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The Women are Marching: The Second Sex and the Palestinian Revolution.

ON DECEMBER 9, 1987, the Palestinian uprising known as the intifada erupted in the Gaza Strip and quickly spread to the West Bank. Characterised by commercial strikes, mass demonstrations and a boycott of Israeli goods, the intifada has dramatically altered the political, social and economic fabric of the Occupied Territories. Another dramatic consequence, and one less known, is the fundamental change the intifada has triggered in the lives of Palestinian women. Prior to 1987, their traditional role was largely defined within the private domain of the family. Not any more.

By March, 1987, the intifada had brought women out of their homes and onto the streets. Challenging religious and social traditions, women of all ages joined in the uprising, often physically protecting stone-throwing youths from gun-toting Israeli soldiers. Within a year, women had become the backbone of spontaneous demonstrations, participating in as many as 100 a week.

Today, women have emerged as a key force in the intifada. Not only do they participate in demonstrations, they are the primary organisers of the many education, health and agricultural committees that now sustain the evolving infrastructure of the Occupied Territories.

In July 1989, Philippa Strum, author of The Woman are Marching: The Second Sex and the Palestinian Revolution, travelled to the West Bank, eager to observe the emergence of the Palestinian women's movement within a national liberation movement. A series of month long visits over the next three years enabled the political scientist and human rights activist to interview Palestinian women active in committees and the burgeoning women's movement. Her book is a well-documented account of the Palestinian women's movement, which has been obscured behind the larger political drama of the intifada.

Historically, the Palestinian women's movement has been inextricably linked with the Palestinian national liberation movement. At the turn of the century, women were first mobilised by the struggle for Palestinian nationalism, demonstrating as early as 1884 against the first Jewish settlement. Later on, from the 1920s to 1948, women's groups distributed leaflets, demonstrated, and provided food, first aid and financial support to men fighting in the armed struggle against the creation of the state of Israel.

Grass-roots women's committees and societies traditionally have provided a foundation for the evolving Palestinian women's movement. Societies organised by women within refugee camps in the aftermath of the 1948 war provided Palestinian women with a new sense of self-empowerment within a traditionally male-dominated culture. Literacy programmes sponsored by the societies, as well as first aid and nurses' training enabled the newly displaced and often undereducated women to provide better for their families. Over 38 such charitable organisations are registered on the West Bank today.

The 1970s introduced an era of radicalisation. Women were arrested and imprisoned for political activities in increasing numbers.

In 1978, the establishment of the Women's Work Committee (WWC) in Ramallah marked the beginning of the new women's movement. Founded by young university-trained women activists, their goal was to create a national political entity with a specific women's agenda. In an attempt to draw non-urban women into the national struggle, WWC conducted a grass-roots information survey that uncovered the many burdens -- illiteracy, poverty, lack of information about legal rights and health care -- endured by the rural majority of women. It was eye-opening for the elite minority of women that led most of the committees. This led to the adoption of a platform demanding an improvement in women's political, economic, social and cultural status as an inherent part of the process of liberation.

The grass-roots women's committees established during the 1970s and 1980s provided women with a history of politicisation, socialisation and social work that has strengthened their present role within the intifada. Their experience in these committees enables them to play a key role in creating an economic and social infrastructure that has lessened Palestinian reliance on Israel during the past five years.

Will the evolving changes in political, economic and social life in the Occupied Territories result in long-term equality and power for Palestinian women? Or will Palestinian women suffer the fate of Algerian women who played an active role in their revolution, only to be forced back into the kitchen once the revolution ended?

Strum's book echoes with the strong voices of Palestinian women activists, women who are not going to waste the achievements of the intifada, which revitalised the women's movement, by returning to their traditional status. Interweaving these voices with her own experience as an American Jew living with a Palestinian family in Ramallah, enables Strum to highlight the dynamics of the Palestinian women's movement and to draw a clear and disturbing picture of the intifada.
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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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