interviews Leila Khaled and Shireen Said for International Women's Day 2010
The Palestinian people's oppression continues primarily due to the financial, diplomatic and military support that Israel receives from the US, and secondly the acquiescence of pro-Western states in the region. After the fall of the Zionists state's long lost brother -- the apartheid state of South Africa -- the Palestinian struggle remains perhaps the leading and most potent anti- imperialist struggle in the world. Unsurprisingly therefore Palestinian women are a central example of what role women can play in the struggle to free themselves, their families, communities and their nation from imperialism and Zionism.
Leila Khaled brought the Palestinian struggle to the world's attention by means of two dramatic plane hijackings in 1969 and 1970 in which only one of her own comrades was killed, the American-Nicaraguan Patrick Arguello. Khaled retells her account of this hijacking in her autobiography My People Shall Live (1973) in which she writes: "Patrick Arguello, age 27, father of three children, a Nicaraguan citizen of the world, born in San Francisco, was pronounced dead. What had prompted someone half-way across the world from Palestine to undertake this dangerous mission? Patrick was a revolutionary Communist. His gallant action was a gesture of international solidarity. A flame of life was extinguished; it lit the world for a moment; it blazed a trail on the road back to Palestine. Arguello lives, so do my people, so does the revolution!"
Khaled remains one of the most inspirational and influential leftist anti-imperialist women in the post-WWII period. She remains active today in the leadership of the Palestinian revolution, as she is one of the central committee members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) as well as a representative of the Palestinian National Council.
The rise of Hamas in the Palestinian revolution since the mid-1990s has meant that many people associate the Palestinian struggle with the Islamism of Hamas rather than with the more secular vision of Khaled and other Palestinian and Arab revolutionaries such as the Lebanese communist resistance fighter Soha Bechara.
But the recent 42nd anniversary rally of the PFLP in Gaza that attracted some 70,000 people raised the profile of the Palestinian revolutionary left and also of the role of women, when Shireen Said of the PFLP roused the audience with a salute in military fatigues and co-chaired the rally alongside her male comrade. Said told Al-Ahram Weekly that she was born in 1985 in Jabalya refugee camp, from which the "stone-throwing children" started the first Intifada. "My childhood memories are mostly of the first Intifada," she explains. In her early teens she became involved in one of the student movements associated with the PFLP.
"I did my Bachelors in Sport at Al-Aqsa University. I worked in the Progressive Student Labour Front with lots of comrades until I became secretary of the Students' Union. I was the first young woman in Gaza to get this position via democratic elections at the university. After my graduation I worked in the committees of the Union of Palestinian Women. Along with my professional work in many non-governmental organisations as an activist in youth issues, I am now a board member of the Palestinian Progressive Youth Union and I study my Masters in Education at Al-Azhar University."
Like many young women around the world, Shireen Said was inspired by the example of Leila Khaled: "Of course comrade Leila as a national and international heroine inspires all women who seek freedom, social justice and an independent prosperous homeland for themselves and for the coming generations."
Khaled was touched and told the Weekly : "I am proud if anyone sees me as a symbol of resistance; it gives me more strength for the struggle. To see a woman anywhere struggling for a just cause gives me hope and courage for my people. Women give their life for the struggle in Palestine and elsewhere."
Leila Khaled is a symbol for many Palestinian young women including Said of commitment and sacrifice to their people's struggle. Said recalls, "my story with comrade Leila started in kindergarten when we learnt the national songs about the Intifada, martyrs and our heroes like Leila, Ghassan Kanfani and Wadi Haddad. As I was growing up my interest and love towards Leila grew inside me, I wanted to know everything about her. Although I had not had the chance to meet her she inspired me and I felt proud of her. As a woman she argued that no one could prevent her from participating with men in the hardest parts of the struggle, so comrade Leila is an example for me and for many women."
In the historical moment in which the Palestinians are living today many of the Palestinian revolutionary left's principles and morals are seen by largely Muslim and Arab society as being alien or an unnecessary importation of Western ideals and standards, so Said's participation in the PFLP rally was no easy choice: "I was afraid to face such a big audience wearing military fatigues."
Said explained how her decision was largely defined by the defiance and steadfastness of the masses in Gaza during the barbaric onslaught early last year: "The Zionist massacres in Gaza in January 2009 were still memories raw in the hearts and minds of the people, so I wanted to present a message that despite all the killing, destruction and terror our men and women will stand side-by-side in the resistance, our path to liberation and freedom. At the rally itself I was pleased that my personality could convey these messages to millions through television and the Internet across the world. My family were also very proud of me."
Khaled emphasised the importance of defending the hundreds of Palestinian women prisoners: "I especially think of the women in Israeli jails, evidence to the torture and oppression of the occupation, and at the same time they are examples of courage and strength."
When asked what her message would be to women across the world on International Women's Day, Said answered: "Firstly I would like to send greetings to all women who hold the banner of struggle against capitalism and imperialism and to say to them that our path is very long and hard and necessitates well thought-out strategies. We shouldn't forget that the capitalist system oppresses and exploits women and takes away their human dignity. Therefore, we must adhere to our values of humanity and progressive politics, united and strong."
Finally, Khaled's message focussed on the women of Palestine, particularly those in the West Bank and Gaza in their role in unifying the factions, especially Hamas and Fatah, striving for reconciliation and unity, a process in which the PFLP has been playing a central role: "In this political moment the most important issue is that of unifying our people to face the terrors of the occupation, and the main basis of unity must be fighting the occupation. It is important to understand the role of the Palestinian masses in achieving this unity by putting pressure through democratic and civil means on Hamas and Fatah. Palestinian women are adversely affected by these divisions as many of their families are divided, which is why I am adamant that Palestinian women recognise the importance of the unity in the Palestinian struggle and their role in achieving this unity."
* The writer is a London-based political analyst and filmmaker and runs the Sons of Malcolm blog.