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Palestinian Feminists Speak Out Against Reproductive Genocide

Decolonial feminism forcefully opposes the colonial politics of death, says the Palestinian Feminist Collective.

A protester in a keffiyeh holds a sign reading "STOP BOMBING CHILDREN" during an outdoor protest in London, England, on March 8, 2024.

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For over 220 days Israel has been carrying out what Palestinians have been calling a second Nakba since October. Nearly 35,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed by Israel and at least 1.7 million have been displaced.

As members of a feminist platform called La Laboratoria, we reached out to initiate a conversation with members of the Palestinian Feminist Collective out of a desire to amplify the voices of feminists who are fighting for a free Palestine. The collective, which coordinated several actions in Chicago, Detroit, New York and San Francisco, has insisted on the need to build a popular, grassroots, anti-racist, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist feminism. Within this framework, the collective deploys a feminist lens to understand the complexity of sustained violence against the Palestinian people. In this exclusive interview with Truthout, members of the Palestinian Feminist Collective engage in conversation with a group of us from La Laboratoria to talk about Palestine, feminism, internationalism and the question of reproductive genocide.

La Laboratoria: Tell us about the Palestinian Feminist Collective. How did you come together, and in what context? What are some of the values of your collective? How do you understand Palestine as a feminist issue?

Sarah Ihmoud: The Palestinian Feminist Collective is a body of Palestinian and Arab feminists who are primarily located on Turtle Island, the unceded lands of America. We are an intergenerational collective of activists, organizers, practitioners, creators, thinkers, artists, scholars, healers, Water and Land Protectors, life givers and life sustainers. We’re committed centrally to achieving Palestinian social and political liberation by confronting systemic gendered, sexual and colonial violence, and oppression and dispossession. We came together to really think about how colonial and patriarchal violence are interconnected and how they manifest in our own lives as Palestinian women and queer folks. There is no liberation of women or queer or gender nonconforming people without our broader liberation as a people from settler colonialism, so we are obviously inspired by and come from a long ancestry of social movement building.

In Palestinian feminist history, we look back toward over 100 years of organizing against colonial and imperial violence on our lands and territories. We also build on and borrow from other Arab, Black, Indigenous and Third World Feminist movements. We work to advance Palestinian feminism as a liberatory philosophy and praxis that’s necessary not only for us as Palestinians, but also as interconnected with other struggles to create the world that we want to live in.

We formed in 2019, when a young woman named Israa Ghrayeb, who was 21 years old, was killed in her village near Bethlehem. That ushered in the birth of a new feminist movement in Palestine called Tal’at, which was a network of Palestinian feminists and organizers who called for accountability for her killing under the slogan “no free homeland without the freedom of women.” Organizing against femicide was a sort of impetus for this new wave of feminist movement and organizing from the homeland. It inspired us as Palestinian feminists based in what we call shatat, which is not a direct translation of the term “diaspora”; in Arabic it really refers to dispersal. As Palestinians, this difference is important because we’re still a people that are being dispersed and that are contending with dispersal. So, in this space of dispersal, we created this movement organization in part in response to and in conversation with our sisters in the homeland, who were organizing against gender violence in our own communities in relation to these broader formations of colonial violence.

We started to work with and build the first national network of Palestinian and Arab feminists on Turtle Island, and we launched our first campaign, which was called “Palestine is a Feminist Issue” in March 2021. The aim was to mobilize feminism as a lens through which we can reunderstand and recenter the urgency of Palestinian liberation in feminist political agendas. Part of it involved strengthening Palestinian feminist kinships and dialogues between movement spaces. Another part of it was about strengthening our relationships with feminist organizers in the homeland. On another level, it was about holding the feminist movement here accountable to the Palestinian liberation agenda, and understanding the specificity of our role as feminists from Palestine in the heart of the U.S. empire. We also sought to understand what that means in terms of transnational feminist organizing.

Tara Alami: Building off of the first campaign in 2021 and 2022, we spent about five or six months working on a calendar called the Palestinian Feminist Futures Calendar and Program. Besides the feminist pledge — the “Palestine is a Feminist Issue” statement — it was the first comprehensive public-facing embodiment of the Palestinian Feminist Collective’s principles. We had 13 principles in that calendar and while working on it, we were asking ourselves: What does it mean for us to envision a Palestinian feminist future from within the belly of the beast — one that connects us, as the attacked in this state of dispersal, to our people on the ground in our homeland, the people who are resisting settler-colonial violence in Palestine and otherwise? So, we came up with this calendar as an embodied feminist grammar of life, love and liberation. In those 13 principles, we centered our anti-colonial and life-affirming decolonial vision and praxis.

Eman Ghanayem: I was thinking about how Palestinian people have always used all the tools afforded to us to create, and feminism is one of those tools. In our collective, we don’t think of it as a tool in isolation of others, but as one that includes others. So, the violence experienced by Palestinian women is something that we don’t see in isolation from violence experienced by our people across the spectrum of our social class, our gender and our age. I was talking to someone recently about how the feminist movement can do more work to incorporate children in our struggle, in our fight, because we think about things in very isolated ways in the Global North. Everything has to have a compartmentalization. So, if a feminist movement in very traditional conventional terms in the U.S. is only concerned with specifically women’s rights or cis women’s rights, where do children go? What is our role toward our community? So, the Palestinian Feminist Collective has been messaging around what we can do. In many ways, the Third World, the Indigenous world, the colonized world and the post-colonial world have always found ways to create, to make these terms very capacious and very inherent to our ways of being. A lot of the struggle we face as the Palestinian Feminist Collective sometimes is defining and redefining terms to work for us in a way that challenges limited and very dated ways of thinking about gender and rights.

Ihmoud: Feminism has a bad name in the SWANA [Southwest Asia and North Africa] region for a reason. We’ve seen the ways that colonial feminist discourses have been used and mobilized in previous wars and genocides as a way to justify U.S. military and imperial intervention in the region. This can be under the guise of liberating Arab women either from an oppressive Arab culture or Muslim culture in particular, or from our supposedly dangerous, Indigenous men. We saw this in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And we’re seeing these kinds of discourses resurface now with the genocide in Gaza. It’s important to contend with why feminism still has a bad name in our community. Part of what we are also doing in our own community is pushing against those colonial understandings of feminism and reimagining what alternative forms of feminism mean. We are doing this both collectively and from the grassroots spaces that we’re working to build.

These values are embodied in the fact that we are a collective. One of the things that settler colonialism has done to our people for almost a century is attempt to disconnect us, to fragment us into these separate geographies. We are here in the U.S. for different reasons, but many of us are here because our families were displaced. Part of building collective spaces is a practice of reconnecting the fabrics of our intimacies as an Indigenous people. And part of building a feminist collective is also to rebuild that space, to think, to dream together, to build friendships with one another, to love each other and to create spaces of belonging. This is important in a context like the United States or Canada, which have shown us so much hate. And we’re seeing that hate resurface in this moment, too. In this moment when we really feel like we need each other, our spaces and our collective have been a sanctuary.

How do you frame your work and collective in the language of reproductive justice and in a feminist anti-colonial understanding of peace?

Ihmoud: Israel is a settler-colonial project, and settler colonization necessarily implies the elimination of native people from their Indigenous lands and territories. A feminist lens invites us to understand the gender and sexual politics of that project. As Palestinian feminists, we name the gender and sexual violence of reproductive genocide as central to this larger structure of settler colonial power and its racialized machinery of domination. So, this includes rape and sexual violence, which were systematically weaponized against Palestinian women at the onset of the Nakba in 1948, when 750,000 Palestinians were removed from their ancestral lands and territories. That politics gives broader shape to the logic of settler-colonial power and how it operates today.

Over 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in this genocidal escalation in Gaza, of whom 70 percent are women and children. A million women and girls have been displaced multiple times by foot. There’s a 300 percent increase in the miscarriage rate among pregnant women. Pregnant and lactating women are at a severe, obvious disadvantage within this broader machinery of violence and power. A recent UN press release called attention to deliberate targeting and extrajudicial killing of women and children in places where they sought refuge or were fleeing. The UN also noted instances of rape, instances of sexual violence and even the “forcible transfer” of at least one Palestinian child by the Israeli army in Gaza.

So, we have to ask ourselves: How do we understand attacks on Gaza specifically as gendered assaults on women’s bodies, sexualities and life-giving capacities? In other settler-colonial contexts, bodies, sexualities and reproductive capacities are targeted in particular ways because of what they represent — land, which is reproduction; Indigenous kinship and governance; and the possibility of alternatives. In this case, it’s the possibility of Palestinian sovereignty. We must understand the question of reproductive justice in this broader context.

Alami: Incarceration and the violence of the nation-state, of a settler-colonial nation-state, is an attack on the generationality of the native people and the land. As the settler state develops into different stages (for example, on Turtle Island) it becomes an attack on the nationality of all oppressed people, oppressed or underrepresented genders, and people who are living in deliberately precarious material conditions. (By “deliberately” I mean “designed by the state”.)

People are calling what’s happening in Gaza right now a genocide. But the truth is that it’s an escalation.

This includes being unhoused or impoverished or starved, not having access to education, living in a food desert, not having access to equitable and affordable health care, and much more. The attack on Palestinian generationality and the ability to reproduce and sustain life in Palestine is part and parcel of the Zionist settler-colonial design. It’s in the fabric of Zionist genocide. In the context of Gaza right now, we know that around 5,000 women have had to give birth under the most unsafe conditions, under constant bombardment. These conditions are also unhygienic. They lack access to proper health care. During pre- and postpartum conditions, they are starved, malnourished, unable to sustain life after giving it. There are pictures of the premature babies in the ICU who were killed because they were starved, because there’s no electricity in the hospital, because their machines were not working anymore.

We saw an acute need to define “reproductive genocide” in the context of Palestine during the past five or six months, as well as during the last 100 years of resistance against colonialism and imperialism, whether it was British or American. The attack on generationality can take different forms. It can take the form of really violent night raids by the Israeli Occupation Forces on villages and, literally, attacks on the homes where children are kidnapped from their parents or vice versa. Parents are kidnapped from their children and taken away and put in Zionist dungeons. It can take the form of being a Palestinian political prisoner. We know that wherever there is oppression (and in this case, a genocidal attack on generations), there will be resistance. This is where, for example, sperm smuggling emerged as a form of anti-colonial resistance against this ongoing genocide. People are calling what’s happening in Gaza right now a genocide. But the truth is that it’s an escalation. It’s a massive escalation of a genocide that’s been happening for decades and decades.

So, it’s not just about the past few months, or just about Gaza, but about all of Palestine. The statement that we wrote and released recently defines reproductive genocide maybe more concretely as policies — and even discourses and material practices — that deliberately restrict, target or attack life-giving and sustaining capacities, choices and access of Palestinians; or, more broadly, communities that are made vulnerable by systemic military violence, occupation, besiegement, settler colonialism or colonial and imperialist warfare. In our definition we include incarceration, psychological warfare, collective punishment, ethnic cleansing, and gendered and sexual violence against women, girls and men by an occupying state or a military force that enforce conditions of unlivability. You’re just unable to sustain a life in these conditions. And we’ve seen, in Gaza in the past few months, an escalation of this enforcement. But we must also remember that Palestinians in Gaza have been living under an air, land and sea blockade for 17 years now, and an occupation before the Israeli occupation forces withdrew. I think people sometimes forget that for decades Gaza had actual settlements in it before the military blockade and siege.

Right now, we’re seeing deliberate control and cutting off of vital resources like water, fuel, electricity and food. Just recently, we saw that part of the U.S. aid (if you can call it that) was actually dropped on the solar panels of a hospital and ended up destroying the source of electricity for that hospital. It’s a clear attack on life-sustaining sources, a denial of whatever remains of lifesaving medical resources. This also includes the collective starvation of all people, and especially of disabled children in northern Gaza who have specific dietary requirements that must be met in order for them to live. We’ve also seen the eradication of entire genealogies of Palestinians in Gaza. Christian families of Gaza have been targeted by airstrikes. We’ve seen mass murder of children and babies, the obliteration of medical institutions by airstrikes and ground invasion, and the annihilation of sources of agriculture harvests. Gaza is famous for strawberries. Airstrikes on Palestinian farms and life target the source of labor and the fruits of that labor, the vital food infrastructures. It creates a very toxic environment where people without the most basic health care infrastructure are being exposed on a daily basis to toxic waste and materials, and exposed to viral and bacterial infections that can impact the health of future generations.

We saw this in Iraq, where women in Fallujah are still giving birth to children with fatal and congenital conditions because of attacks by the U.S., the U.K. and Canada in 2003. That’s over 20 years ago, and we’re still seeing their effects on children and on babies that are being born right now in 2024.

Part of our mission and our values is to hold so-called feminist spaces or groups and women’s rights institutions here accountable, and also to counter their efforts at either weaponizing the language of women’s rights or completely erasing the reproductive genocide that is happening in Palestine. An example of that is the Planned Parenthood statement in December of 2023, which completely failed to mention pretty much anything about Palestine and Palestinians, or anything about Zionist settler colonialism. The Zionist state requires the annihilation of the Palestinian people and our removal from our land. In Planned Parenthood’s statement, we saw clearly an orientalist framework of Palestinians as violent, aggressive sexual deviants that are animalistic and savage. The statement attempted to deflect from the ongoing escalation of genocide and also to help manufacture consent for the current attacks on Gaza. As a collective of Arab and Palestinian feminists who are informed by Indigenous, ecofeminist and Third World feminist thought and frameworks, we completely reject this statement and others that follow the same framework.

Ihmoud: I’ll just make a couple of points about peace. I think we’re in a moment where we’re witnessing the implosion of the Zionist project. And part of that is a broad recognition that the peace process has failed. I think we have to understand that Palestinians have broadly rejected the liberal peace paradigm and what’s broadly understood as the Middle East peace process. This liberal peace paradigm seeks to transform our anti-colonial liberation movement into a state-building project that benefits colonial powers. This state-building project ends up supporting the settler-colonial project in its ongoing processes of land confiscation and carceral control of our mobility. It also supports broader forms of violence and control, including, centrally, the Palestinian Authority’s participation in security coordination with Israel. We have to understand that this liberal paradigm of peace has failed us. It has become a tool of further entrenching Israeli colonial violence, and it has enabled the reconsolidation of a predominantly male Palestinian ruling class that is committed to maintaining the status quo.

But again, this moment shows us how the ground is really ripe for alternatives. And this is a moment that invites us to really think with the possible alternatives that are not vested in this hegemonic language of liberal peace and that are instead about reenvisioning our liberation project as an anti-colonial project. And as feminists, we have to think about what that means in terms of what our role is in that envisioning process.

What are forms of international solidarity and struggle that you feel are most needed at this moment?

Ghanayem: You know, we’re all inspired by Audre Lorde. We’re all inspired by Black, Indigenous and Latinx feminists who say that there is no point in singular struggles. And I think that the colonized are good at being in solidarity with each other. We just need to remember to make people who are invisible visible. Our role as the Palestinian Feminist Collective is to make women visible, to make children visible, to make queer Palestinians visible, and to share love toward Palestinian men. I think this resonates with a lot of people and other liberation struggles, because we are tired of being told how community should look when we already know what it should look like.

Ihmoud: We have to continue to uplift the voices of Palestinian women in this moment, especially in Gaza, which is really the front line of our liberation movement right now. And part of that requires rejecting the colonial narratives that are being used to justify the exterminatory policies of the Israeli state right now. It requires that we reject the broader politics of death that’s being waged on our people, on our homeland and on our entire ecosystems of life as Indigenous people. Decolonial feminism, on the one hand, rejects, interrupts and forcefully opposes these colonial politics of death. And at the same time, it uplifts alternative visions that affirm our lives and the potential futures of our people on our homeland. We have to continue to uplift those life-giving visions at the same time that we reject this colonial politics of death. We are implicated in each other’s survival. I like this idea of us being co-conspirators in each other’s liberation, and I think that is a way to think about our transnational solidarity politics as well.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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