Author’s Note: I originally withdrew this piece because I was concerned that this piece glorifies women who use violence. But it doesn’t help anyone to keep our heads in the sand. It is certainly not the way to greater understanding, of which there has been a great lack of for many decades, to pretend that victims of violence are not going to react violently. That would be naiveté at its best, and completely un-American since we ourselves used unspeakable violence to beat British tyranny.
IRA volunteer, Mairead Farrell, who was shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar in 1988, once said, “I’m oppressed as a woman, but I’m also oppressed because I’m Irish . . . We can’t successfully end our oppression as women until we first end the oppression of our country.”
Palestinian women can identify with Mairead Farrell. In fact, throughout Palestinian history, there have been many Maireads.
In the late Sixties and early Seventies, there was the Palestinian hijacker, Leila Khaled, also known as the Deadly Beauty. She hijacked her first plane in 1969, and then had no less than six cosmetic surgeries so that she could do it again. In 1970, she and her Latin-American compatriot, Patrick Arguello, went undetected at the Amsterdam Airport, and hijacked Israel’s El Al plane. No passengers were to be killed or were killed on either flight, per the orders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Today, Khaled is a mother of two and says that not only does she have no regrets for her actions, but that she would do it again.
Khaled was a novelty among international hijackers because of her gender. But her story prior to the hijackings was actually quite ordinary for Palestinians. Khaled was born in Haifa and at age four, she was forced to leave Palestine in 1948 with her mother and 12 siblings — during Israel’s creation. They fled to Lebanon, like so many other families from the north of Palestine. She still remembers being told by her mother not to pick oranges because they were in Lebanon and it was not their fruit to pick. She ultimately committed herself full-time to armed struggle at the tender age of 15.
Israel’s subsequent Occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in 1967 also inspired a number of women to join the armed struggle, especially in the Occupied Territories. Many of these women were trained in military camps in Jordan for guerilla operations.
Fast forward about 35 years. Meet Wafa Idris, the first Palestinian female suicide bomber. Idris recently killed herself and an Israeli man. More than 100 were wounded. Idris, who was a nurse, grew up in the Amari refugee camp outside of Ramallah, West Bank.
“She came home from work every day and told us what she saw: a wounded child, a youth whose brains were spilled by a bullet, a young man with a bullet in his heart, eyes that were red from tear gas,” said a friend of Idris.
“Why go through all that, and for no pay?” her mother said she once asked her daughter. Idris responded, “For our country and our people.”
More Palestinian women are expected to follow Idris’s footsteps, as Israelis are given the green light to continue bombing, to further tighten a devastating economic siege, to prevent people from obtaining medical care, and to kill Palestinians for competition — according to an Israeli officer who now refuses to serve in the Israeli Defense Force. Palestinian women have not only been victims, but they have had to step in and fill the missing voids left by the imprisonment, maiming, or killing of their male loved ones.
There are Palestinian women who have chosen less dramatic routes in the pursuit of freedom, such as the articulate chief spokesperson, Hanan Ashrawi. But the common thread is freedom. Israel’s refusal to treat their neighbors as equals with dignity is sadly adding to the desperation that many Palestinian women feel, as well as the acts that follow.
And so I reflect on a memorable lecture during my years at Michigan State University. It was given by a Palestinian female professor. When she discussed the fact that Palestinian women were among the first in the Third World to ever demand equal rights, an American student asked, “Well, do they have equal rights now?”
The professor quietly responded that if Palestinian men don’t even have the most basic of human rights, what was the point of pushing forth a feminist movement?
Mairead, are you nodding?
Sherri Muzher is a Palestinian-American activist, lawyer, and freelance journalist.