Daughters of Palestine: Leading Women of the Palestinian National Movement, by Amal Kawar. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. 159 pages, with notes and index. $16.95, paperback.
Most women around the globe, in all social and economic strata, can testify to having known discrimination. In some countries, it is more institutionalized than in others. There are one billion Muslims in the world today and the Arab-Islamic world alone comprises over 200 million people living in 22 Arab countries. There is no one "Arab woman," as Suha Sabbagh in Arab Women reminds us. Each country interprets women's rights under Islam somewhat differently. Also in each country social class becomes a determining factor in the way in which women's personal rights are treated. Yet Arab women everywhere have four issues of great concern: their legal status, political rights, education and health care, and employment opportunities.
Arab Women, with chapters by 27 contributors as well as an introduction by editor Sabbagh, is a kind of anthology: it combines articles of various lengths and attempts to address circumstances in most Arab countries. Its weakness is that it does not adequately deal in depth with some of the fundamental issues, such as education, and it does not emphasize or delineate in detail the vast differences among women in the various Arab countries. While some challenges are common, others are unique to a certain country. However, the book has great merit, especially to those who want an initial introduction to Arab women. And it is indisputably a good idea to allow so many prominent Arab women to speak in their own voices.
Sabbagh, who was executive director of the Institute for Arab Women's Studies in Washington, D.C., and currently teaches at Bir Zeit University, points out that Arab women carry many burdens, the worst being the popular stereotypes that "serve to establish the positional superiority of Western women (and) constitute a worse injustice against Arab women than the patriarchal oppression they must face in their own countries."
At the same time, Dr. Rita Giacaman, a Palestinian doctor, professor and mother, argues that "as long as women do not challenge the traditional division of labor, no serious transformation will take place."
In a chapter dealing with property rights in Islam, Abla Amawi of Amman points out "it still remains the custom in some rural areas today for fathers to distribute their land to their male heirs before their deaths, to avoid dividing it and giving shares to female heirs." She and others stress that Islamism has placed the issue of the roles and rights of women at the center of its agenda. "The Islamist tide is increasing," Amawi writes. "To alienate them is a no-win solution. Perhaps the best policy is to strengthen a dialogue with the Islamists to seek reform from within these movements. If there are reform-minded fundamentalists, are they our hope?"
Mervat Hatem, who teaches at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in a chapter on women in Egyptian society, reports that Zaynab al-Ghazali represents "the only female figure who occupied a national leadership position in an Islamist organization." Her life shows that women activists working with Islamist groups have to tread a fine line between political commitment and the pressure to prioritize the roles of wife and mother. AI-Ghazali, who worked with the Egyptian Feminist Union to form the Muslim Women's Association, a group closely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, left her first husband over her devotion to political work. She included a clause in the contract for her second marriage that she would be free to do political work. Nonetheless, she frequently emphasized that a woman's first duty is to her family. Imprisoned and tortured under the Nasser regime, she became a popular and revered figure.
Amal Kawar, an associate professor of political science at Utah State University, became interested in writing Daughters of Palestine during the first year of the Intifada. For the book, she interviewed 34 women, 29 of them Muslim and the others Christian, who represent each of the PLO's major factions, the vast majority of the women having been born within the boundaries of pre-1948 Palestine. One-third of the 34 experienced Israeli interrogation and imprisonment and two were sexually tortured. Kawar reports that "the female freedom fighters who served long sentences in Israeli prisons were an elite group who became heroic figures from the period of the late 1960s through the 1970s - the armed struggle stage of the Palestinian movement."
Um Nasser, a member of the Women's Union secretariat and former head of the PLO chairman's office, had asked her husband's permission to join Fatah, which he gave. Their marriage, however, ended in divorce. Also in the case of Mai Sayigh, giving full devotion to the resistance resulted in divorce, and she also lost custody of her young children. Nihaya Muhammad, who as a member of the Women's Union secretariat and in the leadership of the Democratic Front, said that "having a husband working the same field helped a lot because he understood her political responsibilities."
Kawar, a Palestinian whose family is from Acre, writes that Hanan Ashrawi, since the Intifada began in late 1987, "accomplished an astonishing success in speaking for the Palestinian cause to the international media and in showing a Palestinian woman in a prominent political role." She adds, however, that in the Palestinian community, Intissar al-Wazir, has long been the most widely recognized and respected. She has been in the inner circle of Fatah for a quarter century by virtue of her political status as the wife of Abu Jihad, one of the founders of Fatah.
Um Jihad witnessed, along with her adolescent daughter Hanan, the gunning down of her husband in 1988 by Israeli commandos in their home in Tunisia. She was affiliated with Fatah even before her marriage, when she was a teenager living in Gaza. Now she is back in Gaza, still part of the struggle for the liberation of her people.