[lit-ideas] Guardian Unlimited: Sisters, mothers, martyrs

  • From: omarkusto@xxxxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 05 Dec 2006 04:34:57 GMT

Omar spotted this on the Guardian Unlimited site and thought you should see it.

To see this story with its related links on the Guardian Unlimited site, go to 

Sisters, mothers, martyrs
With a few famous exceptions, women in Gaza have long been in the background of 
the struggle for Palestinian national rights. But suddenly they are on the 
front line - from politicians and human shields to suicide bombers. Rory 
McCarthy talks to the women from Hamas
Rory McCarthy
Tuesday December 05 2006
The Guardian

On the television screen a woman is reading slowly from a sheet of paper held 
close to her face. The moment is awkward. Her hands shake, she avoids the 
camera and a large, black M-16 assault rifle hangs from her shoulders. Her head 
and neck are wrapped tightly in a white scarf.

This is the final message in the life of Fatma al-Najar, widow, 
great-grandmother, matriarch of her large family and, a few hours after this 
brief video was shot, the oldest Palestinian to become a suicide bomber. "I am 
the living martyr Fatma al-Najar," she says, and praises the armed wing of her 
beloved Hamas movement, its political rulers and its violent struggle.

She says a few words to her family. "I ask my sons to go to the mosque and keep 
up their prayers and my daughters to survive and not to cry, and to give out 
sweets." The film stops and restarts and now she is standing without the paper, 
looking into the camera, behind her still the green flags and insignia of 
Hamas. An unseen figure prompts her to speak. "I don't know what else to say," 
she says, smiling nervously. The film is cut.

A few hours later, the 70-year-old arrived at the Jabaliya refugee camp, not 
far from her home in the northern Gaza strip, in the final days of a major 
Israeli military incursion. She walked towards a group of soldiers. They called 
her to stop a little way off. One soldier, thinking she looked suspicious, 
threw a stun grenade. She detonated the belt of explosives around her waist, 
tearing her body to pieces and slightly injuring three soldiers.

There have been a handful of women among the 120 Palestinian suicide bombers of 
recent years, and their names are recited on the streets of Gaza in the 
folklore of Palestinian martyrdom. But the past few weeks have seen a 
remarkable injection of women's activism into the fight. In this conservative 
and patriarchal society the militancy has previously been almost entirely 
dominated by men. Now that is changing.

Three weeks before the al-Najar bombing, hundreds of women, mostly Hamas 
supporters and all clad in long cloaks and headscarves, marched into the town 
of Beit Hanoun in the middle of an Israeli incursion to free a group of armed 
male fighters who were holed up inside a mosque. Two of the women were killed, 
but the crowd succeeded in freeing the fighters and now boast proudly of their 

A few days later, another woman from Gaza, Mirvat Masoud, an 18-year-old 
university student, blew herself up near a group of Israeli soldiers, again in 
Beit Hanoun. In the following days, crowds of men and women staged sit-ins at 
the homes of several militants whose houses, the Israeli military had warned, 
were about to be destroyed. The Israelis had to call off their air strikes.

As with the men, the women's actions are seen publicly as statements of 
defiance. And among the first guests at the three days of mourning at the 
al-Najar household, held under a green woven tent in a courtyard by their bare 
concrete houses, was Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, and others from 
his government. The movement paid the funeral costs and Khaled Meshaal, the 
all-powerful, exiled head of the movement's political bureau, telephoned the 
family to tell of the great blow their mother had struck for Hamas.

But the family she has left behind feels less proud than shattered. They 
struggle to explain what has happened. Al-Najar had seven sons and two 
daughters. All had children, some had grandchildren. There were around 80 in 
the family, all living within a few narrow streets of each other, all deferring 
to her as the head of the household. Several of the sons were jailed, one for 
nine years, during the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in 
1987. The family house, in Jabaliya town, was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike 
and rebuilt. Then, in the middle of the second intifada, in 2002, her grandson, 
Adil, aged 18, was killed battling Israeli troops in Gaza. The household is 
still politically divided. Some of the sons are Fatah supporters and at least 
one works for Force 17, the Fatah security service. Others, like al-Najar 
herself, are Hamas activists.

Fathiya, 52, the eldest daughter, last saw her mother mid-morning on the day of 
the bombing. She came to the house and found her mother making bread. They sat 
and talked for 20 minutes. Fathiya made as if to leave, but her mother asked 
her to stay for lunch. Her mother showered and changed and walked to the local 
market, where she bought clothes for her grandchildren and boxes of sweets. She 
returned home and a few minutes later, left again. None of the family, it 
appears, suspected what was on her mind. "When she left she said goodbye, but 
she asked us to wait for her," says Fathiya. Her mother did not return. Later, 
at sunset, the mosques began announcing there had been a suicide bombing. Soon 
they broadcast her mother's name. Later, an ambulance crew collected the 
remains of her body and buried it under a mound of soft sand in the local 

"Some people say she must have been depressed," says Fathiya. "But it wasn't 
true, she was a religious woman. She did this to fight the Israelis and get 
them out of our land. She blew herself up because she loved her home, she loved 
paradise and she loved the mujahideen."

Her brother, Samir, 36, the Force 17 soldier, seems less attached to the 
rhetoric. "Now we are missing a space in our lives. We have only our memories, 
every moment, every second." He knew his mother had become increasingly 
politicised, but is surprised at her radicalism. She had, he thinks, been 
affected by the fighting of recent years, the growing poverty in Gaza, the 
failures of the long-stalled peace process. "She was changing. She watched the 
news all the time," he says. "It began to affect her. She started going to 
marches and funerals." She also started to help support the armed wing of 
Hamas, though she did not tell her family.

In the middle of November, al-Najar and Fathiya took part in the women's march 
into Beit Hanoun, one last radical act before the bombing. The sons were 
worried and spent the day at home waiting for her to return. Fathiya saw no 
reason for their anxiety. "It was something normal. We went to protect our 
mujahideen. We have to be shields to protect our men."

One of the organisers of the march was Jamila Shanti, 50, a leading woman 
within the Hamas movement, a member of the Palestinian parliament and a 
professor of philosophy at the Islamic University in Gaza. She headed the list 
of Hamas women candidates in the January elections, when women were crucial in 
getting out the vote for the movement and propelling it into a position of 
power for the first time. A single, educated women committed to the most 
radical of Hamas political positions advocating the destruction of Israel, she 
is a powerful force in the movement.

When Israeli forces occupied Beit Hanoun, Shanti encouraged her women 
supporters to play an active role in the fight by marching into the city, past 
Israeli tanks. Some of the women reached the Nasr mosque, where the fighters 
were sheltering, and helped them leave despite the Israeli military presence 
all around.

"It was a great success because we freed so many fighters," she says. "We did 
something our authorities couldn't do. We sent a message to the world." Then 
Shanti helped organise the sit-ins to defend Hamas houses against Israeli air 
strikes. It was another role for women in the fight. "As Palestinian women, we 
feel strong enough to do anything, strong enough to play a great part in our 
conflict," she says.

The battle of Beit Hanoun was one incursion in a five-month Israeli operation 
in Gaza that followed the capture of an Israeli corporal in June. The soldier 
has still not been freed, although a tentative ceasefire began last week that 
might yet bring his release. The five months of fighting left more than 375 
Palestinians and five Israelis dead and left many feeling that a return to 
serious peace negotiations was further away than ever.

Among the dead was Shanti's sister-in-law, who was killed near her home in an 
Israeli strike that also killed a Hamas fighter. Days later, Israeli troops 
rolled up in a tank outside Shanti's house and stormed the building, apparently 
intent on arresting her. She was away at the time.

Others who went on the Beit Hanoun march came away, despite the risks they 
faced, with the same sense of assertion. "It was a way of encouraging women to 
do something. We did something that the Arab leaders couldn't do," says Um 
Ahmed Kafarna, 40, a Hamas activist and the wife of Beit Hanoun's Hamas mayor. 
"I think more women will be encouraged to be suicide bombers and leaders and 

Academics point out that Palestinian women have been involved in fighting for 
many decades, even during the British mandate before the creation of Israel. 
For a long time the leading Islamist groups, Hamas in particular, refused to 
send off women as suicide bombers, saying it was a role reserved for men, says 
Islah Jad, assistant professor of gender studies at Birzeit University, in the 
West Bank. That began to change about three years ago. What is most striking 
now are events like the Beit Hanoun march, says Jad.

"To use this collective power of the people is something very new in the 
political scene here," she says. "Before, the women were glorifying martyrs and 
martyrdom; now, they speak about their power themselves as women." It was the 
women within Hamas, partly by design, partly by trial and error, who have begun 
to push beyond the group's vague assertions of its support for women to seize a 
much bigger, more practical role.

But although the voice of militancy is often the most powerful in Palestinian 
society, it is by no means the future everybody sees. There are many who 
consider the past six years of fighting as a great setback and who argue for 
negotiations, not war. Others are caught in the middle.

In the town of Beit Lahiya, only a few minutes' drive from Beit Hanoun, is a 
small, private kindergarten. On Monday November 6, at around 7am, the school 
minibus was collecting the children for class. It stopped in the Sheikh Zayed 
neighbourhood to wait for one boy. At that moment an Israeli shell struck 
nearby and a splinter of shrapnel flew into the minibus and into the neck of 
Najwa Khalif, 24, a teacher who was sitting in a middle row with her two 
children, Manar, five, and Wasim, three. She died several days later in 
hospital. The Israeli military said it had been targeting militants nearby who 
had launched rockets into Israel the previous night. The teachers say they saw 
no fighters on the school run that morning.

The children on the bus have been deeply traumatised. The head teacher, Indira 
Gandhi Hamuda (her father was an admirer of the late Indian prime minister), 
has had them draw sketches of the attack to help them recover. The crayon 
pictures show images of the bus, hospital stretchers, a rocket, an Israeli tank 
and, on almost every one, scribbles of red blood stretching over the page. 
"This is the occupation. They make no difference between children and 
fighters," says Hamuda, who, like most women in Gaza, dresses in a conservative 
headscarf and long cloak.

She is bitterly angry about what has happened, but says she is opposed to women 
taking up suicide bombing. "I don't support this at all. It is also a jihad to 
care about your children and to bring them up well," she says. And, after all, 
she adds, the bombing had hardly achieved a major military objective. "What did 
it do? It was just a suicide. If I'm facing a tank, there isn't anything I can 
do," she says. "Women can do something else, like teach their sons and 
daughters to become doctors and engineers. We don't all need to be martyrs."

While she is watching over a class, two of her younger teaching assistants are 
in the school office, staring attentively at a computer. They call up the news 
footage from al-Jazeera about the death of the teacher, gasping when they see 
her body carried away on a stretcher. Then one calls up a video recorded by 
another female suicide bomber, Mirvat Masoud, the 18-year-old university 
student who blew herself up in Beit Hanoun on the same day as the bus attack.

"She's not just anyone. She's a martyr," says Iman, 22, one of the assistants, 
as they watch the film. "We all want to be like her. I would like to be a 
bomber, but my family won't allow me."

"I want to go instead of her," says the other assistant, Randa, 23, who was on 
the bus the day their fellow teacher was hit.

If Fatma al-Najar was the oldest suicide bomber, Mirvat Masoud was one of the 
youngest. She was in her first year at the Islamic University, studying 
science. She was the eldest child and already the most religious in the family. 
When she was growing up, the politics in the household was Fatah, the more 
moderate of the Palestinian factions. When she went to the Islamic University, 
one of the best in the Gaza strip, there was no Fatah student movement and she 
fell in with a group from Islamic Jihad, one of the radical movements.

"When she told me that she had joined, I thought it was just politics," says 
her father, Amin Masoud, 40. He was protective, refusing to let his daughter 
join the Beit Hanoun women's march. He shows off her school report cards - most 
years she was top of the class.

The family live in a UN refugee house, provided because the grandparents fled 
Israel in 1948. Mirvat woke early on the morning of the bombing, ate a little 
breakfast with her mother, and went off to university. That afternoon, the 
family saw on the television news that there had been a suicide bombing in Beit 
Hanoun. One Israeli soldier had been slightly injured. Soon a man from Islamic 
Jihad arrived to tell them their daughter was dead.

"We don't expect to send our sons and daughters to die. But when they watch the 
television news, the killing and the destruction, they are affected by it," 
says Mirvat's father, Amin. "It creates a deep hatred inside them."

In the video that she made before her death, there are slight, dark rings under 
the teenager's eyes but she is confident and stares intently into the camera. 
She is dressed in a headscarf and black baseball cap marked with religious 
script and a conservative but fashionable patterned cloak. She holds a rifle 
upright in her right hand and addresses her family. "This multi-coloured life 
comes to an end," she says to camera. "My mother, please live on and pray God 
to forgive me. We willmeet in paradise. My father, please forgive me if I did 
anything wrong to you. My uncles and aunts, this is very hard for me, I miss 
you." She praises other Islamic fighters across the world, "from Iraq to 
Chechnya, from Palestine to the Philippines". She asks her family to pray, and 
notes that they should distribute sweets but not coffee at her funeral. Then 
she says: "I am the living martyr, God willing, Mirvat Masoud".

Fighters, leaders and thinkers

Prominent Palestinian women

Although the Palestinian history of the conflict with Israel has long been 
dominated by men, there have been several high-profile women figures, often 
fighters and activists, and occasionally politicians and leaders.

The woman regarded as the first female Palestinian guerrilla fighter is Fatima 
Barnawi, who in October 1967 planted a bomb in a Jerusalem cinema that left 
dozens of Israelis injured. She was 28 and a member of Yasser Arafat's Fatah 

Perhaps the most iconic Palestinian woman was the hijacker Leila Khaled. In 
1969, she took part in the hijacking of a TWA plane, flying it to Damascus 
before blowing it up. She had cosmetic surgery to disguise her looks and the 
next year made a failed attempt to hijack another plane as part of a wave of 
hijacks planned by the leftwing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Nearly a decade later, Dalal Mughrabi landed with a group of other Palestinian 
fighters on an Israeli beach, killed an American photographer and seized a bus 
filled with passengers. After a gunbattle with Israeli soldiers, she blew up 
the bus, killing 36 people on board. Mughrabi and her fighters were also killed.

Other women became prominent without violence. Hanan Ashrawi, an academic and a 
Christian, emerged as one of the most articulate voices for the Palestinians. 
She became a government minister and today holds a seat in the Palestinian 
parliament. The most high-profile Palestinian woman today is probably Queen 
Rania of Jordan, who was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents and has become 
an important supporter of charities.

Today, a new generation of women are taking part. Wafa Idris, a divorced 
paramedic, became the first Palestinian female suicide bomber in January 2002 
when she detonated a bomb in Jerusalem, killing an elderly Israeli man. Female 
militants and politicians are now emerging from the Islamist groups, notably 
Maryam Farhat, known as Umm Nidal, who was elected a Hamas MP this year after 
three of her sons became suicide bombers.

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