The ties between feminist activism and anti-colonial liberation movements have historically been strong. These connections were evident in Arabic-speaking nations, where alliances between women's movements and national liberation endeavors were common. Despite attempts by British and French occupiers in the region to fragment and weaken feminist movements, these movements retained their inherently political character, persisting well into the post-independence era for most countries in the region.
However, in the 1980s, a neoliberal shift unfolded across the region. Guided by international donors, neoliberal development initiatives and dynamics of international "co-operation" detrimentally affected feminist and other progressive movements across the Global South, leading to the gradual depoliticization of their activism. Movements characterized by intersectionality and political engagement were gradually nudged toward adopting a (neo)liberal stance, devoid of comprehensive analysis and critique of prevailing power dynamics and the varied structural forms of violence and oppression.
In the case of Palestine, where an ongoing process of colonization, ethnic cleansing, and expansion of military occupation has been meticulously documented by human rights activists, journalists, and organizations worldwide, the intentional nature of this depoliticization was more pronounced, and its consequences were particularly harmful. This article aims to illuminate these trends and provide examples of how feminist activists and organizations have actively reclaimed their autonomy in recent years, especially in the current environment, amid the ongoing brutal military offensive against Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
The process of depoliticizing feminist perspectives on Palestine, as well as other political struggles, becomes evident when examining reports from various UN World Conferences on Women. In the inaugural UN World Conference on Women in 1975 in Mexico, the occupation of Palestine was prominently featured in discussions. In its section on "Palestinian and Arab Women", the conference report reaffirmed "the futility of speaking about equality of human beings, at a time when millions of human beings are suffering under the yoke of colonialism." The report considered that "international co-operation and peace require national independence and liberation, the elimination of colonialism, neo-colonialism, fascism, Zionism, apartheid, and foreign occupation,” as well as “alien domination and racial discrimination in all its forms."
Subsequent World Conferences on Women, however, witnessed a gradual removal of political discussions, progressively narrowing their focus towards achieving equality of rights, representation, and opportunities between women/girls and men/boys — thus aligning with (neo)liberal feminism. This form of feminism fails to address the structural root causes of injustice, such as occupation. In the reports of the second World Conference on Women, Palestine was mentioned exclusively by the Palestinian and Israeli delegations. Remarkably, in the third and fourth conferences, the occupation of Palestine did not feature in any official documents.
The outcomes of these conferences laid the foundation for the formulation of international gender-related aid and funding agendas. These agendas, characterized by project-based approaches, national focus, and (neo)liberal orientations, deeply impacted the ability of feminist movements to mobilize and organize. Moreover, they produced a competitive and bureaucratic funding landscape, substantially contributing to the fragmentation of feminist movements across the Global South and in Palestine.
Up until the early 1990s, Palestinian feminist and women's unions and committees, particularly those, affiliated with leftist political parties, retained the capacity to mobilize substantial numbers of women. During this period, they maintained a clearly articulated and envisioned feminist-national liberation project. However, with the signing of the Oslo Agreement in 1993 and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, neoliberal development aid and funding became an intrinsic component of Palestinian civil society at a time when leftist political parties were also being systematically weakened.
The increasingly precarious and life-threatening conditions permeating every facet of Palestinian life prompted many civil society organizations, including feminist and women's rights groups, to conform to (neo)liberal development and "co-operation" agendas in order to be able to sustain themselves. Constrained by limited budgets and timelines, short-term projects cycles, and globally influenced agendas, the newly NGO-ized feminist movements underwent a gradual process of depoliticization. They increasingly directed their focus toward addressing the symptoms of the patriarchal system, with minimal room for acknowledging the impacts of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and racism on the diverse lives of Palestinian women.
In the 2020s, it became evident that Israel, along with its allies, remained committed to restricting the discourses and actions of civil society organizations that criticized the Israeli occupation and apartheid system, (1) and documented its human rights violations against Palestinians. A notable example of this was Israel's classification of seven Palestinian human rights organizations as "terrorist" in 2022 — a claim that even the CIA was not able to corroborate and that was strongly condemned by UN Human Rights experts. Nevertheless, this designation resulted in conducting raids against these organizations, and a substantial tightening of their activities.
More recently, following the attack conducted by Hamas on the 7th of October, international development and aid donors such as Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany halted their funding to Palestinian civil society organizations. This action has been interpreted by many as a form of collective punishment, and as a further attempt to censor Palestinian voices.
In recent years, Palestinian feminist activists have initiated a wider process aimed at re-politicizing their movements. They began repositioning themselves at the intersection of the various struggles confronting Palestinian women and girls, steering clear of funding dynamics that undermine their positions.
An illustrative case is the "Tal3aat" movement, a Palestinian volunteer-driven feminist movement that emerged in 2019 to condemn the compounded violence experienced by Palestinian women, encapsulating its ethos with the slogan "There is no free homeland without free women." Owing to its political and intersectional discourse, and its autonomy and grassroots nature, the movement successfully mobilized thousands of women across Palestine and in Amman, Beirut, and Berlin.
In the face of green and pink-washing tactics employed by Israel to rationalize its brutal military occupation and attacks on Gaza, queer and ecofeminist Palestinian activists have been interconnecting their struggles with the broader pursuit for Palestinian liberation. These activists have spearheaded movements that expose the colonial nature of such tactics, and challenge the contradictory claims within Israeli narratives, which seek to demonize Palestinians while portraying Israel's cruel apartheid regime as a righteous and progressive democracy.
In the aftermath of the October 7th events, and in light of the suspension of funding by certain international donors, a collective of 37 community organizations in Palestine released a statement asserting their belief that "the discourse of 'development' and 'aid' is nothing more than political subordination that aims to subject us, discourage our struggle, and fragment its social foundation." Emphasizing their commitment, the organizations declared their intent to persist in their work, without relying on aid that hinders their capacity in forging radical change toward freedom and justice.
Feminism, by its nature, has consistently confronted unequal power relations and the systemic oppression, marginalization, and exploitation they produce. Thus, feminism stands as an inherently political movement, obligated to scrutinize unbalanced power relations within international development and co-operation dynamics, particularly those that reinforce or uphold colonial and paternalistic systems.
If depoliticized (neo)liberal approaches to feminism have been able to improve the lives of a few privileged women globally, in Palestine, they improved the lives of none. In a context where multiple forms of systematic oppression converge to define the realities of women, and where foreign aid and funding have been instrumentalized to censor, silence and fragment social movements, the intersectional and political stance of feminist movements must remain unwavering.
We find ourselves today at a critical moment in history that demands principled, bold, and resolute action. Palestinian feminists are rising to meet this challenge, despite immediate threats to their well-being, livelihoods, and even their lives — and they need allies across the world.
To all feminists across the globe who have long claimed commitment to freedom, justice, human rights, and international law: The time to be political is now. The time to practice feminist solidarity is now. The time to recognize the intersections of our collective struggles is now. Speak up. Organize. Mobilize.
Farah Daibes is a Senior Program Manager working on the Political Feminism Project of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in the MENA region. She is an intersectional feminist interested in issues related to socio-economic and ecological justice as well as the strengthening of feminist movements in the region.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.