Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Palestinian Women's Movement versus Hamas: Attempting to Understand Women's Empowerment outside a Feminist Framework

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Palestinian Women's Movement versus Hamas: Attempting to Understand Women's Empowerment outside a Feminist Framework

Article excerpt


In late spring of 2007, I travelled to the occupied Palestinian West Bank to conduct my Ph.D. fieldwork on female Islamists affiliated with Hamas. I took the opportunity also to attend conferences and meetings of the women whose writings on gender in Palestine I had admired for years. Hearing academic papers presented by both academics and women's rights practitioners I was shocked at the hostility with which most of the women I met and heard spoke about female Hamas activists. Statements too crude to repeat in an academic article were the norm when the discussion turned to the victory of Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections and the fact that now an Islamist was Minister of Women's Affairs. Female Islamists were described as tools in the hands of the male elite of Hamas who reproduced their own subordination. There was no doubt about the fact that Hamas would suppress all Palestinian women and bring the 'secular' and 'open' Palestinian society back to the Middle Ages.

Not only were Hamas members missing from any academic conference on gender, there were also almost no women who wore the headscarf present. At one conference I attended, the only muhajaba (woman wearing the hijab/ headscarf) immediately declared that she was a member of Fateh.

This vilification of Islamists, believing that female Islamic activists are not agents who make their own choices, was at odds with the otherwise sophisticated analyses of these academics and practitioners. Coming from feminist backgrounds, many had previously spoken out against the tendency of mainstream academia to universalize the experiences of those who are powerful.

This experience left me deeply unsettled. Moreover, in the secondary literature on gender politics in Palestine, international academics often uncritically adopted the same views. An example of an earlier incident in which this was the case is Reema Hammami's (1990) article on the so-called hijab campaign.

Hammami (1990) writes that in the early years of the first Palestinian uprising (intifada) a campaign was waged to impose the headscarf on first the women of Gaza and then the women of the West bank.

In Gaza it started with religious youths writing graffiti, then breaking into girls' schools and making speeches. Next, young boys (between 8 and 12) who were empowered by the intifada joined the campaign. If there were no soldiers to throw stones at, women without headscarves made good targets. Politically unaffiliated shabab [youth] who felt left out found harassing these women a safe way to express nationalist sentiment.. .What was most problematic for many women in Gaza was that this social pressure accompanied an attempt to "nationalize" the hijab. Original arguments ascribing the hijab with religious meaning were all but swept away by its new intifada signification. The hijab was promoted. as a sign of women's political commitment, as women, to the intifada (Hammami, 1990, 26).

In Gaza the harassment got so bad that, within a year, there were almost no women left who did not eventually start wearing the hijab (Hammami, 1990, 27).

A year after the attacks, the Unified Leadership, which was comprised of all Palestinian political factions except for Hamas, finally condemned the attacks. Graffiti soon appeared saying that those who threw stones at women will be treated as collaborators. Hammami writes that,

the statement of the Unified Leadership had an immediate impact. In a matter of days the atmosphere in the streets changed dramatically, and women without headscarves no longer felt so threatened. Few men dared tell a woman to cover her head, and those who did could be accused of considering themselves greater than the Unified Leadership. The women had the power of the intifada on their side (Hammami, 1990, 27).

Even though Hammami acknowledges the complex nature of the incident, arguing that "the forces of the hijab campaign are hard to delineate because multiple forces worked simultaneously (though not necessarily jointly) to confront women at every turn with demands to wear a headscarf' (Hammami, 1990, 27), Hammami as well as others clearly blame the Islamists, mainly Hamas, for being behind this campaign (Abdulhadi, 1998, Roy, 1993). …

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