The Radical Women at the Heart of Palestine’s First Intifada

An illuminating new documentary, ‘Naila and the Uprising,’ spotlights the female activists who held up a movement—and fought for both Palestinian liberation and gender equality.

Just Vision

“I’m Zahira. I’m Palestinian. Is that enough?”

I’m sitting with Zahira Kamal and Naila Ayesh, two activists and organizers who have spent decades fighting for Palestinian liberation. Kamal’s introduction speaks to her priorities and her extensive biography, which includes traveling to the 1991 Madrid peace talks as a member of the Palestinian delegation and serving as the general secretary of the Palestinian Democratic Union Party. For Kamal and Ayesh, Naila and the Uprising, the documentary we’re here to discuss, is an important work of historical reclamation, shedding light on a period of the Palestinian struggle that they believe to be underrepresented and misunderstood.

But while Naila and the Uprising may have started as a reexamination of the First Intifada, the uprising that broke out in 1987, director Julia Bacha explains that the story they found was even more powerful than the one they were looking for. The resulting documentary is as preoccupied with gender equality as it is with Palestinian liberation, examining its subjects at the intersection of their identities as women, Palestinians, and activists.

“It was really striking for us in the process of making the film, because we didn’t actually launch the project wanting to make a feminist movie,” Bacha laughs. “The interest was: the First Intifada was an important historical time that is widely misunderstood, and that represents, historically, one of the most exceptional examples of a civil resistance campaign anywhere in the world, in terms of the widespread nature of it, across geographical locations and cutting across social class and gender. But we didn’t know that a big reason it turned out that [way], that it was such a successful movement, was because women played such a strong leadership role, and that emerged in the process of the research we conducted.”

Julia Bacha and executive producer Suhad Babaa are the creative director and executive director, respectively, of Just Vision, a nonprofit seeking to “contribute to fostering peace and an end to the occupation,” according to its website. Their films center the stories of Palestinians and Israelis engaging in nonviolent action. Through archival footage and interviews, Naila and the Uprising seeks a balance between historical specificity and universal resonance. “Women, when they get involved in protest movements, research shows that the movements are more likely to succeed and lead to democratic societies,” explains Bacha. “When movements have as part of their ideology a call for gender equality, they tend to be more likely to adopt nonviolent strategies, and tend to be successful at leading to stable, democratic, pluralistic societies. They are longer lasting.”

And yet, female organizers are often pushed out of the very movements they imagined, their contributions erased and their stories resigned to dusty archives. As Bacha wrote in her director’s note, “Women’s involvement in the First Intifada, we came to realize, was a key component of the successes achieved during the uprising. Had women not been largely excluded from the Oslo process and beyond, Palestinians and Israelis would be living in a very different reality today.”

Kamal, Ayesh, Bacha, Babaa and I are speaking in an office space on New York’s Upper West Side. The experiences that Kamal and Ayesh are recounting—their techniques for coping with Israeli interrogation, how to evade curfew during the uprising—feel unimaginable in this sunny room. And with their sweater sets and frequent laughter, the women fit the stereotype of sweet grandmothers, not lifelong activists. Throughout their years doing this work, Kamal and Ayesh have met many incredulous outsiders like me, and they’ve also learned to use others’ assumptions to their advantage.

Recalling women’s role in organizing during the First Intifada, Ayesh explains, “We can distribute leaflets, we can go through even when it’s curfew, we can move more easily than men.” Kamal adds, “Usually when we talk about the First Intifada, we said that it was a comprehensive movement, because people from different ages and genders are participating. But at the same time, women from the beginning were part of the Intifada as Naila said before; from the patriarchal mentality of the occupier, they think that the women were at home, that they didn’t do anything like this, so they let them pass. And if it was a woman who dressed well or something like this, they assumed they didn’t have any relation with the resistance. And later on, many men have been arrested, and women get in to be in the leadership of the movement.

“I think in the media, the First Intifada was mainly about children throwing stones, and even more it is the frustrations that are on the ground,” Kamal continues, describing coverage of the uprising. “Of course, later on, the role of women was very attractive—our imprisonment, or women on the streets. But it is not about the real story of the daily life of people. And the role of women in daily life in the Intifada—the political and social role—this has not been documented anywhere. And the real story, it is still not known.”

While journalists have historically been drawn to the supposed contradiction of a female radical or a pregnant freedom fighter, Naila and the Uprising works to show how women were at the very heart of the First Intifada. In this film, female activists are not shiny aberrations—they are the unseen spine holding up a movement. The documentary centers on activist Naila Ayesh; through her story, we move effortlessly from the daily struggles of occupation to the momentous push of the First Intifada; from organizing meetings to women’s committees to the Israeli prison system.

Ayesh was a student organizer even before the First Intifada; her life history is used to illustrate the ways in which women played increasingly vital roles in the uprising. Like many Palestinian women at the time, Naila saw her husband, a fellow activist, deported for his political activities. Naila’s continued activism in the wake of her husband’s exile is illustrative of a broader trend, as large groups of Palestinian men were deported or imprisoned, leaving women at the helm of the movement.

The documentary uses archival footage and animation to paint a tender picture of this collective work: demonstrations, boycotts, committees formed by women to teach young Palestinian children, grow food to sustain the community, and treat the sick and injured. Throughout, audiences witness a simultaneous struggle, as women fight to be accepted and heard within the activist community. A synopsis of the film reflects on their mission: “The First Intifada women’s movement didn’t just rescue the uprising—it lifted it, and Palestinian society alongside it, to new heights.”

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In the past, Ayesh’s story has been primarily filtered through tragedy. She made headlines when she was arrested in 1986. Despite the fact that Ayesh was pregnant at the time and in need of medical attention, Israeli authorities denied her requests and even failed to acknowledge that she was in custody. With the help of Israeli journalists, Ayesh’s husband pressured authorities into admitting that she was being held by the Israeli secret service though, by the time she was released, she had lost her child. After the Intifada broke out, Ayesh was arrested again. A new mother at the time, she chose to bring her infant son to prison with her, where he spent six months with the imprisoned female organizers of the First Intifada.

“The first time you are in prison, you don’t know about it,” Kamal remarks. “When you come to know more, you are stronger, you have techniques to deal with the interrogator. I know very well that his power is taken from any word that comes from my mouth. So I will not speak. I count every single scratch on the wall, and I train myself not to listen even to what he is speaking. So after an hour or two hours or three hours, he lost hope.”

“Because they understand our mentality, the Arab mentality, especially because we are Muslim,” adds Ayesh, “one of the things that they always push [on] the prisoners, an example is they told me, ‘We will bring your father, your mother and we will make sex with you in front of them.’”

“Yes, this is one of the things.” Kamal interjects.

“So on this, if you are weak, if you say ‘No, no,’ it means that you start to talk,” Ayesh concludes. “But you have to remember that you have the power.”

Kamal says that she and Ayesh have always been attuned to the intertwined struggles for Palestinian freedom and female liberation. “I think both of us are coming from left groups, so we believe that we are combining our national struggle with a social struggle,” she says. “So we are working on both, that yes, we want to get rid of occupation and to have our own freedom, but at the same time, we are also calling for equality. We want to be together in building our nation, and to be part of the decision-making process.”

“But I think it is also because we are Palestinians,” Kamal continues. “The culture, it is like the Arab culture in the region, which is mainly a male patriarchal mentality. They are happy with women being in the struggle and all that, to have women as decoration, in any kind of meetings or in the government or whatever committee, but not as real partners.”

Ayesh describes widespread disillusionment after the First Intifada. “Because the women started to be disappointed by all the parties, so many of them, they left the parties because they felt that it’s only on the paper—the left parties, on paper, they say very good things about women being equal. But in the reality, it’s not there. As Zahira said, many of these women left the parties and went to NGOs, or went to continue their studies.” Kamal adds, “What was astonishing is after the release of men—some of them [after] two years in prison—it is like, OK, they can go back to their positions, and women should go away. So this was shocking for us women!”

The documentary convincingly links the eventual elision of female activists with the ultimate failure to translate the momentum of the First Intifada into a true peace or lasting liberation.

“One of the things that we’ve seen in the Israeli-Palestinian process is that there’s such a large gap between the diplomatic processes and the grassroots, and what communities on the ground are actually calling for,” Babaa points out. “You see this in Naila and the Uprising, as soon as the underground leadership that was actually the local leadership in the occupied territories, led in part by the women, when they got to the table in Washington, D.C., and Madrid to actually have those conversations, those conversations got coopted by the process in Oslo. And what that meant was two things: Women got excluded from that process, and the underground leadership that’s actually connected to the local communities was not part of that process. If we’re actually going to see resolution on this issue that is about respecting rights, that does treat both populations equally, and that truly achieves freedom and dignity for all of the people in the region, the grassroots is an essential part of the process.”

The Just Vision team believes that giving women activists and female-led movements their due is essential, not just in Israel and Palestine, but around the world.

“One of the things that’s been so striking in the making of this project is seeing the universality of this theme of women’s leadership, and what happens when women are part of social movements and then become relegated to the margins as the political processes continue on,” Babaa continues. “We’ve seen that across social movements… We’re seeing a backslide of women’s rights across the globe right now, in Israel and Palestine, across the Arab world, and in the United States. At the same time, we’re also seeing women take the helm of some of the most vibrant social movements today, whether we’re talking about the Women’s March or the Black Lives Matter movement. And so this is actually a story that we believe is about lifting up and celebrating the women who are part of changing our societies and our political structures, and recognizing that their visibility is actually absolutely essential in their continued growth and leadership, and in this broader struggle for equality.

“This also was a very critical part to my own connection to the story, considering these sacrifices that I feel I would not be able to make,” Bacha admits. “We’ve talked about this,” she continues, gesturing to Ayesh. “Now that I’ve become a mom, seeing what you did—and now I think there are a lot of women in this country who are asking themselves, ‘How much am I willing to sacrifice? How much does this moment call for?’ and trying to navigate those questions. How did you make those choices?’”

Ayesh smiles as she responds. “I think there is a power inside each woman, not only the Palestinian women,” she says. “For me it is, when I was arrested, if I start to think about my children, my husband, my family, it means that I will be very weak. So it is the power that comes in—you must think only of yourself, and how to face the enemy.”