose, Wasfi made a bold step by joining, helping to break potential taboos and pave the way for women to become the backbone of cultural resistance in the theatre.

In 2011 Juliano Mer Khamis led a radical adaption of Alice In Wonderland, which had Alice standing up to military oppression, dictatorships and societal discrimination. A week after the final show, Khamis was murdered, causing international media to claim his assassin was someone from the camp enraged by the idea of women's liberation. This narrative is firmly disputed by those at the theatre who are familiar with Israel’s history of imprisoning or killing artists who successfully portray Palestinian struggles. The consequences of both his murder and the media attention meant that participation for young women became far more complicated and difficult. 

The challenges don’t stop there, sadly.

As the climate crisis pushes summer temperatures consistently above 40 degrees, The Freedom Theatre’s infrastructure is unable to meet the demands of both stage lighting and air conditioning, making performances sweltering. However, whilst the obstacles are endless, The Feminist Theatre Festival is a bold step to continuing Juliano’s legacy and honour women, both in Palestine and globally, who are fighting for change.

With plans to turn the festival into an annual event, producer Mustafa Sheta emphasises, “We believe that by empowering each person, we grow collectively stronger and are therefore more likely to achieve the end to Israeli occupation and apartheid.”

Zoe Lafferty is associate director at The Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp, Palestine where she is currently collaborating on the global solidarity project ‘The Revolution’s Promise’ and virtual reality film ‘In A Thousand Silences’.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.