Women in Hamas: Islamic feminism within a nationalist struggle

women_hamas

Islamic feminism in Palestine has been anchored and defined by the women’s movement within Hamas. It grew up in the 1990s alongside a more internationally accepted and Western-oriented Palestinian feminism that was anchored primarily by NGOs. Its connections to the Fatah-Palestinian Authority (PA) establishment were informal and congenial, though it’s success in reforming the PA has been limited, given that neither Fatah nor the PA themselves have well-developed internal institutions for advancing the status of women in the territories.

Today, Hamas is portrayed in international media as being inimical to the women’s movement, and as posing an existential threat to the few gains made by Palestinian women in the past two decades. A closer examination of the structure and history of the Islamic movement, however, conveys a very different picture. Far from a monolithic bulwark of Islamist patriarchal moors, Hamas itself encompasses a diverse array of political positions on Islamic gender politics. While it is true that some factions of the party have pushed for stringently anti-feminist interpretations and practices of Sharia law, it is also true that the efforts of the Women’s Action Department and the Salvation Party – both operating within the institutional framework of the party[i] – have created a politically meaningful space for women to an extent that the Fatah-PA establishment has not.

Overlaying these internal politics within Palestine is an equally complex matrix of opinion mediating the relationship between the women of Hamas and the western public. As is the case with Hamas itself, these media cannot be painted with the same brush. Here, it is important to understand that popular media effectively introduced the Western reader to the Hamas Woman amidst the paranoid atmosphere of the second intifada. Her image has subsequently been addressed in academic literature, which in recent years has begun to construct a positive inter-cultural dialogue; simultaneously, there has been little or no redress in the mainstream North American media for the roundly negative portrayals that dominated in the mid-aughts. Typically, these narratives have not portrayed Hamas women as agents, but rather as victims. One story that made headlines in 2005, for instance, concerned a 22-year-old Gazan woman who was arrested on suspicion of making bombs. The press then made a point of discussing the “sharp rise in the use of women by militant groups,” which it couched as a response to the fact “Palestinian women are subject to fewer security checks than men” at checkpoints.[ii] These women are thus portrayed as beholden to the will of the male-dominated party apparatus, with little agency of their own. The social role of women within the movement is totally overlooked.

This paper seeks to contextualize the role of women in Hamas first by examining the history of their participation in the Palestinian liberation movement. It will then seek to define the forms of Palestinian feminism, both secular and Islamic, that emerged from the first intifada in the late 1980s. This period saw significant progress in organization and mobilization for the women’s movement, though, as much of the literature has pointed out, the real gains of women have been extremely limited. I will then contrast the secular and Islamic women’s movements, examining how and why Hamas has facilitated women’s political participation in the movement in ways that surpass the institutional support for women within the secular establishment.

The Palestinian women’s movement must ultimately be seen as inextricable from the struggle for national liberation in Palestine. Souad Dajani writes, “There is a direct connection between the activism of Palestinian women and the national cause that clearly locates gender issues in the context of colonial rule,” writes Souad Dajani.[iii]

Early mobilization by women occurred in response to Zionist Jewish settlement in Palestine during the British Mandate. During this period women formed delegations to intercede with the British authorities, held their congresses, and engaged in various forms of protest against the influx of Zionist Jews to Palestine and against British policies that encouraged Jewish immigration. Once the arena of Palestinian activism shifted to the territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 War, the Palestinian women’s movement was forced to define itself and its relations to each of its new priorities: establishing a separate woman’s agenda, and connecting that agenda to the Palestinian national liberation movement. These formulations emerged against a backdrop of Israel’s continued colonial occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the attendant social and economic dislocations that ultimately affected women’s roles.

The modern history both of Palestinian women’s oppression and resistance thus needs to be understood through the colonial policies that have affected their daily lives since at least the British mandate. It was not until the first intifada in the late eighties, however, that these activities congealed into a more active and identifiable Palestinian women’s movement.[iv]

The Status of Women in Palestine

As in most Arab countries, laws relegated to the “personal” or “private” sphere are largely based on Islamic law, and traditional Palestinian gender dynamics are in some ways enshrined in these ordinances. Personal Status Laws – which pertain to marriage and citizenship and in many ways treat women as second-class citizens – continue to be enforced by the Palestinian Authority today. Here, we already confront the complex legal and colonial history of the place, given that the laws of the PA (itself only in existence since the mid-1990s) remain a pastiche of Ottoman, British and Jordanian law.[v] Moreover, as Nahla Abdo points out, “The PA still lacks a constitution (Basic Law) establishing the basic principles and laws of the Palestinian entity, spelling out the powers of the PA, and guaranteeing certain rights to those living in the PA areas.”[vi] Perhaps even more confounding is the fact that PA laws are only enforceable in Area A of the West Bank – a fragmentary series of enclaves that are not geographically cohesive.

In that sense it becomes difficult to characterize the Personal Status Laws as representing something definite and characteristically Palestinian, and certainly a term such as “traditional” becomes problematic here. At the same time, however, their general acceptance by Palestinian society in matters such as marriage and divorce indicates that they represent a powerful cultural strain. This fact is borne out in the social, and not merely the legal, reality. According to a recent survey by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 23 percent of Palestinian women have experienced physical violence, 68 percent psychological violence, and 11 percent sexual violence at the hands of their husbands. Only 1.2 percent of those who had experienced domestic violence had filed a formal complaint against their husbands against the police.[vii]

The West Bank Women’s Movement

The Personal Status Laws put women at a disadvantage in the legal realms of marriage and divorce law, child custody, and inheritance, among others.[viii] As the preexisting civil court system became enshrined within the framework of the PA in the 1990s, Palestinian women – especially those in the West Bank – began to organize a vocal opposition to the laws. Few tangible gains were made, however, as they found themselves fighting a large institutional system that was itself in relative disarray and had no institutional connections to the women’s movement. Even the slight victories made here often brought women back to the status quo at best. For instance, in 1994, the PA’s Interior Ministry issued a decree requiring the written consent of a husband or male guardian on women’s applications for passports. After a two-year battle that encompassed demonstrations, petitions, and meetings with officials, the order was finally rescinded.[ix]

The dynamics of this battle in many ways speak to the discord between the Palestinian Authority and the women’s movement. While the Fatah-PA establishment brands itself as modern and liberal by comparison to its Islamic rivals, it also has had no framework explicitly devoted to supporting women’s inclusion in the party. The first elections of the Palestinian Legislative Council took place in 1996, which marked the first time in history that Palestinian women were admitted to the polls.[x] Female representation remained minutely low following the vote, however: only 5 out of 88 (or 6 percent) of elected councilors were women, even though women had comprised 42 percent of the electorate.[xi] Those who built the women’s movement in the West Bank in the 1990s – those who participated in the campaign against the passport law, and who organized a number of conferences and research projects at this time – were primarily connected to the growing network of secular NGOs, and thus did not have any institutional sway in the PA.

Women in Hamas

The Islamic women’s movement within Hamas paralleled the growth of the more secular Ramallah-based movement, but was almost totally separate from it. Hamas was established in 1987, around the beginning of the first intifada, and its rise has been identified as part of a broader trend of Islamicization that is best understood, according to Jad, Allabadi, and several others, as closely identified with the nationalist struggle, while the hijab becomes “as a mark of a new kind of feminism known as Islamic feminism.”[xii] Thus, within a social context where women are frequently assaulted physically, verbally, and sexually by Israeli soldiers and settlers,[xiii] the veil can be seen as signifying personal integrity and sovereignty.

In 1995 Hamas created an internal body known as the Salvation Party. In its founding statement, the Party made explicit its objective of including those who had typically been excluded from the institutionalized structures of Palestinian politics, and paid particular attention to women, as well as labourers.[xiv]  The Party was only active in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas has historically been based and experienced its strongest support. However, the contributions of women in building the movement, especially among students, was tremendous.[xv]

The Salvation Party soon gave rise to Hamas’s Women’s Action Department, which strove to empower women in all aspects of their lives. One of the leaders of the Department, Amira Yousra, explained the body’s mandate, and the chronic difficulties it faces:

We try our best to attract these women to our activities. We organize workshops for them, to train them in different professions to sustain themselves. But in many cases these women withdraw. They are pressured by their imprisoned husbands not to enroll in the courses or to leave their homes, especially if the men have been sentenced for long periods. We could not do anything to help; this is a sensitive family matter.[xvi]

Despite the persistent difficulties these initiatives have faced amidst the religiously conservative climate of Gaza, Hamas has been relatively successful in incorporating women into the political establishment – certainly more so than Fatah. Gaza is broken into a number of regional governments, each with a five-member administrative committee, two of whom are the co-chairs, and each of these pairs must consist of a man and a woman. Furthermore, 15 percent of the executive committee of the Salvation Party are women, while 2 out of the 13 members of Hamas’s politburo are women. By contrast, as Islah Jad points out, none of the members of the PA’s executive committee are women.[xvii]

The discourse of the women’s movement subsequently began to work its way into the mainline rhetoric of the party. In 1999 the leadership of Hamas acknowledged that women are oppressed, and that their efforts to fight discrimination are justified. Jamila Al-Shanti, a professor at the Islamic University in Gaza, explained the overriding ideology of the Islamic women’s movement in an interview: “Our first job is to correct this [discrimination] because this is not Islam. We are going to show that women are not secondary, they are equal to men. Discrimination is not from Islam, it is from tradition. It may not be easy. Men may not agree.”[xviii]

There are two important trends occurring here. On the one hand, Hamas has attracted tremendous support from Palestinians throughout the territories due to their disappointment and disaffection with the PA’s impotence throughout its negotiations with Israel since the Oslo Accords. Many of these recruits have naturally included politically passionate women who have found it necessary to create a viable space for themselves within the Islamic movement. At the same time, Hamas’s broader mandate of Islamicization of Palestinian culture – encompassing the workplace, the family, et cetera – has meant that it would have to create such a space for women to avoid alienating them. In this particular sense, the struggle for national liberation through Islamicization has demanded that conservative and patriarchal Islamic moors are actually challenged and undermined by the movement itself.

Here, we see the introduction of what Islah Jad refers to as the “new Islamic woman.” For Jad, the expectations imposed upon women through this image encompass both political participation, as well asdomestic duties. In that sense, she writes, it is contradictory and unfair.[xix] However, she also acknowledges that Hamas’s implementation of services such as childcare represent a significant start in reconciling these difficulties.

The relationship between the Islamic movement and the questions raised by the Personal Status Laws, for instance, remains ambiguous. While it is clear that women in Hamas are engaged in an active struggle to enter the public sphere, some still side with the male-dominated old guard of the party on questions of gender segregation and dress code. Hamas, for instance, has no clear stance on the question of polygamy, and none of the English language literature suggests that the Women’s Action Department has attempted to address this.[xx]

Despite these ambiguities, it seems clear today that the Islamic women’s movement has far greater political traction within the structure of Hamas than the secular women’s movement has within Fatah. Writes Jad, “By becoming an opposition movement setting itself against all forms of violation of civic and human rights, Islamists have developed a political organization. In contrast, women working in NGOs have no organized constituency; and the support they do have, when they get it, is derived from a decaying delegitimized authority.”[xxi]


[i] Islah Jad. “Islamist women of Hamas: between feminism and nationalism” Asia Cultural Studies, 12. (2011): 195

[ii] Anonymous. “22-year-old woman accused of making Hamas bombs” USA Today. October 11, 2005

[iii] Souad Dajani “The struggle of Palestinian Women in the Occupied Territories: between Nationalism and Social Liberation,” Arab Studies Quarterly, 16. (1994): 5

[iv] Ibid, 6

[v] Hannah Rought-Brooks et al. “Palestinian Women: Caught in the Cross-Fire Between Occupation and Patriarchy,” Feminist Formations, 22. (2010): 127

[vi] Nahla Abdo, “Gender and Politics under the Palestinian Authority,” Journal for Palestine Studies, 22. (1999): 41

[vii] Rought-Brooks, 128

[viii] Fadwa Allabadi, “Secular and Islamist Women in Palestinian Society,” European Journal of Women’s Studies, 15. (2008): 181

[ix] Ibid, 185

[x] Ibid, 191

[xi] Ibid, 189

[xii] Ibid, 184

[xiii] Rought-Brooks

[xiv] Jad, 178

[xv] Ibid, 178

[xvi] Ibid, 182

[xvii] Ibid, 181

[xviii] Allabadi, 194

[xix] Jad, 180

[xx] Ibid, 182

[xxi] Ibid, 196

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