Zulaykha al-Shihabi was born in Jerusalem. Her father was Ishaq Abd al-Qadir al-Shihabi, and her mother was Zainab al-Muhtadi. She had two brothers, Subhi and Jamil, and two sisters, Rasmiyya and Rifqa.More
- Birth1917, NABLUS, PALESTINE
- Death12 DECEMBER 2003, NABLUS, WEST BANK
Fadwa Tuqan was born in Nablus. Her father was Abd al-Fattah Tuqan and her mother was Fawziyya Amin Asqalan. She had five brothers—Yusuf, Ibrahim, Ahmad, Rahmi, and Nimr—and two sisters, Fataya and Adiba.
She attended elementary school in Nablus at the Fatimiyya school and later at the Aishiyya. She had barely completed five years of study when she was removed from school under pressure from her brother Yusuf for “social reasons” and forced to stay at home.
She was greatly influenced by her brother Ibrahim. After he graduated from the American University of Beirut and returned to Palestine, he was determined to help her continue her education and to act as her guardian. She was able to escape to some extent from the harsh conditions of her home life when she decided to move to Jerusalem to live with him. She had contemplated suicide more than once, and the move to Jerusalem might have removed that thought from her mind for good.
Thanks to Ibrahim, who taught her to write poetry, a new phase of her life began. She started to become aware of her individuality, humanity, and right to education, and she took private lessons in English. She sent her poems to literary magazines in Cairo and Beirut, using pseudonyms. When they were published, her confidence in herself and her literary abilities increased.
After the deaths of her brother Ibrahim (in 1941) and her father, and then the Nakba of 1948, she began to take part, though from the sidelines, in the political life of the fifties. In 1956, she travelled to Stockholm as part of a Jordanian delegation to a peace conference, a trip that also took her to Holland, the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China.
In 1956, she joined the Cultural Club established in Nablus by Walid Qamhawi and was an active member of it. This marked the beginning of her career as a poet. Through the club she met Kamal Nasir, a poet and member of the Jordanian parliament, as well as the poet Abd al-Karim al-Karmi (Abu Salma). She also met some leaders of the nationalist movement in Jordan such as Abd al-Rahman Shuqair, whom she hid in her house when he was pursued by the Jordanian authorities and helped escape to Syria in 1957.
In the early sixties, Fadwa left for England and lived for two years in Oxford, where she studied English language and literature. That trip left a deep impact on the development of her poetry and her personality.
When she returned to Nablus, she decided to remove herself from family and people and so built a house of her own to the west of the city. However, the disaster of 1967 drove her to once again take part in the public life of Nablus, now under occupation, and to commence a series of poetic and journalistic disputes with the Zionist occupier and his culture. That disaster transformed her poetry, moving it from personal and social subjects to poetry of resistance. Eventually her poetry became more comprehensive and human in theme, treating subjects like life and death, love, nature, family, and societal repression.
Tuqan was uniquely open and bold in her confessions as shown in her two-volume autobiography, which dealt with her private life and the social and political life of Nablus and the customs of its residents. She voiced her rejection of many of these customs, which in her view stifled the pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment so important to her. In that same work she dealt with her political and cultural activity, her resistance to occupation, and her contacts with Palestinian poets living in areas occupied in 1948.
Tuqan was elected to the Board of Trustees of al-Najah University when it was founded in Nablus in 1977. She wrote the university anthem and was granted an honorary doctorate by the university.
Tuqan, known as the “Poetess of Palestine,” is considered one of the most prominent cultural figures of Palestine. Between 1952 and 2000, she published eight collections of poetry. Selections of her poetry have been translated into English, French, German, Italian, Persian, and Hebrew. She was awarded a number of prizes and medals, including the annual Sulayman Arar poetry prize; the prize of the Union of Jordanian Writers in 1983; the Sultan Uways prize of the United Arab Emirates in 1989; the Jerusalem medal of the PLO in 1990; the prize of the World Festival of Contemporary Writing, Salerno, Italy, in 1992; the Tunisian cultural medal of 1996; and the PLO prize for literature in 1997. Several books and university theses have appeared about her and her work in a number of Arab and foreign universities, in addition to many articles and studies in Arab and foreign journals. The Palestinian novelist Liana Badr produced a documentary film about her life and poetry entitled “Fadwa: A Poetess from Palestine.”
Fadwa Tuqan died on 12 December 2003. She was almost 85 years old. Four years before her death she had suffered from a brain clot, which severely impaired her vision and her reading and writing. She was buried in Nablus.
Her death was announced by the Palestinian Authority to the world and to all who are concerned with culture, literature, and thought. The announcement ran as follows: “We announce the death of the great poetess of Palestine, an innovative and original talent, a daughter of Nablus, the mountain of fire; daughter of Palestine, educator, fighter for justice, cultural icon, exceptional literary figure, winner of the Palestine medal: the poetess Fadwa Tuqan.”
صدر لها، ما بين سنتي 1952 و 2000، ثمانية دواوين شعرية. وجمعت أعمالها في: “الأعمال الشعرية الكاملة”. بيروت: دار العودة، 2004.
[The Collected Poetical Works]
Some of her poetry were translated into English, German, French, Italian, Persian and Hebrew.
“أخي ابراهيم”. يافا: المكتبة العصرية، 1946.
[My Brother Ibrahim]
“رحلة جبلية، رحلة صعبة: سيرة ذاتية”. عكا: دار الأسوار، 198.
[A Mountainous Journey, a Difficult Journey: An Autobiography]
“الرحلة الأصعب: سيرة ذاتية”. عمان: دار الشروق، 1993.
[The Most Difficult Journey: An Autobiography]
A Mountain’s Journey: An Autobiography, Translated by Olive Kenny and edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi (London: Women’s Press, 1990).
Le Rocher et la peine: Mémoires 1, Traduit de l’arabe par Joséphine Lama et Benoît Tadié (Paris: l’Asiathèque Langues du monde, 1997).
Le Cri de la pierre: Mémoires 2, Traduit de l’arabe par Joséphine Lama et Benoît Tadié (Paris: l’Asiathèque Langues du monde, 1998).
بدر، ليانة. “ظلال الكلمات المحكية: حوار مع فدوى”. القاهرة: دار الفتى العربي، 1996.
ديكان- واصف، سارة. “معجم الكتّاب الفلسطينيين”. باريس: معهد العالم العربي، 1999.
شاهين، أحمد عمر. “موسوعة كتّاب فلسطين في القرن العشرين”. الجزء الأول. دمشق: المركز القومي للدراسات والتوثيق، 1992.
كامبل، روبرت. “أعلام الأدب العربي المعاصر: سير وسير ذاتية.” بيروت: المعهد الألماني للأبحاث الشرقية، 1996.
لوباني، حسين علي. “معجم أعلام فلسطين في العلوم والفنون والآداب”. بيروت: مكتبة لبنان ناشرون، 2012.
Abdul Hadi, Mahdi, ed. Palestinian Personalities: A Biographic Dictionary. 2nd ed., revised and updated. Jerusalem: Passia Publication, 2006.
Birth15 APRIL 1923, GAZA CITY, PALESTINE
Death13 MAY 2009, GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP
Yusra al-Barbari was born in the city of Gaza. Her father, Ibrahim al-Barbari, was a Gaza merchant and member of the city’s Municipal Council. Her mother was Labiba Mahmud Halawah. She had two brothers: Kamal, an attorney, and Sa‘id.
She attended the Gaza Girls Elementary School and completed her high school education at Schmidt College for Girls in Jerusalem.
She then travelled to Egypt where she enrolled in the Faculty of Arts and the Department of History of Fuad I University (later, Cairo University), where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history in 1949. She was the first female university graduate in the Gaza Strip. She began to work on an M.A. thesis about the struggle of the Palestinian people against British occupation and the Balfour Declaration, supervised by the well-known historian Ashraf Ghurbal, but she did not complete that thesis. She was fluent in Arabic, English, and French.
Her working life began in Gaza, then under Egyptian administration, as a teacher at the Bir al-Sabi‘ Girls Elementary School; she was later appointed teacher and supervisor at the Zahra School, the only secondary school for girls in the Gaza Strip. She became inspector of social studies in girls’ schools where she developed a curriculum for female teacher training, which eventually became the Women Teachers Institute in Gaza. Following the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip in 1967, she refused to work in any job under Israeli authority.
Ever since she was a young student, Yusra al-Barbari had taken part in demonstrations against the British Mandate, demanding the annulment of the Balfour Declaration and an end to Jewish immigration. During the years of her secondary school education in Jerusalem, she took part in numerous anti-Zionist and anti-Mandate activities. In Cairo, she participated in a massive demonstration organized by university students to protest the UN Partition Resolution of 1947. Along with other Gazan women she met the stream of Palestinian refugees coming from towns and villages occupied by Israeli forces during the 1948 war, provided them with basic services, taught refugee girls in tents, and took part in the national effort and in demonstrations protesting the scheme, advocated by Israel, to resettle the Palestinian refugees outside Palestine, in the Sinai. She participated in protests of the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip in 1956.
She was prominent in the field of sports, taking part in several Arab and international table-tennis tournaments, a sport she mastered. She worked as an administrative official in the Palestine girls’ table tennis team.
In the autumn of 1963 she joined Dr. Haydar Abd al-Shafi and Ibrahim Abu Sitta on the first Palestinian delegation to visit the United Nations and was chosen as a member of the First Palestine National Council, held in Jerusalem in May 1964, at which the Palestine Liberation Organization was established.
She played a prominent role in establishing the Women’s Union of Gaza in 1964 and was elected its president; she attached a workshop for weaving and embroidery. She led the Gaza women’s delegation to the conference which founded the General Union of Palestinian Women, held in Jerusalem in 1965.
When Israel occupied the Gaza Strip for the second time in June 1967, Yusra al-Barbari was the first person to arrive at the homes of political detainees and to offer aid to their families in the name of the Women’s Union. Because of her activities against the occupation, the Israeli authorities in 1974 prevented her from traveling for several years.
She became the executive secretary of the Gaza Red Crescent Society which was set up in 1969 and started its operations in 1972, and then a member of its board of directors. She was also a member of the Veterans’ Society and the Society for the Disabled in the Gaza Strip. In 2005, the Palestine Consultative Council of the Swiss group “League of 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize” (1000 Femmes pour le Prix Nobel de la Paix) nominated her as one of eight Palestinian women candidates for the award. The Swiss initiative aimed to draw attention to the role played by women in all spheres of life and in bolstering peace in their societies.
Yusra al-Barbari died in Gaza and was given a solemn funeral. She was buried in the Martyrs Cemetery east of Gaza City. Her death was officially announced by President Mahmoud Abbas and the Executive Committee of the PLO. A memorial service for her was held on 24 June 2009 at the Rashad al-Shawwa Cultural Center in Gaza city, attended by many prominent national figures. When pioneering Palestinian women were singled out to be honored at the opening of the fifth congress of the General Union of Palestinian Women on 21 May 2009, she was honored by receiving the Star of Jerusalem Medal, where the citation read: “In appreciation of her exceptional contributions and her early and distinctive participation in the national and educational struggle.”
دراغمة، عزت. “الحركة النسائية في فلسطين (1903-1990)”. القدس: مكتب ضياء للدراسات، 1991.
طوبي، أسمى. “عبير ومجد”. بيروت: مطبعة قلفاط، ط 1، 1966.
عبد الهادي، فيحاء. “يسرى إبراهيم البربري: باقية في ذاكرة الشعب الجماعية”. “الأيام” (رام الله)، 31 أيار/ مايو 2009:
الفراني، عبد الحميد جمال وعوني محمد العلوي. “أعلام النساء الفلسطينيات”. بيروت: دار العلوم العربية، 2013.
فيصل، نعمان. “أعلام من جيل الرواد من غزة هاشم منذ أواخر العهد العثماني وحتى القرن العشرين”. غزة: مكتبة اليازجي، 2010.
النحال زعرب، امتياز. “فلسطينيات: وجوه نسائية فلسطينية معاصرة”. غزة: دار المقداد للطباعة، ط1، 2013.
نصّار، إبراهيم (تحرير). “نساء من بلادي”. رام الله: طاقم شؤون المرأة، د. ت.
Abdul Hadi, Mahdi, ed. Palestinian Personalities: A Biographic Dictionary. 2nd ed., revised and updated. Jerusalem: Passia Publication, 2006.
Birth1903, JERUSALEM, PALESTINE
Death13 MAY 1992, JERUSALEM
Zulaykha al-Shihabi was born in Jerusalem. Her father was Ishaq Abd al-Qadir al-Shihabi, and her mother was Zainab al-Muhtadi. She had two brothers, Subhi and Jamil, and two sisters, Rasmiyya and Rifqa.
She was educated at the Notre Dame de Sion school. Her father (unlike most fathers at the turn of the century) insisted on sending his daughters to school to learn the sciences and languages, and Zulaykha was among the top students in her class.
From an early age she became conscious of the dangers of Zionism. She had been raised in a family with deep roots in Jerusalem, and she learned the history of her city since its earliest Arab Islamic days. She in turn conveyed to her classmates what she had heard from her parents.
She joined the nationalist struggle during the turmoil that followed the al-Buraq rebellion. She was present at the Palestine Arab Women Congress, which was held in Jerusalem in October 1929, was the first women’s political meeting at the national level, and was attended by some three hundred women, to discuss the political situation. The meeting then issued a memorandum setting out the reasons behind the rebellion and the demands of the people. She was elected as a member of the delegation that presented the memorandum to the High Commissioner. Matiel Mughannam gave a short speech in English; Tarab Abd al-Hadi gave a speech in Arabic. When the delegation returned to the meeting, a massive demonstration by women broke out, with some one hundred cars driving through the streets of Jerusalem and shouting thunderous slogans, amidst enormous popular enthusiasm.
She cofounded the Arab Women Society in Jerusalem as a follow-up to the resolutions of the 1929 meeting. Similar women societies were founded in most cities; some went by the name Arab Women’s Committees.
She worked with Milia al-Sakakini in a voluntary and free campaign to teach young girls basic reading and writing skills, and she founded al-Dawha School, which became well known for the education and health care it provided young girls.
Through the Arab Women’s Committees she played a prominent role during the General Strike and the Great Arab Revolt (1936–39). It was her idea to organize a large audience to attend the trials of rebels to raise their morale and to show the authorities that the people were behind their heroes.
She was a prominent member of the twenty-seven member delegation of Palestinian women that took part in the Eastern Women Congress in Cairo at the invitation of Huda Sha‘rawi, the Egyptian feminist leader, for the purpose of supporting the cause of Palestine. The conference convened in Cairo in October 1938 and included a very large number of Arab women who were pioneers in the social and national fields. Palestine was the focal point of that First inter-Arab women congress. Shihabi delivered her speech in the name of the Women Society of Jerusalem and spoke of the history of the problem and of British policy. When the congress came to elect deputies from each delegation, Shihabi and Wahida al-Khalidi were elected from the Palestinian delegation. At the end of the congress, she was invited to deliver a speech in the name of Palestine; she thanked everyone and ended with these words: “We return convinced that the people of Palestine are not alone as they wage their sacred struggle to save their homeland.”
Returning to Jerusalem she proceeded to implement Huda Sha‘rawi’s recommendation to unify Arab women’s activities under a single name, the Arab Women’s Union. So she announced the dissolution of the Arab Women’s Society in Jerusalem and the creation of the Palestinian Arab Women’s Union.
In heath and social welfare matters, her most notable achievement was to create, through the Women’s Union, a first-aid field committee charged with treating the wounded. She also created a clinic to treat the destitute, provide free inoculation against infectious diseases, and care for pregnant women and childcare; she also took part in securing shelters for orphans. The union defrayed the cost of educating tens of orphans in Dar al-aytam al-Islamiyya. In Jericho, she founded a winter resort for convalescence and a home for destitute women. People remember her as a woman who used to visit prisons and detention camps to encourage rather than console prisoners, carrying with her symbolic presents for political detainees to let them know that the people supported them.
She showed a special interest in sports. Under her supervision the union established a sports club with its own executive committee, its own sports program, and a large playing field. When the union held its conference on 16 July 1946, attended by a large number of Arab women from various Arab capitals, the flags of their countries were displayed on the sidelines of the playing field.
In the 1940s, she intensified the union’s activities in the cultural domain and sent out invitations to writers and artists to give lectures on scientific and national themes and to discuss cultural issues.
The secret of her success was that she did not rely solely on voluntary contributions but on productive work as well. Thus, the union from the very beginning bought several plots of land planted with vines or fruit trees and presented these plots to families of martyrs who would then care for the land and live off its produce. So too with women. The union taught them needlework and weaving in order to provide them with an income. The most notable decision was to teach young girls the art of flower making; they began to create artificial flowers. Shihabi herself would happily join them in their work and would join them also as they manufactured beauty creams. The union frequently organized charitable markets to sell its diverse products and spend the proceeds on charitable projects.
After the Nakba she redoubled her activities. Jerusalem remained her primary residence, but she frequently traveled to Amman. In 1959 she added to her other responsibilities the presidency of the Union of Charitable Societies in the Jerusalem District.
She travelled extensively, attending Arab and international women’s conferences, and visited both Britain and Russia in addition to many Arab capitals. She was an ideal representative of the Palestinian woman and the most eloquent in explaining the Palestine cause in public forums.
As an elected member of the executive of the General Union of Arab Women, she attended the meetings of the union as well as conferences devoted to women’s issues in Beirut, Cairo, and Jerusalem. She was a prominent female member of the First Palestine National Congress, from which emerged the PLO on 28 May 1964. As president of the Jerusalem women’s union she sought to popularize the idea of creating a general union of Palestinian women.
On 20 February 1965, she organized a general meeting in Jerusalem of representatives of women’s unions in Palestinian cities to prepare for a general conference to include Palestinian women both in Palestine and the diaspora and with the object of creating a broad framework to be called the General Union of Palestinian Women. As chairwoman of the preparatory committee, she oversaw the convening of the Palestinian Women’s Congress in July 1965 in Jerusalem. This was attended by 174 members, and the PLO Department of Popular Organizations contributed to the creation of the Union on the constitutional, organizational, and administrative levels. The union then came into existence.
After Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967, Shihabi was one of the first figures it deported to Jordan. However, the intervention of several states and the United Nations forced Israel to allow her to return and resume her work as president of the union. She continued to work tirelessly until her death at age 89.
She died on 13 May 1992. Her funeral prayer was held at al-Aqsa Mosque and was attended by many prominent national figures.
“الحركة الوطنية الفلسطينية: 1935- 1939. يوميات أكرم زعيتر”. بيروت: مؤسسة الدراسات الفلسطينية، 1980.
خرطبيل، وديعة قدورة. “بحثاً عن الأمل والوطن: ستون عاماً من كفاح امرأة في سبيل قضية فلسطين”. بيروت: بيسان للنشر والتوزيع، 1995.
طوبي، أسمى. “عبير ومجد”. بيروت: مطبعة قلفاط، 1966.
Khalidi, Anbara Salam. Early Arab Feminism; The Life and Activism of Anbara Salam Khalidi. London: Pluto Press, 2013.
Birth9 APRIL 1944, HAIFA, PALESTINE
Leila Khaled was born in Haifa. Her father, Ali Khaled, and her mother, Jamila Lattuf, had seven girls and five boys. She and her husband, Fayiz Rashid, had two sons, Bader and Bashar.
Her family was forced to leave Haifa after the city fell to Zionist forces in April 1948, when she was barely four years old. The family settled in the Lebanese city of Tyre.
She studied at the Evangelical Union Schools in Tyre and completed her secondary education at the Sidon Girls School.
In 1959 she joined the Arab Nationalist Movement and in 1963 she enrolled at the American University of Beirut and was elected a member of the administrative committee of the General Union of Palestinian Students in Beirut. She had to leave the university after one year because her family could not afford to pay her university fees.
Between 1963 and 1969, she worked as an English teacher in government schools in Kuwait. She had joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) as soon as it was founded in December 1967.
From 1969 to 1972, Khaled took part in foreign military operations of the PFLP, which were organized by Dr. Wadi Haddad.
On 29 August 1969 she and her comrade Salim Isawi hijacked a TWA airliner; they were imprisoned in Syria for a month and a half and then released. On 6 September 1970, she was one of the hijackers of an Israeli El Al airliner and was detained for a month in Britain when the pilot landed in London. An Argentinian comrade, Patrick Arguello, was killed aboard the plane by Israeli security guards.
Between 1973 and 1977, Leila Khaled joined the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon, working either as an official of the PFLP or as a member of the Secretariat of the General Union of Palestinian Women. She was also actively involved in the assistance to the displaced and the wounded following Israeli attacks on the Palestinian refugee camps.
She had been elected a member of the Secretariat of the Women’s Union at the second conference of that union in 1974. As a union activist, she took part in several international, regional, and local conferences and in many workshops devoted to women’s affairs; she also helped to establish (in 1978) the House of the Children of Resilience to care for children of the martyrs of Tal al-Za‘atar refugee camp north of Beirut when it fell to right-wing forces during the Lebanese civil war. This facility exists to the present day.
Between 1978 and 1980, Leila Khaled studied at the universities of Moscow and Rostov but cut short her studies when the PLO summoned all university students studying abroad to help defend the Palestinian revolution. During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982, she worked (through the General Union of Palestinian Women) to find shelter for the displaced and tend to the wounded in hospitals.
In 1979, she became a member of the Palestine National Council at its fourteenth session held in Damascus; she continues to be a member of the council. In that capacity, she has been part of many Palestinian parliamentary delegations and was a member of the Arab Women Committee of the Arab Parliamentary Union.
After the exodus from Lebanon in 1982, the PFLP was reorganized, and Khaled occupied various administrative and leadership positions.
In 1986 the Palestine Women Organization was established to serve as a general framework for the PFLP, and Leila Khaled was elected first secretary. The organization worked to mobilize women to defend their rights and the rights of the Palestinian people through specially prepared programs and plans, and came to have branches in a number of Arab countries and abroad. The organization published a magazine, The Woman’s Voice, which she edited.
In 1993, she was elected a member of the Central Committee of the PFLP during its fifth national conference. In 2005 she was elected a member of the PFLP’s Political Bureau, a post she retains to the present day.
In 1992, she and her family moved to Amman, where she currently resides.
Inspired by her personal experiences of forced exile from her hometown and the suffering of her kin and nation, Leila Khaled took the struggle of Palestinian women into new and unprecedented directions. She has made notable contributions in social, humanitarian, and political areas, in the service of her cause, and in defense of basic human rights.
Abdul Hadi, Mahdi, ed. Palestinian Personalities: A Biographic Dictionary. 2nd ed., revised and updated. Jerusalem: Passia Publication, 2006.
Dietl, Gulshan. “Portrait of a Revolutionary: Leila Khaled, 20 Years on.” The Middle East, no. 171 (January 1989): 59–60.
Irving, Sarah. Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation. London: Pluto Press, 2012 (translated into Arabic).
Khaled, Leila. Women’s Liberation. Beirut: Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Information Department, 1971.
Khaled, Leila and George Hajjar. My People Shall Live: Autobiography of a Revolutionary. Toronto: NC Press, 1975.
Khaled, Leila and Rogério Ferrari. Palestine: existences-résistances. Paris: Passager Clandestin, 2008.
Snow, Peter, and David Phillips. Leilaʽs Hijack War: The True Story of 25 Days in September, 1970. London: Pan Books, 1970.
Birth1923, ANABTA, PALESTINE
Death26 FEBRUARY 1999, RAMALLAH, WEST BANK
Samiha Khalil was born in the town of Anabta. Her father was Yusuf al-Qabaj and her mother was Halima Tuqan. Her husband was Salama Khalil. She had four sons, Khalil, Saji, Samir, and Samih, and one daughter, Sa’ida.
She was educated at a private elementary school in Nablus for two years and completed her elementary education until the seventh grade in Tulkarm. Her parents then sent her to the Friends boarding school in Ramallah.
During the General Strike and the Great Rebellion her father was mayor of Anabta. He encouraged the wealthy inhabitants to donate foodstuff for distribution to the poor. With her own eyes she witnessed how British soldiers broke into her house and used their bayonets to slit the bales of rice and flour. When her father loudly protested that these bales were meant for the poor, he was violently pushed aside and he fell to the floor. The young girl never forgot that scene and also never forgot that the British killed five of her cousins during the Great Rebellion.
At age seventeen her parents decided that she should get married because she had completed the second secondary class. She married Salama Khalil from the town of al-Taybeh. Her husband worked as a teacher, later becoming a headmaster in schools in Qalqilya, al-Majdal, Gaza, and Ramallah. He supported her desire to complete her education once her children had grown up. She finished the curriculum of the last three years of secondary school in nine months and sat for the general secondary exam (the tawjihi) with her son Saji; she was more than forty years old when she enrolled in Beirut Arab University to study Arabic literature. The Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967 prevented her from travelling to sit for her final third-year exams, and so she was forced to abandon her university studies.
She had devoted herself to relief work with the refugees ever since the Nakba of 1948, and along with other women she collected money, clothes, and food. In fact she devoted her entire life to humanitarian relief and collecting funds for the destitute. In 1952 she founded the Arab Women’s Union in al-Bireh and served as its president. In 1965 she and other women established Jam‘iyyat in‘ash al-usra (the Family Revival Society) and remained its president until she died. She took part in founding the Bireh section of the General Union of Palestinian Women and attended the General Congress in Jerusalem in 1965 organized by that union. A year later she was elected secretary of the Executive Committee of the General Union and became a member of the Palestine National Council.
Samiha Khalil led demonstrations, the most notable of which was one against the Baghdad Pact in 1956. She was in the forefront of that massive women’s demonstration, which began in Ramallah and included students of the Female Teachers Training College and the women of al-Bireh. In Jerusalem, women and female students participated in the demonstration. The following day she led another demonstration, which brought together women from twenty-seven villages of the West Bank. She was reported to have stated at that time: “We killed the Baghdad Pact. We kept demonstrating until it expired.”
The 1967 catastrophe was a radical turning point in her life. She rushed to the aid of refugees, especially the villagers of the Latrun region whose villages Israel destroyed immediately after its occupation of the West Bank.
In 1973, she became a member of the command council of the Palestinian National Front in the West Bank, a political front that brought together Palestinian institutions and public figures drawn from the trade unions and political parties. In 1979, she was elected a member of the National Guidance Committee, which was the highest authority of the Palestinian people inside Palestine. She was the only woman on that committee.
The occupation authorities arrested her several times for interrogation and imprisoned her twice. In the early 1980s the Israelis placed her under house arrest for two and a half years and prevented her from travelling for twelve years. Despite these restrictions she managed to represent Palestine’s women in more than twenty congresses worldwide, and she delivered speeches and explained her country’s cause in international arenas. Her leadership role was best seen through her presidency of the General Union of Palestinian Women in occupied Palestine and her presidency of the Family Revival Society.
She would ask women to donate whatever jewelry or antiques they could spare. The proceeds from the sale of these together with food items, pastries, and sweets would be donated to children of martyrs. She could thus fulfill her four objectives: saving and educating children, putting mothers to work, enshrining the principles of volunteer work, and protecting heritage.
Samiha Khalil played a leading role in founding a popular Palestinian museum in Ramallah. This included wax figures and a model of the village of Sammu‘ and its battle.
The preservation of Palestinian popular culture was among her top priorities. Through her Family Revival Society, she founded the Committee for Social Research and Heritage in 1972 and became a member of the committee whose first published study in 1973 was entitled Qaryat Turmus ‘Ayya: dirasa fi-l turath al-sha‘bi [The Village of Turmus ‘Ayya: A Study of Popular Culture]. The following year the committee issued a journal called al-Turath wa-l mujtama‘ [Heritage and Society].
She was an honorary member of the Union of Arab Lawyers and an honorary member of the Arab Women’s Union.
She was a firm believer in total equality between men and women. She ran for the presidential elections in 1996 opposite President Yasir Arafat. She won 12 percent of the vote, thus enshrining a democratic and enlightened tradition in Palestinian political life.
She was the recipient of several awards and medals, including the Jerusalem Medal for Culture, Arts and Literature in 1991. She thus thoroughly deserved her common sobriquet: The Oak Tree of Palestine.
Samiha Khalil lived an ascetic life since the family had no income apart from her husband’s salary. But she was a careful housewife and performed all domestic duties by herself with help from her children.
Khalil published as many popular tales as she could collect in Majallat al-turath wa-l mujtama‘. She wrote zajal poetry (which spread among her intimates) and recited it on national occasions. She wrote a book of zajal called Min al-intifada ila al-dawla [From the Intifada to the State]. She also published many political and social articles in local newspapers.
She died on 26 February 1999. Her tombstone carries this inscription: “Samiha Khalil: She fought for the freedom and independence of the Palestinian people.”
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