Changes in Palestinian society - Ehud Ein Gil and Aryeh Finkelstein

A look at the changes in Palestinian society since the beginning of zionist expansion in the region and its affect on the position of women.

Submitted by Ed on January 22, 2013

The zionist settler society has been built upon the ruins of Palestinian society, destroyed by zionist colonisation. That part of the Palestinian people which after 1948 remained inside the state of Israel, under direct zionist rule, has in the course of time undergone deep social changes. For example, the confiscation of their lands forced the Palestinian peasants out of agriculture and into wage labour. In this article we consider the significance of these changes and their effects on the structure of Palestinian village society inside Israel, and in particular on the position of women.

The Hamoula

The institutions of Palestinian village society drew their strength from specific economic conditions. The growth of the main village in­stitution – the hamoulah1 – was based on land ownership, an agrarian economy and a relative weakness of contacts with urban centres; and it was reinforced by Arab culture, tradition and religion. Even in the nineteenth century, with the intrusion of the imperialist powers into the region, contacts with Western civilisation and its values were mainly confined to the small urban population of Palestine; the village remained largely isolated from European influence until zionist colonising activity became intensive.

After the defeat of the Arab states in the 1948-49 war, the zionist movement subjected the Palestinians who remained inside Israel to its policy. But zionist policy towards Israel's Palestinian subjects has been a combination of two mutually contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, it has aimed to preserve the traditional hamoulah structure of village society, in order to make it easier to keep the Palestinians under control. But on the other hand, by expropriating the Palestinians' lands, it has destroyed the economic basis of that very same traditional structure which zionism wants to preserve. Without its lands the hamoulah has lost its economic foundations: its members are dispersed as wage labourers in the Israeli economy, and the ties which had bound them together are severed. But despite all this, the hamoulah has not collapsed.

In countries like England, which had undergone an industrial revolution, the expropriation of the peasants' lands destroyed the old rural society; the peasants migrated to the towns in search of new sources of livelihood, were transformed into an industrial proletariat and created new social frameworks appropriate to their new class. But in England both dispossessors and dispossessed were English. It was a process rooted in the intrinsic economic development of England.

In Palestine, on the contrary, the process through which the peas­ants were dispossessed of the lands was caused by a clash between a colonising movement of immigrants and the indigenous population; it was not a process resulting from the intrinsic economic development of the country. Although in this country, just as in England, the dispossessed peasants were proletarianised, the traditional framework of the Palestinian village society was not broken. For the new Palestinian proletarians did not migrate into the towns: they were prevented from moving into the Jewish city near their place of work by legal restrictions (military rule, to which Arabs inside Israel were subjected and which operated a pass system, was lifted only about ten years ago2 ) and by racist discrimination, on the part of the authorities as well as the 'man in the street'. The villages became working-class dormitories. But the old hamoulah structure of these villages was preserved.


The 1948 defeat left the Palestinian population inside Israel beaten and broken. Most of the urban population, as well as the inhabit­ants of over 350 villages, had been driven out of the zionist state. The only remaining social institution was the hamoulah, which now became a kind of kernel, around which Palestinian identity inside Israel would be recreated and preserved. The zionist attempt to obliterate and deny the existence of Palestinian national identity brought about a response characteristic of oppressed minorities – the strengthening of traditional structures.

But the traditional social structures could not serve as a framework for resistance and struggle against oppression, and were therefore turned into instruments of the authorities. In order to dominate and control the great majority of the members of a hamoulah, it was enough for the authorities to harness the headman to their wagon. A party which could bribe the headman would get most of the votes of his hamoulah. In this way the hamoulah structure was turned from a stronghold of resistance to zionist policy into the institutional framework through which zionist domination over Palestinian society is mediated. Even in those cases where the headman did not sell out to the authorities, the hamoulah could not serve as a basis for broad struggle; for the ties of solidarity which it fosters are exclusive to its own members, and do not bind together the broad mass of the people.

The hamoulah preserved its prestige and influence, and with it were preserved values and conventions which had characterised traditional Arab society. More than anyone else, it is the Palestinian women who have got the worst of this state of affairs: they not only belong to an oppressed people suffering from discrimination, but also have an inferior and underprivileged status within that people.

Women in Palestinian society

'The family honour' is the concept in whose name most of the restrictions upon the Palestinian woman's freedom of movement are imposed. In particular, women's individual liberty continues to be violated by the segregation of unmarried people of opposite sexes, a segregation based upon religious and traditional values as well as social conventions. Thus the unmarried woman is prevented from participating in socio-cultural activities in which men take part; this includes not only going to the cinema or to the coffee house, but sometimes even sitting together with guests in her own house. The married woman's freedom of movement is also restricted: she too is not allowed to participate in socio-cultural activities in which men are present, unless she is accompanied by her husband.

Betrothal and marriage arrangements in Palestinian society make it difficult for a woman (and indeed also for a man) to marry a person of her (or his) own choice. At the same time, these arrangements are an important means of preserving social differentiation. In general, marriage is an economic transaction; a rich family will make sure that its sons and daughters marry brides and bridegrooms belonging to rich families. This is ensured by the bride price: a man who cannot afford the high bride price demanded by a rich family, cannot marry a daughter of that family.

Incidentally, a similar phenomenon also exists among Israeli Jews. Israeli-Jewish society is more 'open', and in it marriage is theoretically a matter of free choice for both partners. But before the wedding there is usually a meeting of the families of both 'parties', in which they finalise the commercial transaction – how much money is to be paid to the young couple by each side in order to ensure its economic status. Not infrequently, weddings are called off before that stage is reached; the parents' opposition overcomes love and 'free choice'.

But in Palestinian society the situation is, if anything, worse. A father's prestige and authority over his family are much greater, and only very few young people would dare to defy the 'family' and marry a person of their own choice. The imposed segregation between un­married men and women makes it difficult for love relationships to develop, and enhances the power of the head of the family: in the absence of love ties, the resistance of his sons and daughters is weaker than it might have been, and it is that much easier for him to impose upon them his own will in the matter of marriage.

But in this, as in other social matters, the situation is gradually improving. For the time being change is rather slow, but it is gathering momentum. Of course, it all depends on the young people themselves, both men and women. Both share an interest in liberating themselves from the authority of the hamoulah tradition, in order to facilitate a freer contact between the sexes, before and after marriage, and to win the right to choose their own spouses. A struggle to abolish the in­stitution of bride price will be an important first step along this road.

Historically, the concept of the 'family honour' was used to dictate a restriction of women's participation in the social process of production. But the zionist expropriation of lands has worsened the situation of Palestinian women in Israel. In the past, women used to take part in the family's production process, in agriculture. But when there was no longer any land, the men went out to work in the city, while social conventions tethered the women to their village home.

However, the harsh economic realities of the last few years – rapid price inflation accompanied by a meagre rise in nominal wages – has forced the Palestinians to allow women to go out to work as wage labourers in order to supplement the family income. The Israeli economy, particularly the food and textile industries, was crying out for cheap manpower – or womanpower: Palestinian women fulfilled the demand of the labour market. Between 1967 and 1972, about 7,000 Palestinian women entered work in industry3 . Thousands of women are employed in agriculture on Jewish farms. Thus the 'sanctity' of the concept of 'family honour' was exposed; its role was clearly seen – to preserve relations of authority based on a socio­economic situation belonging to the past. When economic and social conditions had changed, family honour was no longer capable of keeping the woman at home.

Under capitalism, women workers generally constitute a reserve army of cheap labour, deployed according to the needs of the economy. A working woman is not considered to be the family's main breadwinner, and this is used by employers as a justification for not paying her the same wage as a man doing the same job. But in Israel, in addition to this discrimination in wages between men and women, there is also a national discrimination in wages between Jews and Arabs. Thus Palestinian women constitute the most exploited section of the labour force in the Israeli economy.

The inferior status of women in the patriarchal family is a circumstance shared by all Palestinian women workers and sets them apart from the other part of their class, the Palestinian men workers. Although they are super-exploited at work, Palestinian women workers find it very difficult to fight against their exploitation. If the very fact of their going out to work is regarded by traditional village society as something unusual and undesirable, how much greater will be the social resistance to any attempt by women to organise and struggle independently! 'Family honour' prevents women from organising politically, and even stands in the way of their participation in political activity alongside men. And if this applies to their par­ticipation in organising for struggle against national oppression, which afflicts both men and women, it applies all the more to women's organising for struggle for their own rights.

The hamoulah, as guardian of family honour, is therefore the main source of weakness of the Palestinian woman, and especially the Palestinian woman worker, in Israel.

Changing reality versus stubborn conservatism

Economic reality imposes changes even upon conservative village society. Palestinian society in Israel still disapproves of women working in industry together with men. In fact, most Palestinian women workers still work in segregation. But women's work is gradually becoming more accepted, and at the same time the family's power over the woman's earnings is growing weaker. More and more women, especially unmarried women, keep some of their wages and do not hand them all to the head of the family. Their participation in the process of production and their growing, if relative, economic independence constitute preconditions for the success of the women's struggle against the bonds of hamoulah conservatism.

Other factors, too, contribute to the weakening of the hamoulah's conservative grip. One of these is the influence of Western social values.

Palestinian society tended to regard the Western bourgeois values imported into this country by the zionist colonisers as corrupt. In fact these bourgeois values represented a historically progressive stage of development compared to the old religious-feudal values; but many Palestinians tended to identify these values with zionist oppression. Moreover, this was used by Palestinian reaction in order to persuade the masses that democracy and socialism also are 'zionist values' which have to be opposed. As a result, adherence to the traditional social values hindered the development of Palestinian society and handicapped it in the struggle against zionism.

The view of woman as an inferior being, unfit to participate in social and political struggle, who must be tethered to the home, im­paired the resistance of Palestinian society against zionist oppression, because half of the population was thereby prevented from con­tributing its effort and energy to the struggle.

(There was a similar phenomenon in other Arab countries. But wherever the struggle for national and social liberation struck at the forces of reaction and conservatism, women took an active part in the struggle. This was the case during a certain phase in Algeria as well as in South Yemen. Also, in the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza strip women play an important and useful part in the struggle against occupation.)

Now, in the course of time it is becoming clear that more and more Palestinians no longer identify democratic and socialist values with zionism (this refers both to political principles and to socio-cultural values). And accordingly the resistance to the adoption of these values is declining.

For example, among the laws imposed by British rule in Palestine, and later by the zionist power, there was a law prohibiting polygamy, whereas Islam permits it. But today, the ban on polygamy is no longer regarded as a zionist value which must be opposed. (We do not claim that this law has solved the problems of the institution of marriage; there is certainly much that should be changed in the arrangements and content of this institution. But the abolition of polygamy cons­titutes an advance in the status of women.) Accordingly, we do not know of any Palestinian who would seriously advocate the inclusion of the legalisation of polygamy in the programme of Palestinian national liberation.

Attitudes to the high birth rate are likewise changing. The high birth rate has been used – sometimes consciously and sometimes un­consciously – as a weapon against zionism. If the zionists wanted less Arab children to be born – then having more children became a 'national task'. The relative rise in living standards, which normally has a downward effect on the birth rate, has not had this effect among the Palestinians in Israel. Their birth rate, 4.6 per cent per annum, is still among the world's highest. Although this seems to be a policy of struggle, a reaction against zionist oppression, it tends to maintain the oppression of women. Their burden is particularly heavy in villages without electricity, child care and health services.

A family with many children finds it more difficult to provide for them materially and spiritually. This has an adverse effect not only on the women, who are tethered to their homes, but also on the children. However, the use of contraceptives is gradually spreading, and a growing number of women are becoming aware of their right to control their own bodies. Here, too, the hamoulah, religion and tradition pose themselves against change. Village conservatism regards any attempt at change as a zionist-inspired plot.

From all this it can be seen how difficult it is going to be for Palestinian women in Israel to struggle for their own liberation. It seems as though everything and everyone have joined forces to prevent their liberation and to make it harder for them to organise for struggle.

The obstacles in the road of Palestinian women's liberation are formidable indeed. In addition to those we have already referred to – religion, tradition, the hamoulah – one of the greatest obstacles is subjective: the immense difficulty in becoming fully conscious of their state of oppression, isolation and lack of organisation. In the present situation, any 'rebellious' woman, who refuses to surrender to the bondage of convention, remains isolated and ostracized. Her first aim is therefore to seek an alliance with other women in her struggle.

The experience of the women's liberation movement in Israel has shown it to be characterised by a particular feature, which is not shared by similar movements in other capitalist countries. For, in the zionist state of Israel an Israeli-Jewish woman cannot support free abortion on demand without falling foul of the zionist attitude to the 'demographic question'; she cannot repudiate the Rabbinate's authority in matters of marriage and divorce4 without taking a stand on their authority to determine 'who is a Jew' (and therefore entitled to a privileged status in Israel) and who is not; she cannot demand equality for women without confronting the counter-argument that 'the duties of men and women are also unequal, because the men have to shoulder a heavier military burden'; she cannot demand equality between men and women without also demanding equality between Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian-Arab women. In short, one cannot consistently demand equal rights for women without questioning the most fundamental zionist principles.

This is a possible meeting point for Jewish and Arab women, for a joint struggle for women's liberation. The development of a Palestinian women's liberation force can intensify the contradictions within the women's liberation movement in Israel and lead to the creation of an internationalist and anti-zionist women's liberation movement.


Like every colonial power, zionism divides in order to rule. On the national level, it divides all Jews from all Arabs; on the confessional level, it divides Muslim, Druse, Christian and Jew from each other; it divides men from women; and among the Palestinians it divides one hamoulah from another.

The masses of this country – Arabs and Jews, men and women – can only liberate themselves from the national oppression and racist discrimination of zionism through an implacable struggle which will expose the lie upon which these divisions are based and will prove the community of interests of all the exploited, members of both peoples, of both sexes, of all religions and all hamoulahs – against their oppressors and exploiters: zionism and Arab reaction, both of which serve imperialism.

A struggle against the oppressive straitjacket of the traditional institutions of Palestinian society is necessary not only for the liberation of Palestinian women, but also of Palestinian men. Although men are, relatively speaking, socially privileged, the restrictions and prohibitions imposed upon the liberty of women are also restrictions and prohibitions upon the liberty of men.

The hamoulah, religion, tradition and the conservative customs are enemies of the Palestinian masses struggling for liberation. They are instruments for the oppression of women, but they also serve the oppression of the Palestinian people as a whole. Therefore it is the duty of all Palestinians, both men and women, to struggle against them.

The liberation of women cannot come about without the liberation of society as a whole; and society as a whole cannot be liberated without the liberation of women. The struggle against all forms of oppression and exploitation, for national and social liberation, is the struggle of all. Women must take part in this struggle. If they take a stand equally with men, in the broader front, it will help their own struggle for social equality.

Ehud Ein Gil and Aryeh Finkelstein

Translated from Matzpen, May 1977 ((עברית (عربي)

  • 1A hamoulah (pl hama'l) is a unit of social organisation, smaller than a clan and consisting of several extended families which have (or consider themselves to have) a common ancestor in the male line. (Ed)
  • 2This refers only to Israel proper, in its pre-1967 borders. The Arabs of the territories occupied in 1967 are still under military rule. (Ed)
  • 3Davar, 10 March 1972.
  • 4The fact that the ecclesiastical authorities in Israel have such wide powers (including monopoly of jurisdiction in matters of marriage and divorce) is not only injurious to non-religious Jews who are put, against their will, at the mercy of the clerics. Arabs of the Catholic faith, for example, cannot be divorced in this country, whereas in Rome under the very nose of the Pope, they can get a civil divorce.