Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Engendering State-Building: The Women's Movement and Gender-Regime in Palestine

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Engendering State-Building: The Women's Movement and Gender-Regime in Palestine

Article excerpt

After playing a major role in promoting the Palestinian national cause, the Palestinian women's movement seeks to influence policy-making and improve the legal status of women in the emerging state. The counter-campaign of the Islamic movement and the ambivalent position of the Palestinian Authority mirror the emerging "matrix of domination" in Palestine. A broad political coalition of all democratic forces in Palestinian society is needed if any real change in women's status is to take place.

Women have always played a part in the struggle for national liberation but the inherent meaning of their role in political struggles has not always been recognized. Most theorizing about nations and nationalism has ignored gender relations as irrelevant.1 In contrast, recent studies have attempted to demonstrate that women were always a central part of nationalist constructions and reproductions.2 Kumari Jayawardena has demonstrated that these two social movements are interrelated.3 Jayawardena claimed that women's loyalty to the nationalist project should not mean that women do not fight within it for the improvement and transformation of the position of women in their society.

But evidence from many "Third World" countries demonstrates that the active involvement of women in national struggles for liberation did not, usually, culminate in a fundamental transformation in their social status and their full integration in national political systems after independence. In many cases, women experienced a "backlash" or retreat in their position after independence was achieved.4 As part of civil society, women's organizations are demobilized and even prohibited from organizing. The sense of insecurity that national elites feel led to the reformulation of the national discourse to meet the new political circumstances and suppress civil organizations.5

In a recent study of Palestinian nationalism, Joseph Massad has explored the way in which masculinity figures in Palestinian nationalist discourse. He concludes that "Palestinian women may have more say in Palestinian politics in the near future, but given their contruction in the discourse of nationalist thought, they will be able to do so not as Palestinian women struggling for Palestinian women's rights, but as Palestinian women struggling for discursively constituted Palestinian rights, where Palestinian is always already conceived in the masculine.116 Massad's conclusion is based on the experience of the Palestinian women's movement before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA). But it opens the door for an interesting exploration of the development of the Palestinian women's movement since then. The 1993 Oslo agreements have led to major institutional changes in the occupied Palestinian territories. The PA has developed the characteristics of a state, although with limited authority and lacking sovereignty. Furthermore, its legislative authority is not yet resolved. But it is in the process of developing the rights and obligations of citizenship.7 Its policies in the transitional period regarding social, political, cultural, and economic policies will determine the character of the regime in the emerging state.8

Being one of the most organized social movements in the PA, the women's movement was the first to begin reorganizing itself and shifting its discourse to suit the new political reality. Women's organizations are very much engaged in lobbying for greater involvement and representation of women in decision-making. But the women's movement does not act in political vacuum. The changes in the language and policy of women's organizations that brought feminist issues to the center of public debate, led to fragmentation of the movement and to direct confrontation with social and political forces that seek to undermine its efforts. The women's movement is caught in a labyrinth in which the broader the scope of its struggle for gender equality, the stronger its internal fragmentation and the broader the resentment to its efforts. …

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