In July 1985 I was in Nairobi, Kenya for the UN international conference on women. I was getting ready to give my speech when a woman came up to me and whispered: “Please do not bring up Palestine in your speech. This is a women’s conference, not a political conference.” The woman was Betty Friedan, one of the leading American feminists of the 1960s.
I disregarded her request, since I believe that women’s issues cannot be dealt with in isolation from politics. Women’s emancipation in the Arab region is closely linked to the regimes under which we live, regimes which are supported by the US in most cases, and the struggle between Israel and Palestine has an important impact on the political situation. Besides, how can we speak of liberation for Palestinian women without speaking of their right to have a land on which to live? How can we speak about Arab women’s rights in Palestine and Israel without opposing the racial discrimination exercised against them by the Israeli regime?
Betty Friedan and other Jewish feminists were angry with me because I insisted on bringing up the system of apartheid forced upon Arab women and men in Palestine by Israel, and yet the same feminists had no hesitation in speaking about South African apartheid at the same conference. Nevertheless, there were other Jewish women at the conference who refused to adopt these racial double standards and who stood up for the rights of both Palestinian and South African women.
On another occasion I was attending an international women’s conference in Toronto, Canada. This was five years later, in June 1990. I mentioned that women had been veiled before Islam, that women had been forced to wear the veil first in Judaism and then in Christianity. Some of the Jewish women at the conference were angry with what I said. One of them, Alice Shalvi, who was a leading figure in what was called the Israeli Women’s Network, said: “I must protest: there is no conception of the veil in Judaism.” An article by Gwynne Dyer in the Toronto Star (3 July 1990) attributed the furious protests to the strong tendency in the West to scapegoat Islam for practices that are just as much a part of the Jewish and Christian heritage.
In the Old Testament, uncovering a woman’s head is considered a disgrace; that is why the priest had to uncover the suspected adulteress in her trial by ordeal (Numbers 5: 16-18). Rabbis said: “It is not like the daughters of Israel to walk out with heads uncovered,” and “Cursed be the man who lets the hair of his wife be seen.”
During the 19th century in Europe, some Jewish women found it more convenient to replace their traditional veil with a wig as another form of hair covering. In the New Testament, St Paul said: “If a woman does not cover her head she should have her hair cut off.” Catholic nuns have been covering their heads for hundreds of years.
Despite these historical facts, the racism still prevalent in Western societies continues to link veiling with Islam alone. This is an integral part of the anti-Arab policies followed by Western ruling circles. It is one of many arguments used to depict Islam as the only religion that oppresses women, and to justify pro-Israeli policies in the eyes of the public.
Israel is a fundamentalist state built on the Biblical argument that the Jews are the chosen people of Jehovah (God), and that Palestine is their promised land. Religious fundamentalism is the same, whether Jewish, Christian or Islamic. All forms of fundamentalism are racist since they consider people who belong to a certain religion as superior, and so justify discrimination against others.
The Zionist fundamentalist state of Israel, backed by the US, has built an arsenal of modern weapons provided by the US to attack unarmed civilian populations, destroy homes, occupy Palestinians’ land and kill women and children. When the Palestinians fight back with stones they are called terrorists. When in desperation a few of them throw bombs or plant dynamite, the media conceals Israel’s organised massive state terrorism and depicts the Palestinians as fanatical aggressors. Double standards prevail, and the powerful are able to conceal the truth: that Zionist Israel is a racist state, and that racism breeds racism wherever it goes.