Palestinian Liberation Movement

Women Writing Resistance

Sohini Sengupta

“There I am, a five-year-old, sobbing in the middle of the night because Israeli soldiers have once again barged into our house to arrest my father. I see my mother falling on the concrete road after being shot by a soldier in a jeep; my younger brother pinned to the ground by another soldier, who is squeezing his little neck in a chokehold; my favourite uncle bleeding to death on the rocks behind our home”.

I found Ahed Tamimi’s memoir, They Called Me A Lioness, through a brilliant and timely Bengali translation by journalist Arka Deb–and this haunting image that she painted of her family stayed with me. Israel’s acute attacks on Palestine, its soil and its people–by no means a new thing, but presently on the scale of a genocide–have, from October 7 till the end of January 2024, claimed more than 27,000 Palestinian lives, and displaced around 1.9 million Palestinians within Gaza by official records alone. Civilian residences, schools, and hospitals have been bombed relentlessly, and over a million are presently facing acute shortages of food, electricity and potable water. Naturally, women, children, and infants have been disproportionately affected. Women in Gaza have been taking period-delaying pills in the absence of hygiene products; mothers are giving birth in a war zone–their newborn babies have been given no birth certificates, no healthcare, and no vaccines; the roar of warplanes signals the threat of death every passing moment. Even as they are the ones most critically affected, women have historically led, and are still leading, much of the anti-colonial resistance in Palestine. AhedTamimi–who slapped an Israeli soldier who had shot her 15-year-old cousin in 2017, and was incarcerated–was arrested again in November 2023  because she was “suspected of inciting violence and calling for terrorist activity to be carried out”, while Israeli forces slaughtered over two hundred Palestinians. 

Tamimi, whose retaliation in 2017 made international news, is by no means alone in her struggle; thousands of women in Gaza Strip and West Bank know “what it was like to be captive in her own country”. A Party for Thaera: Palestinian Women Write Life in Prison (2021), published a year before Tamimi’s memoir, brought together some of such narratives. Activist and author Haifa Zangana conducted a creative writing workshop with women political prisoners in Palestine, and autobiographical narratives by eight women came together in the book. Today, as a startling number of voices, many of them from the first world, try to present the current state of Israel-Palestine conflict as a war that has its genesis in the Hamas attack on southern Israel of October 7, 2023, it is important to remember the long history of occupation and oppression that Palestine has suffered. It is important to remember the women that have fought back–even as their counterparts today lose entire families, children, and critical health support. For the survival of a history that many today wish to tyrannically deny and warp, A Party for Thaera: Palestinian Women Write Life in Prison (2021) and They Called Me a Lioness: A Palestinian Girl’s Fight For Freedom (2022) are timely reads.

Both texts bring forth the raw reality of Palestinian resistance, and the female solidarity that have fortified the women’s lives. AhedTamimi writes of demonstrating against Israeli soldiers with her girl friends, and of her mother’s ceaseless participation in protest demonstrations even after multiple arrests, threats and brutalities. One of the stirring accounts is of Ahed’s younger cousin Janna. When Janna was only four, soldiers threw a tear gas canister in her home. Trapped in a tiny bedroom with several other children and her mother, Janna was only rescued when her mother threw her from the second floor window to men who had formed a human ladder outside to carry out the rescue; it was an incident that left her with severe trauma. Yet, the trauma had a transforming effect: Janna began recording Palestinian protests that did not gain enough coverage and circulating it on Facebook on her mother’s phone–at the age of only seven, earning her the unofficial title of the world’s youngest journalist. “No seven-year-old should ever feel she has to shoulder the burden of documenting the human rights abuses taking place in her own backyard. We shouldn’t have to grow up seeing our parents arrested and fearing they could be shot or killed at any moment”, Tamimi writes. Yet, the dire circumstances made children age early, and the ordinariness of lives fragile. In A Party for Thaera, Nadiya Khayyat and May al Ghosain’s narratives speak of Thaera and Hanin, infants born to political prisoners, born and raised for several years in prison. Thaera and Hanin learnt resistance early, from their own experience of Israeli violence within the prison system. “She was able to carry things from one cell to another without being spotted by the guards”, Khayyat writes about Thaera, “who let her play in the corridor and run around the locked cell doors”. One day, carrying a blank slip of paper from one cell to another, she was accosted by a guard; Thaera only replied, “I am not giving you anything!” Likewise, when women in the prison were on a hunger strike, little Hanin proclaimed, “I, too, am on strike. I don’t want to hear the noise of the keys [locking the prisoners inside after medical examinations] after today”.

Thaera, Hanin, Janna–or even Ahed, during her childhood, should not have had to learn resistance this early, but they did. Children in Palestine today have done so as well, as Palestinian children across generations have done. They were not indoctrinated; this was a direct lesson from their space and circumstances–life and resistance were one and the same. The lives of women grew around them, their own mode of resistance unconventional in the everydayness of it. Caring for Thaera became an act of shared responsibility and love: Khayyat writes, “She was the child of twenty-five mothers”. Forbidden from gathering together, something as simple as Thaera’s birthday celebration grew into a form of resistance; as the group were singing ‘Happy birthday’ to the child, the guards violently broke the gathering. In “You will Not Understand”, the other piece in the book by Khayyat, the author writes how the women prisoners in NeveTirtza coordinated with each other and their visiting families to wear the colours of the Palestinian flag along with their keffiyehs to their trials, enraging the judges and the army. On other occasions, the women prisoners baffled and thwarted the prison guards by calmly accepting sentences of “a life imprisonment plus twenty years”, even laughing in the face of it. AhedTamimi’s persistent silence in the face of intense interrogation similarly made a bold mark of resistance. “I was in a totally different world”, she wrote, describing how she dissociated to survive the harrowing experience and maintain her silence, “one that my mind had created as an escape, and I made sure it was a world I loved. And in that world, as a survival strategy, my imagination would kick into overdrive”.

AhedTamimi brings to sharp focus the political climate of her time. From close accounts of violence and resistance in her village of Nabi Saleh to the gradual internatio-nalisation of the Palestinian cause. She writes of how the Black Lives Matter movement and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions played important roles in rallying popular support for Palestinian liberation. She speaks out against the charges of anti-Semitism being levelled against the movement by Israel and the USA, charges which continue even today: “[I]t’s not anti-Semitic. It’s anti-Zionist, and conflating the two not only is dangerous, but it dismisses our valid grievances as a population denied our human rights and our rightful land”. Similarly, the prisoners’ accounts in A Party for Thaera reveal dual consciousness of their Palestinian identity and the Zionist ideology they were acting against. They write of the jailors’ scheme “to undermine the morale and obliterate the resistant identity”, and so, theirs was a “fight for existence and steadfastness”. The accounts do not shy away from bringing to the reader the starkness of the violence that the Palestinian women faced, and the uncertainty of their lives. But these autobiographical narratives emphasise most of all on the humanity of Palestinians: we, too, are human, they say. The narrative of dehumanisation was used against them at every turn, just as is being deployed by Israeli media today. Before closing, a pertinent, if slightly long paragraph from A Party for Thaera is worth citing, where Khayyat describes how the prison authorities were:

“...labelling us as murderers, saboteurs and terrorists to stir up feelings of hatred and revenge … hurling insults like “daughters of sin” and “Mohammad died and only left girls as offspring”. Later, a few sympathetic Jewish prisoners told us that the administration was brainwashing every new Jewish inmate, telling her that the Palestinian prisoners were terrorists who killed Jewish boys, and that we were not human but looked like monkeys or wild animals. Given the rumours, the newcomers wanted to see the ‘animals’ in their cage, without getting too close; they were afraid of getting hurt or being eaten alive!”

Perhaps this will remind some of us of Nazi narratives during the Holocaust.

Voices from the present crisis in Palestine are difficult to come by, with insiders and journalists shot down and narratives smothered by counter-narratives and cries of anti-semitism. Perhaps, many years in the future, the world will shake its head too late and sigh, What a tragedy. Perhaps, years into trauma, coherent narratives of survivors will emerge. Years after their incarceration and release, most of the authors of A Party for Thaera were writing out their voices for the first time; in her memoir, Aced Tamm was doing likewise. Their writing is not just a piercing demand, but a steely gaze that challenges the world to look, to truly gaze forth and see what they have been through.  “The world takes notice and acts selectively. One sees what one chooses to see”, Rose Shomali Musleh wrote, the heavy truth of her words leaving no space for weak justifications and excuses. How much does it take for the world to notice?–these women ask. “Do we have to die every day so that the world can be moved?”.

Haifa Zangana (ed). A Party for Thaera: Palestinian Women Write Life in Prison, translated by Salam Darwazah Mir, Women Unlimited, 2021.
AhedTamimi and Dena Takruri. They Called me a Lioness: a Palestinian Girl’s Fight for Freedom. One World, 2022.
Summer Said and DovLieber. “Israel Arrests Palestinian Activist AhedTamimi on Suspicion of Inciting Terrorism,” The Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2023.
Simran Srivastava. “In Palestine, Women Are The Driving Force Behind Anti-Colonial Resistance,” Youth kiAwaaz, November 30, 2023.

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Vol 56, No. 35, Feb 25 - Mar 2, 2024