This month's 30-year anniversary of the first Palestinian intifada will doubtless prompt reams of analysis, looking at its significance and what was achieved. The popular uprising, a spontaneous, non-violent wave of protests against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, began formally on December 9, 1987, but had been building for months. It raised international sympathy for the Palestinians and culminated in the peace process leading to the Oslo Accords in 1993. Now a new film looking at that period, Naila and the Uprising, seeks to ensure that our analysis does not erase a core element of those protests: the participation and the leadership of Palestinian women.
Using a mix of animation, archival footage and contemporary interviews, the film, which will have its Middle Eastern premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival on Monday, was produced as one segment of a four-part series on women, war and peace for the US broadcaster PBS. Its focus is Naila Ayesh, who played a key role during the first intifada and who, along with other female activists, narrates the often downplayed story of the women who led this movement.
It is, inevitably, a story of personal hardship and resolve in the face of Israel’s harsh response to the uprising. But it also reveals how, while so many male protesters were either imprisoned or exiled, Palestinian women were able to take control and sustain the popular uprising. They organised locally on the ground, ensuring protests that started spontaneously had leadership, direction and coordination. Through unions, political parties and women’s action committees, these female campaigners worked from the grassroots, building a representative movement that was premised as much on equality as it was about ending the Israeli occupation.
As Sama Aweidah, one of the women involved at the time, puts it in the film: “We can’t be free as women unless we’re in a free country – and even if we’re free of the occupation, we can’t know freedom if we’re subjugated in our own society.” At that time, coordinated Palestinian strikes and boycotts of Israeli goods were a key component of the intifada and significantly hit the Israeli economy as 90 per cent of the products bought by Palestinians came from Israel. Women set up and ran Palestinian cooperatives and commercial projects to minimise this reliance on Israeli goods by creating alternatives – and thus were socially and financially empowered by becoming breadwinners. During a period of Israeli curfews, women also set up local schools and medical services, effectively operating in lieu of a government.
But these women were not a part of the Oslo process or what came after. When the exiled political leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation returned to the Palestinian territories as part of the peace process, they took over and told women that their job was done. As Zahira Kamal, one of the protagonists of Naila and the Uprising, narrates: "The men came back and the expectation was they would slot back into old positions and women would have to step aside." In sidelining women, the Oslo process also sidelined what women representing the Palestinian movement on the ground had been negotiating at the precursor talks in Madrid – which was significantly more, they say, then what was on the table in Norway.
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This story of how Palestinian women were politically erased and minimised will of course be familiar and strike many parallels. For a start, the idea that a woman’s work is done once the men return chimes with the narratives of British women during the First World War. They became a vital part of the workplace – within the police force, as firefighters, bus drivers, postal workers and bank cashiers. But, having unionised and organised to fight for equal pay and better conditions, they were sent back home after the war ended.
And we don’t need to go that far back in history to see how women are constantly absent from peace process negotiations around the world. Despite a UN resolution in 2000 to raise the level of female participation in peace negotiations, fewer than four per cent of the people taking part in official peace talks between 1992 and 2011 were women, while women comprised fewer than 10 per cent of actual negotiations. Who can forget the depressing image that came out of internationally convened Syria peace talks in Vienna in 2015: a ubiquitous sea of men with not one female representative present.
This isn't purely a matter of gender equality, though that is of course significant enough. But peace talks where women are present are more likely to bring durable conflict resolution. That's partly because they are disproportionately affected by war and so logically must be represented in the process to end it. The fact that sexual violence was only addressed in 18 out of 300 peace agreements in the past two decades makes this painfully obvious. But it's also because, as the first Palestinian intifada highlights, women are integral to grassroots politics and organisation, so they are connected to the issues and concerns of the populations that both inform and determine the success of peace negotiations.
Meanwhile, all of this is feeding into a moment in which we are scrutinising the devastating consequences of sexual harassment in the workplace – the prevalence of which was unleashed by the multiple allegations against media mogul Harvey Weinstein, which swiftly precipitated a wave of allegations and revelations in just about every other profession, including politics. This isn't just about the countless lives ruined by workplace harassment but also about the staggering waste of talent and opportunity, of women who had so much to contribute to the workplace, to businesses, to politics, to society, but were habitually thwarted. Writing recently for the New York Times, Sallie Krawcheck, chief executive of Ellevest, a digital investment and planning platform for women, noted that both Wall Street and Silicon Valley were delivering lower rates of return because of issues such as sexual harassment and an ingrained bias against women. Gender discrimination, she says, demonstrably hurts the bottom line.
It's hard not to think of all these factors, chart the inevitable connections, the painful and entirely avoidable costs, while watching Naila and the Uprising. The film's focus is Palestinian and political, but the message impacts widely. As one of the film's protagonists, the campaigner Naima Al Sheikh Ali, says: "We represent 50 per cent of society, sometimes more. So if 50 per cent of the population isn't participating in decisions, that means society is half-paralysed."