Although Palestinian women have been a key player in the history of the Palestinian liberation struggle for more than a century, as human rights defenders of their people on an informal, organised level and as part of the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, in a formal way, we hardly know anything about them. However, before the Zionist colonisation of Palestine was set in motion in the 19th century, women’s organisations existed. 3

The first record we have of a spontaneous women’s protest to resist the construction of one of the first Zionist settlements of the time is from 1893. The Palestine that the first Zionist settlers encountered was more or less like any other structured, productive and modern society of the time. Social and cultural life was concentrated in the cities, although the economy was sustained by production mainly in the agricultural sector, in particular in intensive crops (mainly olive and orange trees). Many of the products that were exported came from rural areas where women enjoyed considerable power and freedom.

It is not surprising that the first actions of women’s organisations focused on setting up a specific committee to study the situation of the peasant population, agriculture, trade and industry, and ended up promoting the creation of an agricultural bank in those years. The real threat of imminent foreign penetration of Palestine after the publication of the Balfour Declaration (1917) and the conquest of Jerusalem in the same year, legitimised by the League of Nations’ agreement to establish a Mandate (1920) over the entire territory of newly conquered Palestine, which it handed over to the British Empire (1922), were the main reasons for Palestinian women to organise politically.

Popular uprisings occurred throughout the period of British rule over Palestine (1917-1947): in 1920-1921 and again in 1929, until a General Strike was declared in 1936, resulting in the well-known Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. It is all these circumstances that lead women to mobilise politically and to create the first women’s organisation for strictly political purposes in 1921, the Palestinian Women’s Union (PWU). But fundamentally, it was these circumstances that led to the organisation of a strictly political women’s congress in 1929, the 1st Arab Women’s Congress of Palestine, held in Jerusalem, with the aim of developing a common policy of action in the face of the reality imposed on them. The Palestine Arab Women Association (PAWA) was created in 1929 aimed to create a large unified women’s movement to fight against Zionism.

The story of Palestinian women in the village of Baqa Al-Gharbiyyah who freed all the men British troops arrested in 1936 has turned into a legendary imprinted on the minds of the younger generations. Palestinian women also fought the Zionist gangs during the Nakba and defended their towns and villages side by side with their men. When two-thirds of the Palestinian population were expelled in 1948 and became refugees, Palestinian women were the ones who helped their men to wake up from the shock. They helped men to overcome their feelings of frustration and hopelessness at being made refugees. Their traditional role as caregivers for the family compelled them to refuse to be consumed by the trauma of the Nakba. Instead, they managed to re/build a sense of home and refuge inside refugee camps while teaching their children how to love Palestine and continue to fight for their right to return.

The political activism of refugee women in Arab countries between 1948 and 1967 gained strength in exile. The women’s movement will organise and structure itself mainly in Lebanon. Many Palestinian women, however, began to organise within the new state of Israel, affiliated to the Communist Party and the National Liberation League, as well as in the universities. The women of Nazareth formed the Women’s Renaissance Movement, which later, in 1952, joined with progressive Jewish women’s groups to form the Democratic Women’s Movement in 1973.

In the Committee for the Establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1964, out of 422 participants in the Palestinian National Council, 45 were women and 21 participated as delegates. Three of them were to serve on the Palestinian National Council and two on the Preparatory Committee. Once the PLO was created, the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW) was born in 1956 within it, which mobilised women politically and opened the debate on their rights within the liberation struggle. It was during the first intifada 1987-1993 that women were seen as a fundamental part of the resistance to Israeli colonisation, in many cases leading the protests and organising the provision of supplies and care for the insurrection of their people. From the popular uprising itself, Palestinian women are on the front line: they revolt, distribute weapons and clothes to Palestinian resisters and are the first on the front lines throwing stones at Israeli tanks.

On 8 March 1978, the first women’s committee, the Women’s Work Committee (WWC), was established, focusing on the specific rights of Palestinian women workers. Through this movement, it sought to strengthen the idea that women could be key to national emancipation while confronting patriarchy in their societies.
It was the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, which were opposed by Palestinian women’s organisations, that deactivated the women’s resistance movement and transformed it into government departments of the newly created Palestinian National Authority as well as dozens of NGOs and entities which, while maintaining a firm stance against the occupation, were to pay more attention to the democratic construction of a future state, the Palestinian state, which would take into account their role in the struggle for liberation and the rights of women and girls. In 1994, Palestinian women drafted the Women’s Charter, which set out the civil, political, social and economic rights of Palestinian women. This charter was never implemented because of the occupation and the weak structures of a Palestinian National Authority that was more of a local assistant to the Israeli colonial project than the seed of a new state.

In the year 2000, the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW) decided to appoint the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (UPWC) as the leader of the administrative council of the GUPW which, from then on, will try to reactivate the work of the fundamental structure representing all Palestinian women within the PLO, succeeding in establishing structures with a specific ministry and signing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and other international conventions and protocols for the protection of women’s rights, which resulted in the first National Strategy to Eliminate Violence against Women from 2011 to 2019.

Since then, the women’s movement has undergone many changes but has always been a key factor, both within and outside the various factions of the Palestinian liberation movement, in sustaining the struggle against occupation and Zionism for decades. This is why they, like their male colleagues, have faced detention, torture, espionage, physical and sexual violence by the occupier, as well as suffering the consequences of a patriarchal structure that prioritizes the struggle for liberation and puts feminist demands on the back burner.