Why Feminism? Why Now?
Reflections on the “Palestine Is a Feminist Issue” Pledge
May 3, 2021
On March 15, 2021, in honor of International Women’s Month, the US-based Palestinian Feminist Collective (PFC) launched a pledge declaring that “Palestine is a Feminist Issue.” In the days that followed, thousands of organizations and individuals signed on from the US, Palestine, Kenya, South Africa, Scotland, the United Kingdom, Chile, Australia and across the world. Signatories included noteworthy feminist figures such as Cherrie Moraga, Mariame Kaba, Judith Butler, and Chandra Mohanty (among many more); over 200 US-based organizations including the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA), Black Women Radicals, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJA); scores more feminist, queer, student and youth, anti-racist, social justice, and faith-based organizations; and feminist organizations in Palestine and across the Arab region, including Tal3at.
The pledge’s vast global circulation demonstrated a popular commitment to upholding Palestine as a feminist issue through six concrete action items. Yet as the pledge was shared to various social media sites, critiques emerged that seemingly overlooked the pledge’s articulation of a feminist vision that is firmly grounded in decolonial analysis, and committed to joint struggle. Some critics argued that Palestine was a “human rights” struggle rather than a feminist one, while others argued that feminism is a Western construct incompatible with Palestinian spiritual, political and cultural frameworks and traditions. Some expressed hesitation or outright refusal to recognize Palestine as a feminist issue, arguing that feminism has only ever been a tool of imperialist intervention in SWANA lands and communities. Much of the dissent demonstrated that narrow definitions of feminism—namely Western Colonial Feminisms—remain dominant in popular consciousness, rather than the self-determined elaborations of feminism offered by Palestinian, Arab, Black, Indigenous, and Third World feminist thought and praxis.
A close reading of the principles presented in the pledge reveals that the PFC holds a deep awareness of the tensions and anxieties that surround the question of “feminism” among Palestine activist circuits. Yet the pledge proposes that feminism—as defined and practiced by oppressed peoples—can also be a relevant framework and path for the realization of Palestinian liberation, and centers the urgency of embracing Palestine as a feminist issue in the present. Below are 5 key tenets that appear in the pledge that are useful for an understanding of why feminism and why now.
Zionist Settler Colonialism as a Project of Gendered and Sexual Violence
Dominant forms of Western or colonial feminism emphasize the acquisition of individual rights rather than collective freedom, and it is these forms of feminism that the Zionist state mobilizes. On such terms, Palestinian women are relegated to subjects in need of saving from the patriarchal violence of their own families and society. Structural violence of the colonial project is evaded. Instead the saviors are presumed to be from the so-called freedom-loving, rights-bearing, liberal democracies of the West, while those in need of saving are from the racially imagined anti-modern, unenlightened, ominous “East.”
Deconstructing these colonial binaries is by no means new: Orientalist accounts of Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim Women’s subjectivities have long been contested and debunked as colonial ploys by Third World feminist thinkers, scholars and movements. For example, a 2011 Indigenous and Women of Color Delegation to Palestine released a statement whereby they asserted: “As feminists, we deplore the Israeli practice of ‘pink‐washing,’ the state’s use of ostensible support for gender and sexual equality to dress‐up its occupation.”
Yet despite the longevity of these expressions of anti-Zionist feminism, age-old tropes presenting Palestinian women as perpetual victims in need of saving from dangerous men re-appear in the lexicon of Zionist public relations campaigns precisely to legitimize Israel as a feminist and queer-friendly liberal democracy. Such efforts result in many gains for Zionism, one of the most dangerous being that they obscure Zionist settler-colonialism as a project of gendered and sexual violence.
As such, the pledge illustrates clearly how Zionist settler-colonial dispossession, occupation and regulated control of Palestinian bodies is rooted in logics and structures of “masculinist militarism.” The pledge reads:
Zionist violence continues to dominate Palestinian lives in intimate ways. Throughout the homeland, Israel demolishes Palestinian homes, subjects Palestinian prisoners of conscience to systematic sexual and physical abuse and torture, and polices Palestinian bodies, sexualities, reproductive rights, and family life.
Facing the constant dictates of erasure and annihilation that settler-colonialism inscribes, Palestinian women’s reproductive capacities have been a target of biopolitical control, surveillance and attack since the onset of Zionism. Historic accounts have illustrated how sexual violence campaigns executed by Zionist militias, such as those used during the events that culminated in the massacre of Palestinians in Deir Yassin in 1948, were instrumental to drive Palestinians out of their homes. More recently, scores of Palestinian women have been forced to give birth at checkpoints, barred from accessing proper medical attention – testament to the egregious ways in which Palestinian life-making is restricted by the occupation’s constraints of mobility. The Zionist project’s indiscriminate killing sprees have also barred Palestinians from preserving life: such was the case for 21-year-old nurse Razan al-Najjar who was murdered by Israeli forces as she tended to the wounded during the 2018 Great March of Return in the Gaza Strip.
Countless Palestinians have also testified to the use of rape and sexual torture in Zionist prison cells, and to how the Zionist surveillance apparatus manipulates the intimate lives of Palestinians to leverage power under interrogation: the threat that one’s own intimate or sexual lives will be made public if one refuses to comply under interrogation or collaborate with Zionist intelligence forces is a common tactic used to attain false confessions.
Such examples signify how Zionist settler-colonialism must be understood as a project of gendered and sexual violence and why a feminist vision for a free Palestine is central to comprehensively challenging Zionism’s political, economic, racial, and social governance over collective Palestinian life and land. Resultantly, a Palestinian feminist framework and path do not re-entrench the way Zionist discourses weaponize women’s rights and queer rights against Palestinians but instead overturn them by shedding light on the systemic gendered and sexual violences that have always been central to Zionist settler-colonialism.
Refusing Erasure and Demonstrating Palestinian Feminist Agency
Released by a collective of intergenerational Palestinian and Arab women and feminists in the US, the pledge challenges the climate of anti-Palestinian repression in the US today. Accounting for the scores of Zionist repression campaigns waged in the US that have worked endlessly to suppress free speech on Palestine, silence dissent and criminalize Palestinians and their co-strugglers, the pledge demonstrates a direct act of refusal on the part of Palestinian and Arab feminists to be bullied into silence and vanish. Instead, it demonstrates a profound awareness of the ways such repression campaigns—even as they operate outside of the historic homeland—are consistent with Zionist settler-colonial logics and structures that work to annihilate Palestinian existence. For instance, pledge action items number two and three call on global communities to “Support Palestinian rights to free speech and political organizing everywhere”; and “Reject the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, in particular the legal enforcement of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.” Both action items seek to secure the right of Palestinians and their co-strugglers everywhere to create, preserve and disseminate Palestinian narratives, discourses and aspirations freely without retribution.
Further, the pledge offers a powerful refusal of liberal discourses that continue to erase and criminalize Palestinian feminist visions:
Liberal and Zionist feminisms rely on Orientalist discourses to silence and undermine the collective aspirations of Palestinian women and their co-strugglers, contributing to intensified political repression that criminalizes free speech on Palestine and Palestinian liberation.
Thus, the ideas present in the pledge unearth narrowly defined Western feminisms and break open the margins for Palestinian feminists and their co-strugglers to lay claim to feminism as something that is profoundly their own. Such sentiments violate the dictates of settler-colonial erasure which work vehemently to erase Palestine from world maps, expunge Palestinian narratives from historic records, and decimate Palestinian archives. The collective ethos that the pledge embodies restores the perseverance of self-determined Palestinian expressions of identity in exile and aspirations for freedom, particularly of women. As such, the pledge presents a display of the tenacious energy that drives a collective assertion against vanishment for and by Palestinian and Arab feminists and their co-strugglers.
Affirming Historical and Transnational Connectedness
Though the PFC is a relatively new formation, the pledge argues that such visions are built “upon the history of Palestinian women and their co-strugglers who have worked to end multiple forms of oppression.” The pledge’s citational references pay tribute to historical Palestinian women’s movements, authors and scholars which have laid the groundwork for newly proclaimed undertakings of Palestinian feminist thought and praxis in the present. The pledge also draws direct inspiration from contemporary Palestinian feminist movements unfolding in Palestine and other geographies where Palestinians live presently, citing the work of groups such as Tal3at, a feminist movement in Palestine which combats the growth of femicide in Palestine and across the world by calling on political movements to account for gendered and sexual justice more intentionally, arguing there can be “no free homeland without free women.”
Paying homage to past and present Palestinian feminist movements is an important glimpse into the PFC’s political orientation. In this way, a close reading of the pledge demonstrates a politics that values the embodiment of Palestinian cultural and political epistemologies throughout history and the connectedness of the Palestinian diaspora in the US to the homeland and to Palestinians worldwide: “Our values are rooted in embodied cultural wisdom and justice to transform our communities.” As such the pledge is a verification of Palestinians, across their geographic dispersions, as one peoplehood; of Palestinians in the present as deeply bound with the histories, legacies and knowledge of the past; and of the interlinkages between social, gendered, sexual, economic and political justice, and liberation coalescing in tandem to achieve true liberation and decolonization of both land and people.
An Extension of Appreciation to Black, Indigenous, and Third World Feminist Thought and Praxis
Akin to the ideals Black, Indigenous, and Third World Feminist movements have offered, the pledge affirmed that embracing Palestine as a feminist issue means recognizing interlocking systems of oppression: “we commit to resisting gendered and sexual violence, settler colonialism, capitalist exploitation, land degradation and oppression in Palestine, on Turtle Island, and globally.” A good portion of the pledge content recognizes the stark contrast between liberal white and Zionist feminism and that of feminist solidarities between Palestinians and non-white peoples across the world. Illuminating such distinctions does not work to insert Palestine and Palestinians in existing feminist spaces that fall short on ethical commitments to intersectional struggle. Rather, the problematization, disavowal and flat-out negation of liberal and Zionist feminism is a sorely needed validation of the feminist ethos of Black, Indigenous, and Third World communities and issues which continue to be treated as footnotes to white feminism’s status quo.
But beyond acknowledging distinctions, the pledge honors the foundational works of Black, Indigenous, and Third World Feminist thought which Palestinian women’s movements have long drawn monumental lessons from. Citing authors from these traditions, the pledge centers those whose bodies, experiences, labor, insights, and narratives are too often invisibilized and/or selectively appropriated by narrowly defined white, liberal, colonial and Zionist feminism. The pledge is also a direct expression of the politics of Palestinian solidarity with other communities. Accounting for “structural forms of gendered and sexual violence inherent to settler/colonialism, imperialist wars, racial capitalism, and global white supremacy” the pledge reifies systemic forms of extraction, violence and oppression which must be accounted for in the cultivation of liberatory feminist visions not only for Palestine but the world.
Such sentiments were confirmed in action items number five and six which called on all signatories to “Divest from militarism and invest in justice and community needs on Turtle Island”; and “Call for an end to US political, military, and economic support to Israel, and to all military, security, and policing collaborations.” These demands reflect that the PFC is inserting class consciousness into their feminist praxis and are not not only concerned with acquiring feminist solidarity for justice in Palestine, but rather that they view Palestinian liberation as bound to the demilitarization, decolonization, economic liberation, and acquisition of justice and freedom for all oppressed people in Turtle Island and across the world.
Extending appreciation to such histories and a commitment to uphold those legacies, the PFC pledge can be understood not as an induction of Palestinian feminist thought in the U.S. but as an extension of decades of feminist labor and solidarity coalescing into new organized forms which offer a renewed departure point for understanding Palestine as centrally a feminist struggle.
A Renewal and Catalyst of Imagination, Creation, and Love
Centering imagination, creation, connection and affirmations of life, the pledge presents the value of a feminist approach to both anti-colonial and decolonial thought and praxis:
We are re-imagining and re-creating a world free from systems of gendered, racial and economic exploitation that commodify human life and land. Ours is a vision for a radically different future based on life-affirming interconnectedness, empowering the working classes, and love for each other, land, life and the planet itself.
At the core of such sentiments is love, that which continues to anchor a profoundly emotional and relentless commitment to freedom until it is achieved.
These values recognize the trauma and pain inflicted upon everyday people in struggle and seek to reverse its grip through building alternate paradigms, practices and processes that affirm life in the face of all that is meant to destroy it. While a great portion of the pledge is dedicated to rejecting and problematizing Zionist feminist thought, the pledge authors leave readers with a powerful attachment to envisioning what else there could be. A close reading of the pledge reveals why feminism and why now, where the urgency of the moment is bound up with over 73 years of Palestinian dispossession, occupation, and oppression. However, it is the final paragraph of the pledge that leaves us all desiring more: what now? How might a feminist vision and praxis for Palestine present new modes of realizing the liberation of Palestinian land and people in relation to the liberation of all peoples struggling against systemic oppression?
Embodying the anti-colonial practice of abolishing all logics and systems meant to destroy life and a decolonial practice of creating an otherwise possible world, the pledge presents important principles that have long been at the core of Palestinian, Arab, Black, Indigenous, and Third World feminisms throughout history. Thus it is vital to recognize the pledge not as an end point but as a renewed expression of feminist solidarity, a catalyst that breaks open the margins for imagination, creation, and hope for future generations of movement practitioners.