Interview: why Hana al-Shalabi’s hunger strike is the focus of Women’s Day in Palestine

Woman displays poster of Hana al-Shalabi at rally

Palestinians are marking International Women’s Day this year with actions in support of Hana al-Shalabi.

Issam Rimawi APA images

Palestinians will mark International Women’s Day (8 March) this year with solidarity actions for Hana al-Shalabi, who has now spent more than three weeks on hunger strike in protest of being held under Israeli administrative detention without charge or trial.

Al-Shalabi is the second Palestinian prisoner in recent weeks — the first being Khader Adnan, who ended his fast after 66 days — to go on hunger strike as a way to draw attention to Israel’s use of administrative detention and mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners.

“In Palestine, Women’s Day is a day of struggle,” wrote Janan Abdu, a political activist and wife of Palestinian prisoner Ameer Makhoul, in the call-out announcing Women’s Day as a day in solidarity with al-Shalabi.

“Despite the achievements of some significant things, which were achieved as a result of long paths of struggle, we shouldn’t celebrate yet as we are still Palestinian women, whether in Palestine 1948 or in the West Bank and Gaza or the diaspora suffering from colonialism, occupation, discrimination and racism,” she stated.

The Electronic Intifada contributor Jillian Kestler-D’Amours interviewed Khitam Saafin, chairwoman of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees about the challenges Palestinian women face today and why al-Shalabi’s hunger strike should be supported.

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours: Tell me a bit about the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees.

Khitam Saafin: The Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees is a mass-based organization for women. It was established in 1980 as a framework for lifting up Palestinian women, to organize them and to support ourselves, as women, to participate in our national struggle and towards achieving full equality for Palestinian women. Since then, we are working as a mass-based organization, organized in a democratic system, working with the whole Palestinian women and community towards our goals.

JKD: What challenges do Palestinian women face?

KS: The first challenge and the first problem that we face is the occupation itself and all of its policies and strategies against our people. The occupation itself is a crime and its whole policies — in arresting people, in confiscating land, in building settlements, in taking our water, in using checkpoints, in the siege of Gaza — all of these policies are considered in human rights laws and international laws as crimes against humanity.

The burden of massive oppression in any society comes indirectly on the shoulders of the women. Palestinian women face these challenges strongly but they have a big burden to hold. This is the first challenge.

The second challenge is the traditional society, which was considered and is still considered an obstacle towards full equality and [in] dealing with women as equal people in the Palestinian society. We know that this social challenge is a global challenge for women, even in countries who have secular or more equal laws. It is a challenge because it is based on a kind of discrimination, and on the traditional and the historical discrimination against women.

This is a big and long process and road that we have to go through to achieve our democratic rights as women, as equal people.

JKD: Has the Israeli occupation had an impact on the challenges women face within Palestinian society?

KS: The occupation used this traditional [Palestinian] mentality to reduce the participation of women in general life. First they claimed that there are no Palestinian people. And after that, they claimed that the Palestinian population is very traditional and they are not modern and they don’t have the right to be part of the world because they are not modern. This is a kind of racism, you know.

Second, through the great expulsion of our people in the Nakba [catastrophe; the wave of ethnic cleansing that led to Israel’s establishment in 1948], they destroyed the structure of our society. A new structure began to be seen according to the fact that about half of our population are refugees, [and because of] losing our lands, losing our system of life. Many things were destroyed.

After that, the occupation tried to use this traditional view of women to force the [Palestinian] males and the heads of the families to stop women from struggling against the occupation. They used this mentality to threaten women in prisons, and [to say to women] that [their] family will neglect [them], all to try to give a bad [impression on] the women who are participating in the national struggle.

So, yes, the occupation was part and is still part of the reasons that prevent the natural, progressive way of our society, including the women’s issue.

Khitam Saafin at a conference room table

Khitam Saafin

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours

JKD: The UPWC believes that gender issues are linked to class issues. Tell me about this.

KS: We believe that the discrimination against women is related to the [capitalist] system around the world. This discrimination began when the private sector began ruling the world. The [status of women], in the interests of capital and the private sector, came down and in some communities, [women] were used as a good.

For us, as a union of Palestinian women, we consider the whole [Israeli] occupation as a kind of capitalist, imperialist project in our land and it is related to this whole system of imperialism, dependent on capitalism and private entities. We believe that in the long-term, discrimination against women won’t be ended unless we live as women in a full, equal and social society.

As I said in the beginning, the burden of the general oppression, in any society, comes on women because they are considered [to be] the weaker part.

JKD: Palestinian women played a large role in the first intifada. Today, we see women participating in popular resistance in the West Bank, including in the weekly protests in places like Nabi Saleh,. How would you describe the participation of women in Palestinian popular resistance today?

KS: The first intifada was full, popular work. It was dependent on bodies that were ready to be active. For example, our union was well established and well organized and able to be active and to mobilize women in good ways in the first intifada. There was a very big participation of women and it raised new questions for the Palestinian women’s movement [with regards to] the future, Palestinian statehood, the Palestinian entity and the role of women. This was a big opportunity for women to present themselves as real participants in political and social life.

These days, when we are talking about the [demonstrations] in many places in Palestine, especially near the confiscated lands, I think we need, as Palestinian people, to improve our strategy for popular resistance. [We need] to make it not [only] occasionally and mostly on Fridays and only in some areas … that will give more spaces for women to participate.

But, even in this situation, women are trying to raise their participation in these activities. For me, it is not enough. Women must have their special way to participate. There is participation of women [in the demonstrations], but we have to improve it and make it better in the future.

JKD: How would you suggest making it better?

KS: I think through collective plans from different organizations of the women’s movement, and to find tools and actions that women can participate and be part of easily. When we are talking about Fridays, Fridays is the formal holiday for the families. If the woman is working all the days of the week, this day is used not to take a rest, but to do household work. I know it is not an excuse because we are struggling, but these are the circumstances of Palestinian women. Also when we are talking about only some places here or there [that hold demonstrations], the access for women to reach these places is not always easy, especially the women who are living far away.

Also the women are active more in the boycott campaigns, [and] in solidarity with prisoners’ campaigns. You know these days we have the hunger strike of Hana al-Shalabi. Women must have solidarity and support Hana in her strike.

JKD: Do you think that Hana will garner as much attention as Khader Adnan, the Palestinian prisoner who recently ended his hunger strike after more than sixty days?

KS: I don’t know. It depends on herself. For us as Palestinian women and as the Palestinian population, we are ready to support her in her decision because she is the person who is undertaking this strike and this battle with administrative detention. We are ready to support her until she achieves her goals and we, of course, salute her for her strong position confronting administrative detention.

JKD: Do you feel that she is also drawing attention to Palestinian women prisoners, who are often overlooked?

KS: I think it is a big issue for Palestinian women as prisoners. Nowadays, we have six female prisoners. I think that it brings the issue of women as political prisoners more and more in the high level of concerns of the world. The United Nations must be responsible for the whole violations that are going on against our people. These prisoners are war prisoners, not security prisoners, not criminals; they are freedom fighters for their rights.

JKD: What else is being done right now to promote and protect Palestinian women’s rights?

KS:This is a long struggle and to make social change you need a long time and you need a very strong will to go on. What was done is from the beginning, the women’s movement, even before the ’80s — it was a struggle through the national struggle.

After the [Palestine Liberation Organization’s] declaration of independence in 1988, it was the question of the coming independent Palestinian state and the role of every person in it. In the independence document, it was clear that there is no discrimination between men and women, but this is theoretical. On the ground, we have to work.

We worked on awareness. We worked on mobilization. We worked on some campaigns for political participation. We are preparing our proposals for new laws reducing the level of discrimination against women. It is [about raising] more awareness, more mobilizing for ourselves as women, and more pressure and lobbying through the decision-making [bodies] in the Palestinian society.

JKD: Are Palestinian women aware of the resources that are available to them?

KS: In general, they are aware but we have to present the women’s organizations better. That means to give these consultations and services for women to make them more aware about the women’s movement organizations. We try to reach them and to give them services, for their children, for their awareness, for their vocational training. We try to make them reach the resources for education, for economic resources.

JKD:Are you working on opening up a dialogue on gender issues in Palestine?

KS: We are talking on many levels, and we have our awareness work day by day.

For us as a union, we have a program with the General Union of Palestinian Women. We have another program for encouraging young women for political participation. We have programs for encouraging women and giving them a kind of economic empowerment. We are active, but it is not enough. We are not covering the whole Palestinian society.

If every organization works alone and tries to cover all the Palestinian society in the West Bank and Gaza, it is not enough. No one can work alone. So we have coalitions for some things and we try to build more and more networks.

JKD: If there was one thing you would want people to know about the situation Palestinian women face, what would it be?

KS: I say that Palestinian women deserve to live free in their independent state with the right of return, the right of our people to self-determination, the right of establishing our independent state with Jerusalem as a capital. For the people all over the world, justice means freedom. Justice means ending occupation. Justice means full equality for all of the people, men and women, everywhere.

We are part of the freedom strugglers around the world and we are asking all the freedom voices to bring solidarity with our cause and also, we are in solidarity with all the people who are asking for their democratic freedom and rights.

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at