Like women’s movements worldwide, Palestinian women’s movements have been faced with both old agendas of mobilisation and liberation, and new ones concerning women’s equality and empowerment. The Palestinian context is extraordinary because the state and society are threatened in their very physical existence by a military occupation. Palestinian state structures have been ill-equipped and unable to assist in the organisation of people’s resistance and women’s movements.
This article explores the inter-relationships and terms of engagement between two different types of Palestinian women’s organisations: a mass-based women’s movement and a newly emergent NGO sector. The author argues for the role of mobilisation in bringing about collective action through which women have been able to gain power and articulate their different gender needs and interests.
The old feminist discourse did not rest on the application of universal agendas for promoting women’s rights and empowerment. Rather, the Palestinian Federation of Women’s Action Committees (PFWAC) expanded its membership as a result of hard work and daily contacts with women whose concerns informed the agenda for women’s empowerment.
The role of NGOs in the West Bank and Gaza shifted under the influence of the state-building process initiated in 1991. The author argues that the dual dynamics of state building and ‘NGOisation’ led to the demobilisation of all social movements – as the limited life cycle of projects induced fragmentation rather than sustainable networking. This study shows how the NGOisation process have shifted power relations from “power to” women in the grassroots, to “power over” them by the new elite. Furthermore, the author finds that women’s NGOs might have inadvertently acted to disempower and de-legitimise civil society and secular actors and their movements through the new discourses they brought to the public sphere (in relative isolation from the overall social, economic and political context).