Looking Back on WLUML’s Work in 2000: Prioritizing the Women’s Movement’s Goals

“Still Palestinian feminists are struggling to prioritize their goals: Should they fight exclusively for Palestinian statehood, in the hope that this will further their goals? Or should they be social critics, promoting long-term issues of democracy and women's rights as national institutions and a constitution are being formed? In 1988, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat proclaimed that "Palestine is a state...based on social justice, equality with no discrimination...on the basis of ethnicity, religion, color or between men and women." The mechanics of achieving such a vision were left undefined.”

-  Dahlia Scheindlin, "Palestinian Women's Model Parliament"

In WLUML Dossier 22, published 14 years ago, Dahlia Scheindlin argued that the relationship between the women’s movement in Palestine and the Palestinian national struggle is an uncertain one, as the national women’s movement is constantly faced with the question of where it situates itself in relation to the Palestinian liberation struggle. Is the women’s struggle situated within the wider national struggle or is gender equality a separate goal to be pursued independently of Palestinian nationhood?


This is not a challenge that is particular to Palestine. Historically, many feminist movements have had to define their place in relation to wider social movements. Undoubtedly, women’s movements, as struggles for liberation, share similar goals with postcolonial, anti-racist and class-based movements. A common struggle against oppression creates kinship between women’s movements and other social movements, and there need not be antagonism between them. Indeed, the social, political, and economic status of women is strongly shaped by these other forms of oppression.


In Algeria, women carved out a place for themselves during the War of Independence as part of the overall anti-colonial struggle. However, in Algeria - as well as in Iran and Tunisia -following the shift in power, women were legally and politically sidelined by male-dominated fundamentalist movements. This points to the dangers involved in subsuming the women’s movement in wider struggles for social justice. Arguably, the women’s struggle should thus not be diluted in other social movements.


Muslim women, especially in postcolonial societies, continue to struggle to carve out a place for themselves in society, rather than surrendering their agency to a wider patriarchal kinship-modelled state. Women’s movements are often seen as deviating from more “important”, larger struggles. They are often even perceived as having betraying the national cause and joined enemy ranks, despite the fact that women’s movements reflect indigenous concerns, not foreign agendas. Thus, women face this double burden.


Furthermore, in the opening quote in which Scheindlin cites Yasser Arafat, the goal of gender equality is clearly mentioned yet there is no clear plan or mechanism for its implementation. The Arafat quote is symptomatic of a wider trend in political movements. Gender equality is often mentioned by modernizers as a goal to be achieved as part of liberation movements, yet broad statements are rarely followed by concrete steps towards implementation.  


As of yet, it is unclear if this has changed in post-revolutionary/ post-authoritarian societies in the Middle East. Looking at the 2011 Constitution of Egypt, the text pertaining to women discusses their role in the familial sphere almost exclusively. No mention is made of international human rights law pertaining to women, although Egypt has signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Another example is the post-Saddam Iraqi Constitution, which clearly states that there shall be no discrimination based on gender, yet does not outline how this provision shall be implemented. Furthermore, Iraq’s moderate Personal Status code of 1959 was repealed.


It seems that women are often sidelined once the liberation struggle ends, and so their liberation is rarely realized. In some cases this may be due to backlash against previous regimes, and their state policies. Moderate laws under previous regimes come to be resented by new authorities because of this association. For example, in Egypt, the ‘state feminism’ of Suzanne Mubarak has become a burden to women’s movements in post-revolutionary Egypt. Women face the double burden of struggling against autocracy and struggling for their own right as women in a post-revolutionary society.  


This quote from Dahlia Scheindlin is deeply relevant, fourteen years on, to women’s movements today in postcolonial and post-revolutionary societies. As has been discussed, women’s liberation is linked to liberation on other fronts, such as racial and national liberation. Yet, women’s movements must continually carve out a place for themselves in postcolonial contexts, else they continue to be pushed aside, as history has witnessed.


by Dana Ahmad, WLUML intern