Naila Ayesh: Intifada and Women

Today I watched a screening of the documentary ‘Naila and The Uprising’. Directed Julia Bacha, it follows the struggle of Palestinian activist Naila Ayesh who played a prominent role in the first Intifada against Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

The Intifada ( Arabic for resistance/ uprising) occurred between 1987 and 1993, a period which was characterized by sustained protests and riots against Israeli forces. It began on the 9th December 1986 in response to the killing of 4 Palestinians by an Israeli Defense Force truck, suspected by the Palestinians to be an intentional retaliation to the killing of a Jew in Gaza just days previously. With the commencment of the Intifada, Israeli detention, torture and deportation of Palestinians heightened.

We join Ayesh long before the Intifada commences. The documentary opens with her recount of the decimation of her family home by Israeli forces. As a young girl, the memory of her father’s desolation as a result of this event firmly planted her resistance against the occupation.For higher education she left Palestine to study in Bulgaria; this was where she met her husband an activist who her family termed a ‘prison bird’. They marry soon after their return to Palestine. Not long after that the Intifada commences and both husband and wife dedicate their lives to the struggle.

What struck me about the documentary is how the events of Naila’s life ,which are intrinsically tied to the Palestinian cause, are presented so vividly through the use of first hand accounts and animation. From the miscarriage of her first pregnancy due to harsh treatment in detainment, the anguish accompanying her husband’s arrest then deportation as her first child (Majd) is born and her experience of being separated from her 6 month year old child (who doesn’t see his father till he is 2 years old ), Naila evidences my belief that women are the strongest creatures that walk this earth. Not only was she experiencing such agonising emotional and physical distress, simultaneously she was organising Palestinian women to take up the fight for freedom.*

The Israeli authorities targeted men in their attempt to weaken the organising power of the Intifada. Funnily enough they didn’t find the women were as pressing an issue. As men were being rounded up women were left behind. They organised into self sufficient units, farming and producing their own goods as part of an attempt to boycott Israeli business and impact their economy. Women took the streets and organised, fighting for their freedom as Palestinians. They created women organisations and unions that worked in lieu of the government, to organise and better people’s lives on a local level. The dependancy of their patriarchal society once past, was replaced with a scintillating Palestinian female consciousness which could not be ignored. The women kept the Intifada afloat and flourishing through their grassroots social work.

“Our motto was that there was only one door to freedom.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 as long as we’re subjugated in our own society.”

Sama Aweida – an activist during the first Intifada

As time went on and the Palestinians became a larger threat, the US intervened and revived the ‘Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process’ . Through some political manevouring, secret meetings and agreements, the first Intifada was suppressed. Men were allowed to return and the first iteration of Israel’s campaign to remove the Palestinians from their homeland ended, only to take a different form in the immediate future- one which Ayesh says was ( and continues to be) far more potent.

The return of the men relegated women back to their previous positions. The secret politic talks which resulted in the supression of the Intifada by the creation of the Oslo Accords, were attended by a PLO delegation- the Palestinian leadership which was in exile. They kept the Palestinian Authority ,the popular and female inclusive delegation who had been at the negotiatiating table in Madrid,in the dark. The Oslo Accords were a step back for women; their role was done- as an interviewee said in the documentary.

I’ve probably been somewhat radicalised by Naomi Alderman’s novel ‘The Power’, however I do believe female political consciousness is a force that can be used to humanise politics. If that arguement doesn’t resonate with you, thing about it in the sense of government. If governing practices exclude 50% of the population, the relationship between governing bodies and communities is negatively impacted. This is why women need political spaces to navigate with large contours to allow not only the emancipation of females but also of society as a whole.

“All girls born from now on will have the power—all of them. And they’ll keep it throughout life, just like the older women do if it’s woken up in them. It’s too late now to try to cure it; we need new ideas.”

Naomi Alderman- The Power

As a Pakistani, it perplexes and saddens me that our women are still largely shadowed by men in both political and domestic arenas in diaspora communities and in Pakistan itself. Attitudes are so deeply set that there seems no way out. I would posit that as women we need to extricate ourselves through radical education which can be found in stories like Naila Ayesh’s and Sakine Cansiz**. Women of their likes give me hope that a liberating alternative is possible in conceiving both female selfhood and wider influence.

I would highly recommend watching ‘Naila and The Uprising’, the trailer follows: (

*An episode that particularly stood out for me was her recount that following her first sonogram she went to hand out bulletins. She put the sonogram in her bag along with the bulletins. Upon returning home she realised that she had handed the sonogram out whilst distributing the leaflets.

**a Kurdish women who paved the way for the women’s branches of Kurdish Freedom Movement

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