It was interesting to listen to young women who are part of a nascent Palestinian feminist movement that has taken to the streets of Haifa and all the way to Ramallah to protest against and condemn the killing of women. These feminists categorically reject foreign funding and do not even tolerate cooperation with renowned INGOs, on the premises that this rejection is by itself an expression of their strength and their ability to go on and create an impact. During my interaction with this movement, their representative (1) would tell me: “We do not agree with INGO’s agendas, direction, and ways of working. Our movement does not want to institutionalize itself and become an organization or association; we want to maintain our current form as a volunteer-based movement that is made up of young women and a few men”. This is a movement that is standing up against violence against women. Their objective and strategy is to put women’s issues at the heart of the Palestinian liberation narrative and movement..
A lot has been written about funding within the Palestinian context. Young women who are affiliated with this Palestinian feminist movement might have learned from long decades of targeted support that donors often have their own agendas that might have nothing to do with the priorities of Palestinian women. In the context of active colonialism, Palestine is a weak country with a strong society and funding is an essential economic pillar for Palestinians. Siham Rashid (2), a Palestinian feminist activist for over thirty years, tells us that one of the key dilemmas of the Palestinian feminist movement is that it is scattered and it lacks a unified national agenda. “It is a new movement, with new terms of reference!” adds Rashid as she pinpoints to how the feminist movement has taken on a new shape in the last few decades under the Palestinian liberation context, taking the form of civil society organizations and associations that have an ideological and class reference that is strange to the daily struggles and problems of Palestinian women.
Young feminist movements have learned the lesson well: Institutionalizing a movement comes hand in hand with Bureaucracy. Donors’ interests in Palestine are often associated with the agendas of their respective countries and their understanding of political support, it has little to do with the priorities of Palestinian women. The terms that are attached to the funding might in some cases be in alignment with the real and urgent needs of women. But how are these priorities set? Is there anyone listening to the voices of Palestinian women and turning them into an agenda? Is what we have now the correct way to go, especially since Palestine is fighting against active colonialism and a comprador project? This young feminist movement is up against numerous obstacles that need to be addressed in order to achieve feminist goals. Establishing a grassroots movement that sees feminism as a legitimate part of the Palestinian liberation project is thus key. Failing to do so, even if foreign funding is refused, might result in the continued rejection of the liberation vision that this feminist movement calls for.
Palestinian feminists have not been able to infiltrate the patriarchy that dominates the Palestinian liberation movement yet. Will young Palestinian women of all social and political backgrounds in Palestine ever be able to create the impact that can drive change? Is saying no to funding enough to give the movement the momentum it needs? Thousands of men, and even women, who were angered by the CEDAW convention protested in cities like Hebron in the West Bank. These protesters will not care whether the feminist movement is local or not. For them, advocating for women’s rights is nothing but an attack on the prevailing customs and culture.
The Iraqi context is different in terms of funding and policies. Unlike Palestine, Iraq was a strong centralized country before it got undermined starting in the early nineties and with the 2003 US invasion. Researcher Zahra Ali (3) says that the young Iraqi feminist movement addresses topics such as freedom, social structures, and social norms, especially as they relate to gender. This movement is challenging the tribal sectarianism and conservatism of the Iraqi society, but it does not seem to be taking a defensive stance against donors. It could be that actors in the movement do not have the same experience that their Palestinian counterparts have had in that regard.
As I was writing about this topic, I talked to Samira (4), an activist who has been working on issues related to women, the environment, and social development since 2005 with an organization that has offices in various Iraqi cities, engaging with numerous INGOs for funding. I asked her: Is there an Iraqi young feminist movement that is not comfortable with the idea of obtaining funding for their activities? Samira answered: “I do not know of any movement of the sort. There are lots of campaigns and activities going on around laws on family protection and violence. As to our own relationship with donors, we have asked INGOs that are active in Iraq to engage Iraqis in project delivery to ensure sustainability and create work opportunities for Iraqis. I am not aware of any movement of this sort, but we do call on INGOs to localize these projects in order to strengthen and promote civil society”.
In a quite different context, I have talked to Banan Abou Zein El-Din (5), one of the founders of the Jordanian feminist collective, “Takatoat”. What initially started as a movement with a few feminist activists protesting against the killing of women in 2019 soon took an institutional form. Zein El-Din says: “Funding is essential for the survival and effectiveness of the movement on the long run. Since we are dedicating our time to feminist issues, we need to have resources”. Zein El-Din highlighted that there is a need to support the institutionalization of the movement as civic spaces are shrinking in Jordan: “If we are talking about the issue from a security perspective, and to make sure that our movement is understood and clear for the authorities, we also need to be registered to be able to obtain permits to safely conduct our activities.”
Jordanian feminists are operating within limited spaces that are controlled by authorities as well as patriarchal tribal dynamics. A long time ago, the feminist movement in Jordan started out as a charity movement that focused on relief and projects that have even further promoted the traditional roles of women. But this young feminist movement has a different, more feminist position, one that aims to challenge this tradition and to develop its own agenda. But they are faced with real obstacles that are similar to the ones we are seeing in neighboring countries, including limited resources and weak sustainability.
The country and the ruling system greatly influence the shape of national feminist movements, the obstacles it has to face, and its resilience and sustainability. The challenges that feminist movements are facing today are driving them to stand against the patriarchal system that dominates state agencies which perceive the feminist movement as threat to the existing social structures. Not every feminist movement is anti-state, but it would be worthwhile to look into the dynamics between feminist movements and the existing ruling systems, and look at these movements’ ability to negotiate, confront, and challenge.
Not all donors operate in the same way. While many donors do have a political and restrictive agenda, others are more flexible, namely those that work with grassroots movements and activists. Zein El-Din confirms that: “we do not accept political or restrictive funding; we apply rules and standards in our partner and donor selection process. For example, we do not accept anyone to tell us what our direction should be or meddle with our internal affairs or the content that we create”. Building strategic partnership between the feminist movements and relevant donors comes with great benefits to both parties as they have shared interests. However, as there are different models of operating, donors will gain from being flexible and from focusing their priorities on long-term impacts in cases like violence against women for instance.
Funding is by itself a great contributor to the sustainability of feminist movements, but it is not the only form of relationships between young feminist movements and donors. Creating a supporting and conducive environment for feminist movements, giving them a voice, and providing them with other resources such as local and international expertise, relations, and networking opportunities are key to supporting feminist movements, regardless of whether the movement is on the road to institutionalization or not. The central issue here is the nature of the relationship that active international donors build with feminist activists in the region. The continuity of this partnership – whether it be financial or not – and the awareness of the power balance between the two parties and its impact on the types of implemented programs and formed alliances are key.
(1) Email correspondence
(2) Interview, 25 March 2022
(3) Zahra Ali (2021) From Recognition to Redistribution? Protest Movements in Iraq in the Age of ‘New Civil Society’, Journal of Intervention and State building, 15:4, 528-542
(4) Interview, 28 March 2022 (fictional name)
(5) Interview, 30 March 2022
Rawan Natsheh resides in Jerusalem, Palestine. She is currently working for Oxfam International in the role of gender advocacy advisor for the MENA region. She has worked in numerous international and national organizations. Rawan is finalizing her PhD studies on policy analysis in the subject of regulation and governance.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.