“Naila and the Uprising,” directed by Brazilian filmmaker Julia Bacha, is the docudrama on Palestine for the #MeToo movement. Bacha, the creative director at Just Vision, the film’s producer, could not have planned the convergence, but the film strikes the perfect chord in this moment when women are demanding that their stories be heard. Naila’s story is narrated with the aid of the Palestinian women who shared in the common struggle during the first intifada (1987-93); including Zahira Kamal, who was part of the Palestinian-Jordanian delegation at the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.
A young child when Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, her lifelong steel resolve to end the occupation was “planted,” as Naila Ayesh recounts, when she and her four sisters returned home one day after school to find “our home demolished, split in two.” Years later, she could still remember the deep sadness in her father’s eyes. It would not be easy. After joining the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), Israeli occupation forces stormed Naila and her husband Jamal’s home in early 1987. Although her captors knew she was pregnant, they still subjected her to brutal detention, including leaving her for days in the rain until she had to be dragged back because her legs were numbed cold. Jamal informed a human rights group in Israel, which got the word out to a journalist. The story that went to press reported an unidentified woman whose ordeal brought her to miscarriage. Likely wary of additional negative press coverage spilling overseas, Israel released Naila right before the first intifada erupted in December 1987.
As the intifada grew in strength, Jamal joined hundreds of Palestinians deported for their peaceful resistance activism and Naila, who had just given birth after a second pregnancy, was again thrown in jail. Upon her arrest, she was promptly told she’d be held under administrative detention, a British-era regulation allowing for renewable six-month periods of detention without charge or trial. Israel eventually allowed her son Majd to be imprisoned with his mother — a phenomena of mother-child prisoners in Israel powerfully conveyed in Mai Masri’s 3,000 Nights — and it was in prison that Naila learned the incredible power of female solidarity. One fellow prisoner describes it as the thread of support that allowed them all to maintain their humanity. When Naila was released from prison, she and fellow women expanded that thread to form the backbone of the intifada. Every major Palestinian faction formed a women’s committees, which dissembled its true mission of political activism under the cover of homemaking pedagogy. Much of the film is beautifully illustrated and one scene in particular conjures female activism brilliantly in its depiction of a roundtable of knitting women standing up to reveal the Palestinian flag.
These committees led the intifada as countless woman steered the popular uprising through the cooperative Unified National Leadership. Women were acting out of their own determination and out of necessity to fill a leadership void after so many Palestinian men were either jailed, killed or deported. Women not only organized civil strikes across the occupied territories, they sought to carry the embryo of an independent Palestinian state. In the first-ever large-scale boycott of Israeli products, Palestinian women organized backyard gardens, farming cooperatives and taught women to grow their own food. They set up medical teams to provide healthcare. When Israel closed the schools to undercut student mobilization, Palestinian women organized teach-ins. “Every problem that came up at the governmental level, we’d set up local committees to address them,” Kamal recounted. The intifada became more than a political revolution, but a social feminist revolution. A generation of women were “leav[ing] the traditional paradigm,” Naila argued, as they were learning to be independent. The new face of the Palestinian resistance was no longer the PLO exiled in Tunis, but the women-led grassroots movement.
They had confidence that the intifada would succeed, that the persistent mass opposition to Israeli occupation would force withdrawal. Attending the Madrid conference, the Palestinian delegation, which included several women, demanded an end to settlements as a precondition for negotiations. Incredibly, the Bush administration seconded the demand. But the Palestine Liberation Organization, exiled in Tunis and ignorant of the realities of the occupation, betrayed the intifada’s promise by signing a secret deal with Israel that rescued the PLO from political oblivion but left the Palestinians under occupation. The PLO’s negotiating team, such as it was, included no women. And when they founded the Palestinian Authority, they had only one message to those women whose sacrifices paved the PLO’s return to Palestine: “Your role is done.” To add insult, women who could withstand torture and mobilize an entire economy of resistance would heretofore require a guardian before they applied for a Palestinian Authority passport.
Under the PA’s uninspired leadership, the Palestinians have never been farther from freedom since the end of the first intifada. Failing to take heed of the contributions of Palestinian women, one intifada female activist sums up, has left the movement “half-paralyzed.” Learning about his mother’s past and the first intifada’s euphoric sense of purpose and unity, Majd remarks in awe, “And she was part of it.” And all of them came damn close to victory until the boy’s club led by the Old Man pushed aside the very women who embody Palestinian hope. After PA President Abbas’ recent stammering speech that was devoid of any vision, it’s time to remember Margaret Thatcher’s (no ally of the Palestinians, but the words hold true) old observation, “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”