Areej Sabbagh-Khoury

Mada al-Carmel | The Arab Center for Applied Social Research, Haifa, Israel

The Representation of Palestinian Women in the Political Leadership of Arab and Arab-Jewish Parties in Israel

Palestinian women in Israel today descend from the Palestinian-Arab subjects of Mandate Palestine who remained within the 1949 borders of the State of Israel. The Palestinian Nakba and the events of the 1948 war turned the Palestinians in Israel into citizens of a settler colonial, exclusively Jewish, state. In 2009, after years of struggle within Arab/Arab-Jewish political parties, Haneen Zoabi became the first Arab woman elected to represent an Arab party in the Israeli Knesset. In 2011, six women were represented in the Arab Higher Follow-up Committee in Israel for the first time since its inception in 1982. Recent years have continued to see slight increases in the number of Arab women taking seats in local councils for Arab municipalities throughout Israel. Drawing on face-to-face interviews with 34 political activists and leaders (women and men) this paper analyzes the renewed representation of women in the political leadership of Palestinian society in Israel as part of the Palestinian community in Israel returning to the collective self: dealing with the history of the Nakba after its long absence from the official political sphere and reclaiming their position within the Palestinian national movement.

Although women’s visibility in Palestinian parliamentarian political leadership in Israel is relatively new, Palestinian women took on leadership roles in politics well before and after the inception of the Israeli state. The Palestinian Arab Women’s Union (PAWA) was formed in 1929 as the first women’s congress, attesting to the prominence of a definable Palestinian women’s movement that included a diverse range of backgrounds and motivations for involvement. In 1972, (24 years after the Nakba) the head of a Palestinian village in Israel—Kufr Yassif—municipal council was a Palestinian women. These facts challenge the colonialist essentialist explanation that attributes the low rate of women representation in politics solely to “Arab culture” and “Arab patriarchy” and allows a shift of attention to factors such as the destruction of Palestinian society and institutions in 1948 and to the ongoing structural obstacles which originated in the political culture that followed the formation of Israeli settler colonial society. This reflection further illustrates the historically institutionalized repression of Palestinian society, which never had the chance to constitute an independent entity outside the control of a colonial regime or the intervention of foreign settler colonial sovereignties over Palestine and its resources.

As this paper shows, while two leading Arab parties have recently made inroads to increase women’s leadership participation, more obstacles may remain within the party as a reflection of the larger political and social structure. The paper delves on these obstacles and at the same time considers the transformations of the social and political culture that led to advancing women’s leadership in political parties as part of the political agenda. The results of the research and questions raised contribute to our understanding of how the operation of settler colonial power effected and articulated the Palestinian political culture in Israel, how the exclusion of indigenous peoples from the settler polity has for many years transpired the structure of gendered power relations, and how that structure is now gradually being shaken by feminist political activists confronting Palestinian history and the Nakba, whose work has recently been influenced by the issues motivating the Arab uprisings.

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