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Young Women in the City: Mandate Memories

Contributed by Jerusalem Quarterly on 27.01.2009:

Ellen Fleischmann

Jerusalem Quarterly File

Fall 1998, Issue 2

Focusing on Jerusalem‘s women provides us with a distinctive lens on the city during this period, illuminating in particular the pressures on and transformations in attitudes about gender which accelerated with the events of 1948, but which have their origins even earlier. These stories reveal rich information, showing a Jerusalem whose special atmosphere enabled certain Palestinian women to live less restricted lives than in other parts of Palestine. Quite a number of Palestinian women participated in the dynamic women‘s movement, which originated in Jerusalem and brought involvement in politics and social affairs. The creation, development, and existence of this movement belie commonly accepted notions that Palestinian women were “passive, inarticulate and disorganized.”

By weaving together a composite portrait of Arab women‘s lives through telling their stories, this article will address the question of why Jerusalem constituted fertile ground for the development of the Palestinian women‘s movement. The narrative is not centered on the national issue; we can take it as a given that the political situation permeated the very air of Jerusalem during this time. Instead, I wish to indulge in evocative history, focusing on the social and cultural environment that nourished women from a limited segment of the population, the middle and upper classes. The trajectory of the narrative is directed by the stories and memories of certain Jerusalem women who generously shared them with me in conversations.

The Social, Cultural and Educational Climate in Mandatory Jerusalem

Jerusalem during the Mandate was the seat of government and “the center of intellectual, social and political activity” in Palestine. In the wake of damages wrought by World War I, in the 1920‘s the government focused on renovating the city and establishing new institutions, government departments, and schools. In the 1930s, the world depression, the effects of escalating Jewish immigration, and the Strike and Revolt of 1936-1939 adversely affected the economic situation of many Palestinians. With World War II, economic conditions improved due to war demands. The years 1939 to 1946 were perceived as a time of prosperity and peaceful, albeit uneasy coexistence between Arabs and Jews.[1] As Hala Sakakini wrote, “both sides seemed to forget their enmity of over twenty years and to relax…It was as though we were enjoying a prolonged holiday that we knew must soon come to an end.”[2]

The depictions of the social environment for women in Jerusalem varied according to the identity and experiences of the commentator. Certain western visitors considered Jerusalem a “stronghold of religious conservatism rooted in the past.” Yet Palestinian women in interviews perceived Jerusalem as more “liberal” than other cities in Palestine, a place where, in the words of Nahid al-Sajjadi, “if a woman wanted to take the veil off, she just did. Men did not bother her.[3] Hala Sakakini remarked that “the first Muslim ladies to become free” were from Jerusalem. Fadwa Tuqan, who moved to Jerusalem in 1939, experienced release from her restricted life in Nablus. She described Jerusalem as a “free society” where the “modern woman” engaged in “natural behavior” and “the veil separating the two sexes had been lifted.”[4]

The attitude of male relatives played an important role in women‘s efforts to unveil. Nahid al-Sajjadi was encouraged by her husband to discard the veil, and Sa‘ida Jarallah recollects that her father, Shaykh Hussam al-Din Jarallah, an eminent judge of the Islamic court, supported her unveiling. Yet throughout the 1930s, women often incurred criticism from Arab society and the wrath of elders for unveiling. While riding the bus to school unveiled, for example, the young Sa‘ida was accosted by an older female acquaintance who scolded her, “Sa‘ida, why are you not wearing the hijab? Do you think when you get married that your husband will allow you to go out without the hijab?” Sa‘ida retorted, “If Shaykh Hussam gave me the permission to go out without the hijab, then there is no one in the world who can force me to wear it.”

The mobility of women of certain classes continued to be restricted in the early years of the Mandate. Hala and Dumya Sakakini described their aunt Melia, a teacher, as “a window to the world” for her secluded Muslim friends, whom she frequently visited, entertaining them with accounts of plays and concerts she had attended.[5] Yet over time, many Muslim women began to perceive the world with their own eyes, moving about the city to work and to attend school or cultural events. The support of male relatives also played a role in facilitating women‘s increased mobility. Nahid al-Sajjadi said, “We were from the liberal class. Neither my father nor husband stood in my way…they used to encourage me to work outside.” Sa‘ida Jarallah recollected:

We used to go to the cinema at the holidays. My father did not mind us going, but my mother was against it… But we did anyway. There were beautiful old movies. I remember seeing “Gone With the Wind” three or four times. Sometimes my mother and father used to go with us, and my father used to explain the movies to us.

The period witnessed a blossoming of cultural and civic endeavors, including the establishment of literary and sports clubs and civic and religious associations. Jerusalem women attended films, poetry recitals, lectures, sports events, and concerts, as spectators, participants and, in some cases, performers. In 1936, the Palestine Broadcasting Service was established, and was soon broadcasting special programs for girls and women, featuring women renowned for their literary, political or charitable work, such as Fadwa Tuqan, `Anbara Sallam al-Khalidi, Matiel Mughannam, Shahinda Duzdar, and Henriette Siksik.[6] Every Friday, when the PBS broadcast the women‘s hour, Shaykh Hussam Jarallah interrupted prayers to listen to his daughter on the radio. Institutions like the Y.M. and Y.W.C.A. were “social and cultural center[s]” offering young people opportunities for entertainment, education, sports and cultural events. Julia Awad, a former officer of the Y.W.C.A., reminisced that it “was the only outlet for girls…a place where you could go and feel safe…The whole environment of the Y.W. was to develop girls. You had mixed religions.” The Y‘s also attracted young people disseminating radical political ideas; Samira Khoury remembers becoming politicized in the 1940s through attending YMCA lectures at which the Communist Party passed out pamphlets. The Arab Women‘s Union expanded its arena from politics and charity to literature, theatre, and sports, building its own playing field and tennis courts. Its members performed plays as fundraisers. Jerusalem hosted a concert tour of Umm Kulthum and traveling theatrical productions featuring renowned Arab actors such as Najib Rihani and Yusuf Wahbeh.

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