Posted on March 8, 2011 by Marivel Guzman
by Original Post by Free Arab Voice
Laila Khaled is a member of the leadership council
of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian (PFLP), a
delegate of the Palestinian National Council (PNC,i.e., Palestinian
parliament), a leader in the Palestinian Women’s Union, and otherwise
another Palestinian Arab who has given the last three decades of her
life for the cause. In part one of this interview, we discussed
controversial issues relating to the strategy of liberating of Palestine.
In this part, we focus on women’s issues, with special emphasis on women
in the movement for national liberation.
[The interview with Laila Khlaed was done for the Free Arab Voice by
FAV: You mentioned earlier that you were prevented from leaving for
Beirut in December 1998 to attend the second Arab sub-meeting of the
post-Peking women’s conference, because the authorities thought you were
going in fact to attend the Palestinian opposition conference in
Damascus. But let’s turn here to the question of women. Until
recently, the official line of the Palestinian left on the question of
women was that the question of national rights comes before the question
of women’s rights. The latter question is hereby deferred till after
liberation, like all questions not pertaining directly to resisting the
However, in recent years, the question of women was posed again
forcefully by two different groups: 1) the religious fundamentalists,
who have been trying to impose a certain concept on the role of women in
society that is considered backward and reactionary by some, and 2) the
Non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), and international agencies, who
have been trying to impose an alternative concept for the liberation of
women that is described as a western construct alien to our society by
others, even part and parcel of the cultural Zionist campaign to wreck
our societies politically.
Before this conflict taking place right now in front of us between
local fundamentalists on one hand and the westernized activists on the
other, can we continue to re-iterate that the question of women is to be
postponed till after liberation? Or do we have no choice but to
struggle on both fronts, the social and the national? Can we really
separate the liberation of women from the liberation of the homeland? Or
should we ignore this issue when posed by the fundamentalists or the
westernized, so we may better focus our energy on the Zionist enemy?
But can we really separate social backwardness, and some of our
attitudes and conventions, from the struggle against the Zionist
occupation as the latter thrives on our backwardness? Would Laila
Khaled like to tackle this broad topic?
Laila: You mean broad topics rather : ) Well, let’s first of all define
what we mean by the women’s question. A Palestinian, regardless of
whether s/he is a male or a female, has the most basic problem of being
either a refugee or under occupation. There’s a Zionist entity on our
land that was built on our ruin, i.e., on the assumption that we don’t
exist. Our people, both men and women, struggled to reclaim their
identity as Palestinian. Thus the Palestinian national movement
focused on the goal of reaffirming the Palestinian identity, and I mean
that in a progressive, not a parochial or anti-Arab sense.
In the course of this struggle however, certain necessary and crucial
issues are posed, among the most prominent of which is probably the
question of women. For example, women are half of society. So if this
society doesn’t mobilize all of its energy to face down the enemy, it
can’t achieve victory. A Palestinian woman is a Palestinian as well.
As such, she has the same goals as the rest of our people.
But at the same time, the persecution of our women is compounded, not
just cumulative. She is oppressed nationally as a Palestinian under
occupation or in exile. This is the primary facet and cruelest form of
her oppression. The second facet of the complex is her socio-economic
exploitation as a member of the social class she belongs to. Last but
not least, she is oppressed as a woman because our societies are sexist.
Therefore her struggle has to also be complex and multi-faceted too. In
the struggle for liberation, she is indeed fighting on several fronts:
the national, socio-economic, and the social front. This means that for
liberation to really take place for her, it has to take place in these
three dimensions SIMULTANEOUSLY, not successively.
How can an enslaved (hu)man liberate her land if she is not free?! She
cannot be free as a woman however if her land is occupied. Thus the
dialectical process falls into place. As you struggle, you regain your
freedom and humanity. You don’t wait until the land is liberated, or
until someone liberates it for you, to call yourself free that way then
get ready to build on that freedom another dimension.
FAV [Question from Fadia Rafeedie]: Some books about women’s rights and
liberation in English accuse you personally of adopting the masculine
concept of the liberation of women, which is to put off the question of
the liberation of women to a later stage. How do you respond to that?
Laila: No, I don’t think like that, neither on my personal level nor
that of the PFLP. I’m one of those who struggled against that
particular concept of women’s liberation, even within the PFLP. I don’t
consider it a deferred question at all, because we are dealing with the
problem of a whole society here, just like the problem of poverty for
example, or that of backwardness. But I do believe that we have to
struggle with progressive men on our side for these social causes,
including the central one of women. It is no different from struggling
to achieve workers rights, or to improve health and education in the
third world. These are social issues, and they can’t all be postponed
till after the liberation of our land. On the contrary, making progress
in these areas, will help us achieve national liberation.
This is because revolution as a concept is not just about taking up
arms. Hunters and hoodlums bear arms too. Revolution has a political
end. In its more comprehensive sense, revolution is a process of change
in reality that encompasses several aspects of life. We are a society
in need of that change. Revolutionaries struggle against backwardness,
illiteracy, poverty, and even against the bourgois culture of consumerism.
We happen to be fighting on top of all that against those who took our land
as well. You can’t postpone all these questions till after liberation, just
like you can’t build a house before you establish a good foundation.
FAV: Where do you stand on the religious fundamentalist line on women?
Laila: Of course the fundamentalist line on women should be rejected
wholesale. But we cannot ignore its presence either. The religious
tide has begun to hold sway in our society. Its manifestations and
influence have become omnipresent. Therefore, we have to confront it
with dialogue. . with dialogue. In doing this however, we should steer
away from anything which touches the sensitive chord of Islamic culture
in our society. I mean we shouldn’t discuss these issues from a narrow
perspective. Rather we should try to look at them from very wide
angles. We should- and I mean WE here, not anybody else- give the
religious approach a progressive content, as opposed to a fundamentalist
You know we live in an overtly religious society. So it would be wrong
to butt heads here with sensitive issues that turn the people away from
us. Rather, what is required of us is to understand our reality and
deal with it. Ask them: what did God order us to do? God ordered us to
practice Jihad (struggle), right? So let us practice that Jihad. But it
is not only for men, is it now? It’s for both men and women.
Fundamentalists pose social issues strictly from the point of view of
social legislation dealing with marriage, divorce, etc…The social
question for them collapses into how to regulate women. But this
perspective is too inadequate to mobilize a society against the
occupation…too inadequate. That’s why they will never get any serious
results there [on the national front].
But when they say let’s fight together, I’m willing to fight along the
side of a guy who has a beard this long even if has all kinds of weird
ideas about women in his head. As long as he is fighting the occupation,
I’ll fight with him. While fighting together, I don’t pause to evaluate
him on whether he thinks women should wear a veil or not. He too will forget
that I’m not wearing a veil when he sees me fighting. When we get thrown in
jail together, he’s not going to focus on whether I’m wearing a veil or not.
When we go to the graveyards and see the martyrs laying side by side, he’s not
going to think about which martyr was wearing what.
In general however, the fundamentalist viewpoint is a negative one,
incapable of serious political mobilization. It represents an effort to
turn back the clock. Unfortunately this view is helped by the fact that
the Palestinian cause itself is experiencing a state of defeat. So
people retreat to metaphysics for instant relief, as they look to shift
the heavy burden outwards!
FAV: …And the Western viewpoint on the women’s question?
Laila: In the Peking women’s Conference we were discussing this …
FAV: You mean the one that Hillary Clinton attended?
Laila: Hillary Clinton, for electoral reasons, and due to the influence
of the church, was preaching on the primacy of the family. But that
was at odds with what the U.S. government delegation in the Peking
Conference was pushing Hillary Clinton said that a family is a mother
and a father living under legal contract, with children and what have
you. The official American stand however was that any two can form a
family, any two people: a man and a woman without a legal contract, or
even two people from the same sex. Of course this strange concept of
the family was rejected by the official Arab and Islamic delegations in
the Conference. So Hillary started preaching our traditional Arabian
concept of the family. We understood that as politics to help out her
husband and his administration.
The most dangerous aspect of the conference nevertheless was the attempt
to “de-politicize” the question of women.
FAV: What does that mean? Can you explain this please?
Laila: That is ‘de-politicize’, meaning, to NOT consider the question of
women an integral part of the question of social and political change in
FAV: So is this in your opinion the main problem with the western
concept for the liberation of women?
Laila: Their point was that we women can unite on issues regardless of
nature of our political systems. Here we posed the following question,
and this was the subject of pitched battles between us and the Western
world since the first Women’s Conference under the auspices of the
United Nations in Mexico in 1975, until 1995 in Peking: WHY CAN’T THE
PALESTINIAN WOMEN’S DELEGATION VOTE IN THE CONFERENCE? We vote in the
group of 77, but not in the conference. We are treated like another
United Nations organization!
In 1980, the question of Palestinian women was on the agenda. Serious
attempts were made [by anti-Palestinian forces] to drop that issue. But
we insisted and fought back. The socialist states supported us and we
adopted resolutions favoring Palestinian rights as a result. In
Nairoubi however, there was a big retreat. A resolution was passed that
abrogated a previous resolution equating Zionism with racism. In recent
years, there’s been a big retreat on both fronts: the women’s, and that
In Peking in 1995, in the meetings of the official delegations, not the
one by NGO’s, we spent about fifteen days squabbling over the
terminology of a paragraph titled: “Violence against Women”. The
paragraph discussed the need to support women who were under occupation,
or who were subject to sexual abuse. We said you really can’t set
occupation and sexual abuse on the same political plane. Sexual abuse
is the problem of individuals, regardless of how rampant, whereas
occupation is the problem of whole peoples.
In previous women’s conferences, we tackled in our resolutions issues
such as women under colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, apartheid, and
so forth. But in the Peking Conference this time, we lost fifteen days
in the sub-committee that was led by the American delegation just to
move ‘sexual abuse’ into a different paragraph from that dealing with
occupation. We even tried to specify in the text which women in the
world were under occupation, without much luck. The best we could do
was to have ‘sexual abuse’ removed from right next to ‘occupation’ to
the end of the same paragraph. They also vehemently refused to let us
specify which women were under occupation. The American delegate
FAV: Was the American delegate a ‘he’ or a ‘she’?
Laila: It was a guy, and he pointed out outside the meeting to one of
our Palestinian representatives: “You know who is occupying whom. Why
specify it!!”. Tell me, what does that mean politically for the women’s
Other women from some parts of the world tell us that we can unite on
the issue of our sexual oppression. Everywhere you look in the text, or
the program of action, you’ll find the word ‘sex’. You’ll find sex
here, and you’ll find it there. It ‘s there to discuss sexual abuse one
time, then again to discuss sexual tourism. The point is to
de-politicize the question of women, and affirm that women can unite
just as women. I say yes let’s unite, but to do what exactly?
For example, they wanted to unite us on the question of sexual tourism.
But that is something that we Palestinians and Arabs neither know nor
understand. This is not the most serious problem in OUR societies. We
are still fighting to get the right to vote on these resolutions in the
women’s conference you see!! So I asked them to explain sexual tourism
to me. Of course we are against it, but it really is not something we
are familiar with. When they started discussing ‘sexual industry’, I
got lost again because these are expressions that are not even in our
dictionary. WE ARE LIVING IN A SOCIETY THAT HAS A DIFFERENT SET OF
For example, we Palestinians have been subject to political genocide. I
therefore support having more, not less, Palestinians. But these guys
want to push population control on us. The right to choose for me is
an individual matter. It doesn’t need to become foreign policy.
That’s the way I see that issue.
In Europe and the United States, the question of abortion occupies a
central place in the political debate. The church says no, supporters
of women’s rights say yes. This may be an important issue to understand
and take a position on too. But how does it become a central issue for
our people? We have other priorities. We don’t even have lesser
rights. Our humanity has been denied us. So why should I lose time on
this issue? Right now we have to deal with the more urgent daily
persecution of the Palestinian National Authority for example. We have
to worry about whether the refugees will return or not. We wonder first
and foremost about whether these political deals concerning us are fair
or not, and whether the injustice we have been living will escalate.
We suffer from exile, and the oppression of Arab regimes. Our
populations are being impoverished. But these guys [in the conference]
wanted to make the issue of sexual freedom the most important item on
the agenda. Again, this might be an important question on the
individual level, but not on our social level. I VIEW THIS AS A
POLITICAL DEVIATION WHICH PURPORTS TO THWART OUR ATTENTION FROM THE REAL
ISSUES THAT CONCERN OUR PEOPLE AND SOCIETY. A red herring to preoccupy
us with trifles, that’s what it is.
If a woman in Sweden wanted to worry about these things, that would make
sense for her. A woman in the United States might have to deal with
problems transpiring from the inner workings of her society, like:
should homosexuals be allowed into the navy or not? !!!! She might
want to worry about that but I won’t, because this is definitely not the
most pressing Palestinian problem right now.
FAV: Let’s go then to the individual level with an important question
for a large number of political activists of both sexes perhaps. In
your opinion, and in the light of your personal experience, do you think
that a long-term relationship, or a marriage, between a political
activist and a non-politicized person could work out? And under what
conditions specifically? For example, in modern Arab cities, average
people are getting increasingly more concerned with HAVING as many
material amenities as possible. They live for appearances. Being with
someone like that may retard an activist and may perhaps turn into a
reactionary force in her or his life. On the other hand, would it be
easier for a male activist to have a non-politicized mate, than it is
for a female activist, since our societies are unfortunately sexist?
What do you say to that?
Laila: I believe that any marriage, between any two people, has to have
a solid basis of social and intellectual common grounds. They of
course have to love and respect each other. Yet in our masculine
societies, it is possible for a male political activist to be with a
non-politicized mate. They’ll live okay, but will that be a successful
marriage?! I really don’t think so. They might live together in a
family and raise children, but still it’s not really successful because
they’ll be living in two different worlds. He’ll probably be okay with
that though because he merely wants a good housewife, maybe a
breadwinner on the side, or someone to raise the children so he may
devote himself more fully to political concerns. He might even yell
at them to shut up so he may read. But he wouldn’t know what they are
yelling about, or even know them very well, really know them.
That’s why things are necessarily different for a female activist. When
she is politically involved, she can only be with a politically involved
mate. I talk from experience. Women activists may be accepted by
their husbands the way they are, but only within the limits that don’t
conflict with his interests at home. At the end of the day, he wishes
her to turn into a traditional housewife. Fetch coffee! Make dinner!
Thus problems arise.
To the extent the two realize that marriage is a partnership, things
will work out better though. When they are on similar planes in their
intellects, qualities, and abilities, things might work out better. But
when one of them supersedes the other in those areas, the relationship
becomes uneven, maybe to the point of disintegration.
Naturally dialogue plays a crucial role in the success of any
relationship, although dialogue could take angry forms sometimes.
Mutual concessions are also necessary, but usually women end up making
them more in the relationship. Many men say they support women’s
rights, but frequently they don’t practice that in reality, and they
especially won’t practice that in their own homes. There are individual
exceptions to the rule of course, but we have a lot of progress to make
on the social level. There are successful cases as well, but even
those go through alternate periods of ups and downs because this is
life. With my husband and kids, even though we have a good frame of
understanding overall, differences do arise. The good thing is that we
agree politically. That’s important.
FAV: Is your husband politically active?
Laila: He’s a physician who writes political newspaper columns
FAV: So he’s politically committed too?
Laila: Of course, who else would bear to live with me : ) For me
the key is having a good balance between responsibilities at home
and responsibilities outside. For example, I’m thinking right now
that perhaps I should go home to cook for my kids.
FAV: Okay, thank you Laila Khaled, we’re done 🙂 🙂