Liberate yourself, [and] you liberate the land, Hanan Ashrawi’s fathers told her. She became the first woman in the Executive Committee of the PLO.
This piece is part of our dossier "No Women - No Peace: 20th Anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security".
Dr Hanan Ashrawi is a name that is familiar to most Palestinian households and one which persists across generations. She is the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Department of Public Diplomacy and Policy as well as a re-elected member of the PLO Executive Committee.
Despite her robust and rich résumé, she struggles to find the words to describe herself. ‘This is probably one of the most difficult questions’, she confesses with a chuckle. ‘I always see myself as basically a human being: as a woman, as a mother, a family maker, a wife, a grandmother. But also as an academic, a political activist, a writer, a head of department.’, Ashrawi summarises: ‘I am a compilation of all my life experiences.’ Her voice full of a confidence rooted in humility, she states: ‘I hope that makes me a full human being.’
After the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, being Palestinian became entangled with the elements that accompany the imposed Israeli occupation. Ashrawi, like most Palestinians, was no exception to this. ‘[Palestinians] defy easy definitions’, she explains, ‘because we have such a multi-faceted, complex situation of injustice.’ Despite being acutely aware of this fact, Ashrawi tenderly echoes the motto she inherited from her father, Daoud Ashrawi, ‘liberate yourself, [and] you liberate the land’.
Having and giving space
Ashrawi’s journey of becoming a ‘full human being’ started in the intimate space of home. The lessons that she would learn from her mother and father, Wadia and Daoud respectively, still resonate with her. As parents to five daughters, Wadia was a feminist, while Daoud strongly advocated for women’s rights. ‘[My father] raised us all with two expectations: first, never accept limits and restrictions that are imposed on you by others and society’, Dr Ashrawi recalls. ‘Two was: “the only thing I expect from all of you is to get higher education degrees.”’
Finding passion in academia, Ashrawi would found the English Department at Birzeit University in 1973–78 and later become the Dean of the Faculty of Arts.
Despite the support of her family, including her husband Emile, and two daughters Amal and Zeina, there was an entire world necessarily imposing its own challenges. Recognising this, she admits that while ‘the immediate support system was there, the overall reality was extremely difficult’. As a woman, Ashrawi’s experiences were not without tribulations. ‘Whenever you have a woman who works on the basis of principle, with a clear focus and goal, you will find lots of men who will try and break and re-define her within their own language’, she sighs. ‘That was very difficult for me. They looked at me as though I was taking a place that was rightfully theirs.’
Ashrawi’s work on human rights, women’s rights, policy formation, peace-making and nation-building has been significant, but it was an accumulation of – sometimes painful – experiences between being an activist during her undergraduate years at the American University of Beirut (AUB), and travelling across the US and meeting various activists from Black student alliances and mine workers, to being member of the Palestinian National Council.
Think bigger, be brave
The years of her activism at AUB remain with her, and remembering the student organising she fondly remarks, ‘we protected each other, we looked after each other’. But protection also means not having limited visions of women’s rights. Vocal and unabashed, Ashrawi’s pursuit of social justice as an activist would become politically intertwined with nation-building efforts. This came with costly accusations that she had to withstand.
One memory which still resonates was when the Palestinian Ministry of Women’s Affairs was still being formed, Ashrawi would advocate against it. In a bold move, she would attempt to push for an empowered women’s council at the level of prime minister or president instead. This would lead to a series of accusations by officials and women’s groups that she was seeking a political position for herself. But for Ashrawi, ‘it’s easy to have a ministry of women’s affairs, you dump all women’s issues into that ministry and then all other institutions are free to do whatever they want’. With a chuckle, Ashrawi reflects on that moment: ‘It was, as we say in Arabic, “go, nice little girl, and play in the corner.”’
In 2009, Ashrawi became the first woman in Palestinian history to hold a seat in the highest executive body in Palestine, the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Two things continued to push her forward, ‘first, not working alone, [and] second, by sticking to my principles’. Indeed, Ashrawi proudly recognises that her position came from a collective effort of women uplifting one another. She affirms that it were women that voted for her official appointment in the Executive Committee, explaining that it helps ‘debunk the myth that women don’t vote for other women’. Ashrawi’s contribution in carving space for women also includes her rigorous efforts in the nation-building project. It is building ‘the institutions that can really challenge the closed systems that are restricting the space and power for women’. This means not adopting the ethos which undermines her principles for social justice and equality, not only for women, but all of society.
Leading is not only governing
In the early 1990s, as part of a generation that was instrumental in constructing the governing body of the Palestinian National Authority, Ashrawi witnessed the transformation of the local committees which were formed during the first intifada 1 into an institutionalised social structure. Many veteran Palestinians that were politically active in the years prior would end up holding official positions. As a member of the Diplomatic Committee and Intifada Political Committee in 1988 to 1993, Ashrawi played an important role in the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991. She was part of the high-ranking Palestinian delegation led by the revered Dr Haidar Abdel Shafi and the legendary Jerusalemite Faisal Husseini. As the spokesperson of the delegation, and the only woman, she soon became well-known in the diplomatic scene, resolutely and proudly representing the Palestinian positions. Despite her outstanding performance and acquired fame during these difficult negotiations, Ashrawi was not interested in being part of a national government that she did not yet see as ready to provide for its community. ‘Abu Ammar 2 and I had big arguments why I didn’t want to be a minister in the Palestinian National Authority government’, she recalls, using Yasser Arafat’s nom de guerre under which he is known. ‘I kept saying I want to be in civil society.’
While PLO representatives were signing the Oslo Accords in 1993, Ashrawi’s reservations and the support of Arafat, would push her to establish the independent commission for citizen’s rights. This would later become the Independent Commission for Human Rights, formally recognised by presidential decree and incorporated into law with the power to institutionally exercise oversight.
With her only official appointment being the Minister of Higher Education and Research in 1996, Ashrawi says boldly, ‘I didn’t want to be part of our system. I wanted to be part of a corrective force that would ensure that the system of governance would be based on justice and human rights.’ Ashrawi kept going with her efforts to emphasise accountability and transparency. ‘The health of a nation [is] not an abstract executive system of politicians sitting on top’, she explains, ‘but a vibrant active, diverse, principled civil society.’ Armoured with her conviction, she would found MIFTAH, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy in 1998, and AMAN, the National Coalition for Accountability and Integrity in 1999.
Human being, not superwoman
Notwithstanding her accomplishments, with the overarching Palestinian struggle against a military imposed occupation, women’s issues were often relegated to secondary concerns. But Ashrawi rejected the binaries of primary and secondary. ‘You cannot withhold self-determination, justice and equality from your own women in society and claim that you are fighting for them as a whole against the occupation’, she says firmly. ‘It’s not something you put on the shelf and wait until you are liberated’, she emphasises, ‘you cannot postpone building a healthy society.’
On this, she recalls a conversation between former US President Jimmy Carter and Yasser Arafat. ‘Carter told [Arafat], “you don’t have enough women in your cabinet”, to which Arafat replied, “I have Hanan Ashrawi, and she’s worth ten men.” Then I said: “I’m willing to leave and you can appoint ten women in my place.”’ Indeed, Ashrawi kept emphasising that more women need to be in positions of power, the failure of this she attributes to what she referenced as ‘superwoman syndrome’. Bitterly, she explains: ‘Women are generally judged by the most stringent standards. You know the superwoman syndrome: you have to be perfect to be recognised and acceptable.’
Ashrawi’s visibility was not only intimidating for men, after all women must fight twice as hard for the already limited spaces of leadership. As one of the few women in leadership, Ashrawi recognised that being tokenized and used as a symbol was being used to exclude others.
Acutely cognizant of the dangers of such tokenism, Ashrawi reminds us: ‘It’s important for any woman who gets anywhere to not just be a role model, but to also open up the space for other women.’ She tries to find the words to advise the coming leaders of the next generation: ‘If you adopt the male ethos and the male value system and power system yourself within the political system, then you become no different from the males who are in power.’
Tenderly, she echoes the words of her father once more: ‘be courageous, be daring in the pursuit of right’.
1 The first Palestinian intifada was a mass civil society revolt against Israeli practices and the occupation. It began in 1987 and ended with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
2Abu Ammar, also known as Yasser Arafat, was the first president to be elected in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.