December 16, 2015 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1212

Palestinian Women On The Frontlines Of The Current Uprising

December 16, 2015 | By D. Hazan*
Palestinians | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1212

In the current wave of Palestinian violence, young Palestinian women have been visible on the frontlines of protests and of violent clashes with security forces, and have also been carrying out knife attacks. Their participation cuts across social sectors: they have been seen wearing hijabs and veils and with their heads and faces uncovered; in traditional or modern garb, including makeup; carrying handbags or even school backpacks; throwing stones and firebombs; carrying out stabbing attacks, and verbally and physically confronting Israeli police and soldiers.

This visibility has prompted Palestinian and Arab media to feature dozens of articles on the issue of women in the Palestinian resistance. The vast majority of writers stressed that the phenomenon was hardly new, since Palestinian women have always played an active role in the Palestinian struggle, including in the armed struggle, and especially in the second intifada. But, they argued, it is different this time, because their presence is more noticeable, and because they have moved "from behind the scenes... to the forefront of the conflict."  Some even claimed that these women are seen as the leaders of the current struggle, more so than the men.

Many writers praised the women's beauty and modern appearance; some lauded their active participation, especially their courage and willingness to become martyrs for the sake of their homeland, and called them "the ladies of the land," "the glory of Islam," and "the new Canaanite women."

At the same time, some on the Arab street and on social media voiced a conservative view, claiming, for instance, that the modern dress of some women protesters contravened the values of Palestinian society and that women should not participate in the intifada because their place is in the home. For example, Muhammad Shalabi, known as Abu Sayyaf, a prominent figure in the Jordanian Salafi-jihadi stream, called on the Murabitat[1] to return to their homes because their activity might result in harm to their honor, which is even worse than harm to Al-Aqsa.

This conservative attitude was widely criticized in Arab media, with several writers attacking those who made an issue of the women activists' gender and calling to depict them not as women but as human beings like any other who are fighting for their country. In response to arguments that a women's place is in the home, and criticism of women protestors' immodest clothing, one woman writer argued that these views were a mistaken interpretation of the shari'a, and another stated that "women are the key to change" and that as long as they are oppressed, "there will be no change in our painful Arab reality."

This paper will review Palestinian and Arab media coverage of women participating in the current Palestinian uprising.   

Palestinian Women: From "Behind The Scenes... To The Forefront Of the Conflict" - And Ahead Of Their Male Peers 

Many writers noted that women's participation in the struggle was not new in itself, but stressed that their role in the current intifada is more prominent and active than ever before. For example, Palestinian journalist Naila Khalil published an investigative article in the London-based Qatari daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid on the active role played by women in the current uprising. In it, she quoted Fatah member Maysoun Al-Qaddoumi, who "routinely participates in confrontations in Beit El," as saying: "I participated in the second intifada, but I am certain that what I am seeing today is unprecedented in terms of the number and quality of women participants and the scenes I witness daily - such as on Friday [October 9, 2015], at the funeral of the martyr Muhannad Al-Halabi,[2] where women led calls and the men responded to them. [This is] something we have not seen in the past."

Khalil also quoted 'Atef 'Alian from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), "who spent 14 years of her life in an Israeli prison," as saying: "The Palestinian people are currently waging a popular intifada, and it is obvious that women, particularly younger ones, will participate in it." Regarding the impression that young women belonging to Hamas and PIJ are less visible at conflict points than young women belonging to Fatah and the left-wing factions, 'Alian said: "What is happening today is popular action with an undefined goal, which is directed by young people and is not linked to a specific faction... The cruel persecution of Hamas and PIJ activists by the occupation and by the Palestinian security mechanisms has caused many of their women members to consider their moves, fearing certain persecution."

Stressing women's extensive and significant participation in the current intifada, Khalil said: "The current Palestinian awakening throughout the Palestinian territories - the '48 territories, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip - is characterized by not being limited just to men, but rather of having a division of labor [between men and women], which is necessary for the success of the intifada... Since the beginning of this month [October 2015], the sight of women leading the struggle has become an everyday occurrence, in confrontations with the Israeli occupation at the points of conflict. The images of young women, their faces covered, throwing stones at occupation soldiers in Beit El, standing tall and knowing no fear, have been widely distributed by news agencies and on social media." However, she stressed, the impression that Palestinian women's participation in the resistance is new is completely wrong. She pointed out that "this was acceptable during the period of the Fedayeen[3] and during the first and second intifadas, when the names of the female warriors who competed with the men, and even in some cases surpassed them, even in military operations, were well-known... In the second intifada, [for instance,] 27 women carried out suicide operations, and thousands were killed, wounded, and imprisoned." According to Khalil, the roles of women, "which have been the same throughout [all] the stages of Palestinian uprising dating back to the Nakba, have included: attempts to stab soldiers and settlers, making firebombs for young men at the points of conflict... collecting stones for the young men and [even] throwing them [themselves], and scouting out safe routes of passage for them."[4]

In her article in the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) daily Al-Sabil, writer Ayat Al-Hawawsheh likewise stressed that Palestinian women had participated in previous intifadas, but that this time they were surpassing the men. She wrote: "The Palestinian woman was never absent from the landscape of the struggle and resistance, particularly in the first and second intifadas. In the first intifada - the intifada of the stones in 1987 - a third of the martyrs were women; in the second intifada - the Al-Aqsa intifada - the operations by the women martyrs Wafa Idris[5] and Ayat Al-Akhras[6] clearly had an impact in keeping the flame of the revolution burning for a long time. In continuation of this, the third intifada, known as the knife intifada, has preserved the role of the woman in the arena. However, it seems that the women's role today has grown to transcend that of their male counterparts by several levels, to the point of attracting the attention of all, including the international media that has published many articles on the topic... Palestinian women have moved from behind the scenes... to the heart of the arena and the forefront of the conflict, whether with their presence in and their defense of Al-Aqsa, or with [their presence] on the frontlines of the confrontation with the occupation army."[7]

(Image: Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, London, October 14, 2015) 

Gaza-based poet and children's author Khaled Jum'a addressed the issue of the women's participation in Sawt Al-Nisaa ("Women's Voice"), the women's and social affairs supplement of the Palestinian Authority daily Al-Ayyam. He wrote that, unlike in the past, when Palestinian women mainly played a secondary role in the local struggle - for example by extricating young men from the Israeli forces, distributing fliers or serving as lookouts - in the current uprising they were playing a new, active role: "We have begun seeing young Palestinian women not only [serving] in a helping capacity but engaging in direct conflict with the occupation soldiers at the friction points, to the point that they carry out stabbings and are [even] killed, arrested or wounded". Jum'a noted, however, that despite the women's active participation on the ground, the division of labor between them and the men "still depends on the culture prevalent in each specific city". For example, in university towns women's participation is more noticeable. Jum'a urged the Palestinians not to disregard the role of women, who constitute over 50% of the Palestinian population, but to increase awareness of their role, preserve and the achievement that has been made in this area during the current uprising and promote it further, for "no nation ever managed to ascend the ladder of freedom with only its men and without its women."

Palestinian writer Tahsin Yaqin emphasized in an article in the same supplement: "Women's participation the struggle is no longer symbolic, just as reports on the wounding or arrest of young women is no longer exceptional but has become commonplace."[8]

(Image:, October 10, 2015) 

Young Masked Female Protester: "The Age When Women Sat At Home Is Over... We Can Do What The Men Do"

One of the prominent young women in the current uprising is Dalia Nassar, a 25-year-old student from Ramallah, who was one of the first women to participate in clashes with the IDF alongside the men. She became an icon for Palestinian women and a symbol of the current intifada after being wounded in clashes with IDF forces in early October. Her mother was Maha Nassar, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the chair of the Society of Palestinian Women's Committees, who died in 2008.

Dalia Nassar was quoted in Al-Ayyam's "Women's Voice" supplement as having said from her hospital bed: "The young men were [initially] surprised to see [us] young women participating [in clashes] from the first moment on the frontlines [of the conflict] and called on us to retreat, but we insisted on continuing. That's when the men began to grow accustomed to our presence and participation. This proves that in the arena of struggle, all differences are erased." In his article in the supplement, Khaled Jum'a also wrote about Dalia Nassar, saying: "She was the first woman among the youths from day one, and her presence might have spurred other women to join. Dalia Nassar says: 'If one woman has to start, then let it be me.'"[9] In her Al-'Arabi Al-Jadid article, Naila Khalil quoted Dalia's sister, Hanin, as saying: "Our parents did not try to stop her from participating in the protests, because they raised us to participate in national action, and our mother herself was a prominent member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the West Bank."[10]

From video on Dalia Nassar on the Al-Quds daily's website (, October 21, 2015) 

In an article in the Egyptian daily Al-Watan, "Young Palestinian Women In The Line Of Fire," Egyptian writer Jihan Fawzi argued that the current intifada differs from the previous two because "it is scented by the perfume of the young women adorned in the color of blood, [who participate in it] hand in hand with the young men." She continued: "More than anything, what characterizes this popular uprising, or 'the knife revolution,' is the massive participation of Palestinian women and girls, who play a very different role than they did in the first and second intifadas, in which men played the main part in protests and violent clashes. Some of them cover their face with the Palestinian keffiyeh; some wear modern clothing, while others wear long robes.

"These [women] are university students, the future generation, strong-willed women who will not leave the intifada arena to just the men, as they have in the past. They have gone to the points of conflict and faced the occupation army; they fearlessly and without hesitation throw stones at military forces and Israeli security personnel. One woman protestor, with her face covered and a stone in her hand, said: 'The age when women sat at home is over. These current [events] prove that we can do what the men do.'"[11]

"These are the female fedayeen, the sisters of the men" (, October 10, 2015) 

Jordanian political activist Dr. Hayat Al-Masimi called on Jordanian women to support their Palestinian sisters' struggle by following news and events, and by participating in aid activity, as well as with intense social media activity. They should also, he said, provide as much material aid as possible.[12]  

Praise And Encouragement Of Women Participating In The Struggle: "Ladies Of Palestine"; "The Glory Of Arabism And Islam"

The Arab media published articles praising and glorifying the role played by women in the current uprising, emphasizing their dress and their beauty and femininity as well as their courage. Jumana Ghunaimat, editor of the Jordanian daily Al-Ghad, wrote: "Nothing is more exalted and lofty than mothers who dedicate their sons to the homeland. These are the ladies of the world, the ladies of Palestine. What they have sacrificed, and are still sacrificing, is the heaviest toll on Earth...

"The streets of Palestine also [see] young girls with covered faces who have left their vanity in their closets and have donned the garb of resistance so as to stand beside their brothers on the frontlines of the conflict with the occupier. [One of them] carries on her shoulder a feminine handbag stressing love of life - while with her other hand she throws a stone against an [enemy] gun, because life must be lived only in freedom and honor. Another young woman made herself a slingshot, in her determination to confront the oppressor by all means necessary.

"These girls have frightened the [Israeli] soldiers. They bravely faced the occupier, and sowed fear in his heart, without using a gun. [The occupier] fears not a gun, nor a primitive weapon, but a strong brave woman who believes that conflict is her fate and sacrifice is her duty - even if she sacrifices her only son, whose life she values more than her own. [These] girls are braver than an ummah [Islamic nation] that has completely, or almost completely, forgotten Palestine, and stronger than the men, who are preoccupied with everything except Palestine. We say to them: 'Bless you, women and girls of the land, for your courage, which gives a woman pride in her womanhood.'

"There is in Palestine a people that has wearied of oppression and injustice; [that people] is led by women who believe it is their duty to the homeland to put their lives on the line, in order to tell the entire world: 'We are the women of Palestine, its girls and daughters, we are the ladies of the land, because we defend the homeland with our lives and with the lives of our offspring'..."[13]

Writing in the Jordanian daily Al-Dustour, Jamal Al-'Alawi praised the Palestinian women protesting in Jerusalem and the West Bank, calling them "the new Canaanites." He wrote: "This is a group of new Canaanites, whom the third intifada brought to the public arena to defend Jerusalem. Some cover their faces, some wear a hijab, and some wear jeans and a keffiyeh. They are the flowers of the new intifada, the beauty queens of the third intifada... the ladies of the field, of the battlefronts, of the war, and of the media. They have taken to the streets to defend Jerusalem and the Arab honor - as we, to our shame, watch TV and spend nights on social media, waiting... for the ideal of heroism [to be actualized] by the girls who have occupied the public square and grabbed stones to confront the Zionists, the scum of our time.

"Thousands of blessings upon these new Canaanites... [who are] the glory of Arabism and Islam, [even] without a hijab or a scarf. Anyone who treats them as [mere] women sins - because they are the sun that shines on Palestine."[14]

Al-Arabi Al-Jadid published an article by Lebanese writer Milia Bou-Jaoud├® that focused on the beauty of the Palestinian women and stressed that their participation in protests does not conflict with their femininity: "They carry their stones, donning their keffiyehs and directing their rage at the occupier. It is their right to rage, and rage becomes them... Their photos are broadcast [in the media] and the world stands in awe.

"The femininity of these young women does not prevent them from carrying a stone from their homeland and throwing it at those who violate it... They throw their stones out of unshakable faith and confidence that their Palestine is a free Arab [country]. They come to reclaim it without shame for their painted nails or their made-up eyes, which burn inside the keffiyehs wrapped around their heads and their streaming hair. They are not ashamed of the jewelry sparkling on their wrists and fingers, and they raise their fists in anger. This anger does not detract from their femininity, and their femininity does not detract from their right to rage."[15]

The editor of the online daily Al-Rai Al-Yawm, 'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan, who is of Palestinian origin, also praised the women taking part in the struggle, while stressing their varied backgrounds as a symbol of Palestinian unity: "How lovely [is the sight of] young women, some bareheaded and some veiled, at the height of their beauty, handing stones to the young men of the Intifada of Honor... Jeans-clad girls hand stones to bearded men, and veiled women hand knives to masked young liberals, to the point that nobody can tell anymore who is Muslim and who is Christian, who is an Islamist and who is a liberal. Bless them!... This is national unity grounded in resistance, not in phony negotiations or false reconciliation - and for this reason and others, it will triumph."[16]

Praise for the women participating in the struggle appeared also in the social media, where users posted many pictures of women and girls in the arenas of conflict, with encouraging comments. Below are several examples:

"Throw rocks at them with the fire of victory is in your eyes" (, October 14, 2015) 

"Beauties carrying a stone or knife to defend their land" (, October 19, 2015)  

Criticism Of The Chauvinistic And Religious Discourse Against Women Participating In The Resistance

It appears that many of those writing on the issue of women in resistance activity are responding to views voiced on the street and on social media that women should not be participating in this activity at all, whether for social reasons or religious ones. Those opposed to their participation argue that a woman's place is in the home and that such activity is not appropriate for them, and complain about the "immodest" garb of the young women protestors. The following are some of the responses to this discourse: 

Criticism Of Calls By Jordanian Salafi-Jihadi For Murabitat To Return To Their Homes So As To Preserve Their Honor

The Salafi-jihadi stream in Jordan condemned the activity of the Murabitat in Al-Aqsa and urged them to return to their homes, so as to avoid harm to their honor, which is even worse than the destruction of Al-Aqsa. In a statement he issued, prominent Salafi sheikh Muhammad Al-Shalabi, aka Abu Sayyaf, said: "O honorable women of Al-Aqsa, the destruction of Al-Aqsa, God forbid, is less grave in our eyes than the harming of your honor, and your lives are more important to us than even our holy places. So return to your homes and do not expose our honor to harm by the despicable nation [the Jews]. And know that the spring of Islam shall undoubtedly come.ÔÇØ[17]

In response, Palestinian writer ÔÇÿAli Al-Al-Saleh attacked Al-Shalabi in the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, saying that he and those like him are ignorant of "the history of the struggle of the Palestinian woman, who, since the start of the 20th century, has never been remiss in fulfilling her duties on the national and combative levels." Al-Saleh went on to enumerate Palestinian women who had taken an active part in the Palestinian struggle, from the early 20th century through the second intifada, in which, he said, 11 women were killed in martyrdom operations.[18]

Naila Khalil wrote about girls who participate in protests with their faces masked: "The presence of masked women with the masked young men has become common, despite the social prohibitions that pressure women in Palestinian society. According to the data, some of the women cover their faces - firstly so that their relatives won't identify them in photos, or out of fear that a relative... will force them to stay home... and secondly so that the occupation soldiers won't identify them. Other women prefer to participate [in demonstrations] even without covering their faces."[19]  

Female Member Of Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood: "The Sunna Is Full Of Examples Of Jihad Carried Out By Women On The Frontline"

Political analyst Dr. Dima Tahboub, a spokesperson for the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood's party, the Islamic Action Front, wrote about the religio-social aspect of women's participation in resistance activity, and discussed the argument that "a woman's place is in the home," contending that it reflects a misinterpretation of shari'a texts: "The Sunna is full of examples of jihad carried out by women on the frontline; additionally, the atmosphere [today] is one of general mobilization, and if there is any doubt about women's going out [to the battlefield] then [according to the Islamic principle] necessity lifts the prohibition. The question of honor is [answered] by the most impressive example of [a Muslim woman's] sacrifice of honor - Sumayyah bint Khayyat,[20] Islam's first martyr, who died of a sword wound in her private parts after enduring the harshest possible torture, and even that did not stop her."

In response to the argument that Islamic law bans women from resisting the occupation, Dr. Tahboub wrote: "[Does Koran 71:9 not state,] 'The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong'? [If so,] what is more wrong than the occupation? Likewise, 'allies' means [providing mutual] aid, and therefore the woman is obliged to help... Accordingly, when waging jihad applies to women as an individual obligation, religious law does not discuss the details of her dress, and when a man defends Al-Aqsa, we do not examine his personal biography. Ultimately, they [i.e. these young men and women] have chosen the path of martyrdom, and they [will be judged] according to their intention, and it is not we who will sentence them to Paradise or to Hell."[21]

Several writers in the "Women's Voice" supplement also addressed this controversy. Gaza-based poet and children's author Khaled Jum'a praised the girls for persisting in their participation despite criticism of their clinging clothes that emphasize the contours of their bodies, and thereby "explicitly challenging the social norms that have long dominated the Palestinian struggle." He added: "Those who raise this issue [of the girls' dress] are always the ones who are outside the circle of action... Those who take part in resistance are interested in one [question] only, namely what is the most effective means of resistance, not what they are wearing or what they look like in front of the cameras - if they even notice the presence [of the cameras]." Jum'a assessed that the opposition to the women's participation may grow weaker, but would not disappear, given the conservative character of Palestinian society in most of the cities.

Maha Al-Tamimi, a Palestinian journalist and researcher who frequently addresses women's issues, praised the Palestinian girls for challenging the norms of their society: "These beautiful young women are those who have shattered the stereotypes regarding their role and their inclusion [in the struggle]. [They achieved this] by repeatedly taking an active part in the struggle and thereby defeating the diseased culture which maintains that they must be kept out of sight for reasons of modesty."

Rutaiba Al-Natshe, a Palestinian women's right activist, noted that the outrage over women's participation in the struggle was part of their general exclusion from the public arena: "[Voices] on social media condemn the young women's participation [in the struggle] for the following reason: because they are women and because they are young. [Women and youth] are two sectors that are excluded and whose role in society must be strengthened in order to allow them to obtain their political rights, which begins with obtaining their social rights."[22]  

Drawing posted to Instagram, captioned: "Every girl in the world carries makeup, lipstick, and perfume in her bag - but the girls of my land, Palestine, carry stones, a slingshot, a firebomb, a knife, and a red flower to plant on the tomb of the martyrs." (, October 18, 2015). 

"Women And Men Are Partners In Life, In Building, And In The Struggle For Freedom And Independence"

Palestinian writer, researcher and women's right activist Dr. Fayha ÔÇÿAbd Al-Hadi, arguing from a feminist perspective in the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, protested against the fact that the public discourse describes women in Palestinian resistance activity relative to men and/or as superhuman - instead of as ordinary people who happen to be female fighting for their homeland's freedom. She wrote:

"Examining the terms used to describe the young [Palestinian] women who participate in demonstrations alongside the young men who are rising up indicates a dominant discourse, the main thrust of which is describing women relative to men [with terms such as] 'the sisters of the men,' 'the mothers of the men'... or 'worth 1,000, or 100, men.' This discourse is consistent with the attempt to elevate resistance activity into legend, by attributing extraordinary heroism to all men and women, and even children, who take part in the clashes or are arrested, wounded, or killed...

"Next to this discourse is a contrasting one, that attempts to break down common elements of the culture and call things what they are. This discourse refers to a woman as a human being, depicting her as a regular fighter. She is no legend, and nothing out of the ordinary, but an ordinary women like any other whose consciousness has prompted her to fight for the freedom of her homeland and of the people in it, and to take part in creating an image that is an alternative to the eternal stereotype of women's dependence and inferiority... Women and men are partners in life, in building, and in the struggle for freedom and independence."[23]  

"There Will Be No Change In Our Painful Arab Reality... As Long As The Woman And Her Voice Are Considered Shameful"

In her article, Jumana Ghunaimat, editor of the Jordanian Al-Ghad daily, wrote: "Shamefully, there are men who argue that the garb of the women who participate in the resistance is shameful and immodest, and that they belong in the kitchen. To them, I say: 'There will be no change in our painful Arab reality, on the political, economic, or social level, as long as the woman and her voice are considered shameful, and as long as a male mind thinks that women's going out into the field detracts from their honor and harms public sentiment and that their [i.e. women's] participation in [resistance] activity reduces his own opportunities. Gentlemen, women are the key to change."[24]  

*D. Hazan is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Women of the Islamist Al-Murabitoun movement, who  stage vocal protests in the Al-Aqsa compound, especially to prevent Jews from praying there.  

[2] Murdered two Jews and injured two others in the old city in Jerusalem on October 3, 2015.

[3] Reference to Arab terror groups that infiltrated Israel for guerilla operations from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s.

[4] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), October 11, 2015.

[5] A Palestinian woman from the Al-Am'ari refugee camp near Ramallah who carried out a suicide bombing on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem on February 27, 2002, killing one and wounding over 100. The Al-Aqsa Brigades - the military wing of Fatah - claimed responsibility for the attack. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Reports No. 83, 84, and 85, Wafa Idris: The Celebration of the First Palestinian Suicide Bomber, Part I, February 12, 2002; Part II, February 13, 2002; and Part III, February 14, 2002.

[6] A Palestinian woman who carried out a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in March 2002, killing two and wounding dozens.

[7] Al-Sabil (Jordan), October 14, 2015.

[8] Sawt Al-Nisaa (Palestinian Authority), October 29, 2015.

[9] Sawt Al-Nisaa (Palestinian Authority), October 29, 2015.

[10] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), October 11, 2015.

[11] Al-Watan (Egypt), October 14, 2015.

[12] Al-Sabil (Jordan), October 14, 2015.

[13] Al-Ghad (Jordan), October  9, 2015.

[14] Al-Dustour (Jordan), October 10, 2015.

[15] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), October 14, 2015.

[16], October 14, 2015.

[17], September 15, 2015.

[18] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 9, 2015.

[19] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, (London), October  11, 2015.

[20] Sumayyah bint Khayyat was one of the first converts to Islam who did not belong to the Prophet's Bani Hashem tribe, in pre-Hijra Mecca; she converted together with her husband and her son. Tortured severely in an attempt to force her to renounce Islam, she refused, even though she was old and frail, and ultimately Meccan tribal chief Abu Jahl thrust a sword through her private parts and killed her.

[21] Al-Sabil (Jordan), October 14, 2015.

[22] Sawt Al-Nisaa (Palestinian Authority), October 29, 2015.

[23] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), October 11, 2015.

[24] Al-Ghad (Jordan), October 10, 2015. 

Share this Report:

Help Fight Extremism - Support MEMRI

MEMRI is a 501(c)3 organization. All donations are tax-deductible and kept strictly confidential.