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Why Palestine is a Feminist Issue

At this year’s BISA (British International Studies Association) conference a crowd gathered in The International Convention Centre to listen to Hala Shoman (Newcastle University), Maryam Aldossari (Royal Holloway, University of London), Ashjan Ajour (University of Wolverhampton), Nicola Pratt (University of Warwick), Sara Ababneh (University of Sheffield) and chair Jemima Repo (Newcastle University) discuss why Palestine is a feminist issue. Mira Mookerjee, Editor and Curator at the Global Souths Hub attended the talk and shares what was discussed.

Since October 7th 2023, at least 37,124 people have been killed and 84,712 injured in Israel’s war on Gaza, with approximately 70% of those killed being women and children. The UN Human Rights Council has received hundreds of reports of rape, sexual assault and naked strip searches among the women and girls detained by Israeli authorities and the numbers continue to rise. Why Palestine is a Feminist Issue held at BISA 2024 asks where is the uproar in Western feminist communities?

Chair Jemima Repo begins the discussion by drawing attention to how “Israel has systematically destroyed Gaza’s education sector. Not a single student in the Gaza strip will graduate this year […] Israel has not only damaged and destroyed every university and over three hundred and fifty schools in Gaza, but has also killed thousands of students, hundreds of teachers, university professors and leading scholars […] and historical archives have all been obliterated. I urge you to stand in solidarity with our Palestinian colleagues and students and join calls to end the Israeli genocide in Palestine and support the campaign to End Scholasticide.”

Jemima highlights that “this war is a continuation of the settler colonialist violence against Palestinians. […] As Global South feminists and feminists of colour have demonstrated, Western feminism has been historically complicit in colonial projects, ignoring the structural epistemic and direct harms caused by empire […]. With this roundtable we hope to highlight and discuss the problem of Western feminists’ silence around Gaza, and feminists’ perspectives on the lived experience of Palestinians anticolonial struggle.”

Hala Shoman, a Palestinian from Gaza and a PhD student at Newcastle University, explains that Israel’s blockade on aid reaching Gaza means that women, men and children are being denied food and medical supplies, including period pads, painkillers and anaesthetics. The lack of anaesthesia means that Palestinians are forced to go through limb amputations and C-sections while awake and fully conscious, causing many to die from the severe pain. Hala goes on to describe that due to the lack of medical supplies and the destruction of hospitals, women, who have been unsupported and unexamined throughout the full term of their pregnancies, are delivering babies in make-shift facilities where the necessary equipment is not available. Hala explains that her “brother-in-law is a gynaecologist, and in one week he had to perform fifteen post-mortem deliveries.” Her brother-in-law “is also a father, […] and each time he made this decision he thought ‘I am bringing an infant into this world without a mum, access to milk, incubators, or any way of surviving’.”

Hala goes on to describe how her friend who is still currently in Gaza met a child named Saima, a fourteen-year-old double amputee with no surviving family who was bleeding between her legs. There are over 17,000 children who are in the same position as Saima in Palestine, causing local medical services to create a tragic new acronym to identify them: WCNSF, meaning wounded child, no surviving family. Hala’s friend took Saima to Naser Hospital where a nurse examined her and concluded that the bleeding was due to her first period. The child had never experienced this before, so “as bombs continued to fall, because they never stop, my friend explained to Saima what menstruation was.” Hala’s friend and the nurse comforted her and improvised with cotton inside a gauze for the child to use as a period pad, but “with only one leg and one hand, the girl needed help in the toilet, so my friend and the nurse went with her,” Hala explains. “Before she left, my friend promised to come back tomorrow” to check on the girl, but soon after leaving, the Israeli occupation army invaded and bombed Naser Hospital. “The destiny of Saima is like the destiny of more than 25,000 orphans in Gaza,” Hala says, “we don’t know what happened to her.” Hala asks, “isn’t everything that Saima endured a consequence of Israeli oppression system? Isn’t it a feminist issue? For me, everything happening now is a feminist issue, even the silence of some feminists.”

Maryam Aldossari, Senior Lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, whose research focuses on gender inequality in the Middle East, talks about the silence of feminists. “The uncomfortable truth is that [Western] feminists see Palestinians merely as victims of their society and victims of ‘extremist Islam’ who therefore need liberation,” Maryam describes that “this type of feminism is what we call imperial feminism, where issues are only considered if they are in line with the Western ideology. […] We see violence being justified against women in the name of liberation, we saw it in Iraq, Iran, in Afghanistan,” Maryam continues, “this is a mistake that feminists make again and again,” as it is this process of thinking that “dehumanises Palestinian women, men and children […] as they are no longer seen as victims” of external oppression. “If feminism doesn’t stop picking and choosing who to empathise with, which is often based in personal and political ties rather than the core principle of feminism, then we are repeating old mistakes. We are creating a pecking order of concern, where some women’s issues are placed ahead of others, often leaving women of colours issues behind.” The silence of some feminists, Maryam adds, “is complicity, silence means you agree with what is happening in Palestine.”

Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sheffield, Sara Ababneh, highlights that the problem with Western feminism is “the lack of understanding that anticolonial movements and decolonial movements are part and parcel of feminist thought.” Sara quotes Palestinian political thinker, leftist and feminist May al Sayegh (1940-2023) who stated that;

“We are putting the question [of the liberation of women] in its true context, the context of achieving general equality of rights between all peoples, in all countries for progress, democracy, social justice and national liberation […]. The struggle to end humans oppressing other humans, be it for reasons of religion, sex or colour, is a connected type of struggle. The liberation of women is connected to this struggle and the struggles against imperialism, racism and Zionism […]. In addition, the liberation of women cannot be separated from the liberation of oppressed people and ending oppression in all its forms.”

May al Sayegh, (1940-2023)

Sara concludes that “once we follow this definition, there is absolutely no question that Palestine is a feminist issue.”

Warwick University Professor in International Politics of the Middle East, Nicola Pratt, agrees that many Western feminists have been silent, but highlights that feminism provides us with tools to understand the gendered dimensions of the genocide in Gaza. Specifically, feminist Depletion through Social Reproduction theory allows us to see “how Israel is targeting the possibilities for life in Gaza,” through the destruction of “hospitals, agriculture land, water infrastructure, and the forced starvation, the stopping of aid.” “This is the pattern of genocide by attrition,” she says. “The number of people who have been murdered” through bombing is only a “partial picture,” of how many people will have been killed during this genocide. She emphasises that this genocide is a continuation of Israel’s settler colonial project, which also targets social reproduction as a means of erasure of Palestinians from their land.

Ashjan Ajour, a Palestinian Academic Researcher in Sociology at the University of Leicester, says “that it is important to understand that this is a continuation of Nakba. We are living in an ongoing Nakba.” “As a Palestinian who has a family in Gaza, I find it very challenging to describe what is happening, […]  as Palestinians, we are experiencing a collective pain, every day brings us new trauma. […] We are in a state of active grieving, and we are lacking the time to process what is happening […] I can’t believe that as we hold this panel our people are being massacred.” She shares the UN reported statistic that “two Palestinian mothers are killed every hour.” Ashjan asks, “what sort of feminism is it if feminists aren’t standing with Palestinian women who are experiencing abuse, ethnic cleansing and genocide, […] are Palestinian women not worthy of solidarity? I believe it’s a dehumanisation of Palestinians.”

Ashjan explains what was happening in Palestine before the 7th of October, as she says, “I want people to read the history.” “Before 7th of October,” Ashjan begins, “there has been seventeen years of blockade in Gaza, both my children and I have been deprived of any connection to my family roots in Gaza.” They were not granted permits “to visit Gaza, even in critical moments such as when my father had surgery. This segregation of geographical space has instilled a profound sense of captivity in us,” she says. “While I haven’t experienced incarceration, living under occupation is similar to existing in an open-air prison. With the Rafah crossing, Gaza used to be a hell with a gate, but now [with the closing of the crossing], it is a hell without a gate.”

“Now is a time for action and true, meaningful solidarity. A time to build true feminist solidarity against the genocide in Gaza. As a Palestinian with family in Gaza, I don’t want sympathy, I want solidarity,” states Ashjan, “I have conducted interviews with displaced women […] and women in Gaza on the ground are appealing for support. They are saying ‘welum allem milna, where is the world in our suffering?’ ”

The genocide in Palestine continues with the Israeli army bombing what were previously communicated to Palestinian people as ‘safe zones.’ These places include Rafah, Nuseirat, Deir el-Balah and other central areas. The ongoing conflict, bombardment and blockade has led to catastrophic humanitarian suffering of more than 2 million Palestinians—half of them children—who are now without clean water, food and vital medical services.

Further reading and resources:

Join the BDS movement: https://bdsmovement.net/

Sign the International Studies BDS Pledge

For feminists, silence on Gaza is no longer an option by Maryam Aldossari

Reclaiming Humanity in Palestinian Hunger Strikes : Revolutionary Subjectivity and Decolonizing the Body by Ashjan Ajour

The Palestinian women’s movement versus Hamas: attempting to understand women’s empowerment outside a feminist framework by Sara Ababneh

‘Where are the voices?’: A deafening silence from the West’s white feminists on Gaza by Yousra Samir Imran

‘Scholasticide’: How Israel is systematically destroying Palestinian education in Gaza by Rabia Ali

Free Palestine, a reading list by Pluto Press

Why Palestine is a Feminist and an Anti-Colonial Issue, by Rama S. Dieng

 The geopolitics of social reproduction and depletion: the case of Iraq and Palestine’. Social Politics, 26 (4). pp. 586-607 by Yasmin Chilmeran and Nicola Christine Pratt

#StopScholasticide demonstration at BISA 2024

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