Yearning for Mama: The Literary Representation of Feminist Identity of Palestinian Women

By Myra Wein

Probing feminine identity is important because women are a critical element of diasporic society. The definition of femininity and the role of women transforms in the process of movement into a host nation. Women are traditionally mythologized as mothers and furthermore serve as measures of chaos experienced from dispersal and become vessels of the inherent grief caused by their community’s displacement. The progression of feminist equal rights and the illustration of women as active stakeholders and sources of agency in the diaspora, is often silenced in literature. This essay will focus on an understanding of the literary representation of women in the Palestinian diaspora in Israel. Understanding the methods of women dealing with their femininity in traumatic, rapidly changing environments is central to understanding the character of the Palestinian diasporic society over time. This paper will argue that the intensification of the ‘mother’ character can be traced chronologically starting from the formative and early years of Israel’s statehood to the climatic wave of armed conflict in the 1970s and subsequent intifada resistance in recent years. The evolution of Palestinian women by the feminist equality standard has evolved in literature as the gendered role of the mother becomes more present and essential as an affective tool in literary representations of the diaspora.

A political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Yaron Ezrahi, describes women in Israel as ‘agents of the anti-epic’[1]. Ezrahi highlights that the state of Israel’s relatively short historical narrative is one deeply shaped by battles. He then raises the question that, “If a woman cannot say anything meaningful about war, can a woman say anything meaningful at all in Israel[2]?” He responds that women are the motive for the creation of defense forces and he emphasizes thaty they are the emblem of the home in which war must be fought to protect[3]. Ezrahi argues that women play a crucial role as war civilians who create a home by taking care of the domestic and emotional aspect of life under war, an unparalleled power which drives the continuity of the soldiers to engage in the armed conflict[4]. In this paper, this same school of thought of women as motherly caretakers and symbols of home, can be extended to the literary representations of Palestinian women examined therein. Palestinian women too are expected in the subsequent short story and poem to maintain a point of grounding in their diasporic settings to support the ideological and armed soldiers of the Palestinian diaspora in their quest to go back or regain their idea of home.

The first period in examination is the formative years of Israeli statehood (1940s-1960s), in which a majority of the initial expulsion and scattering of the Palestinians took place. The earliest and most relevant evidence of the strengthening of the matriarchal role in literature on the Palestinian diaspora began to take shape in this period. The Arabic-language short story The Land of Sad Oranges is an excellent point of departure and an illustrious, well-known example of Palestinian diasporic literature during this time period. The author Ghassan Kanafani is a male Palestinian, born in pre-Israel state Palestine, and was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It is important to bring biographical attention to the writer because their historical context and their predisposition is critical to the content of literature, especially in diaspora/refugee-based texts. Written in 1958, The Land of Sad Oranges is a short story about a Palestinian family fleeing leaving behind their legacy and life: an orange farm. The story follows this family’s journey to Lebanon and of learning their new lives as refugees[5]. Breaking the literary fourth wall, the reader discovers that the father, ‘your father’, suffers traumatic stress from the expulsion. This ultimately leads to his mental breakdown with a gun forcing the children, including the reader, to run away[6].

The important literary archetype of women as mothers, beyond a biological sense, begin to emerge in this work. Kanafani uses a very compelling dialogue style of writing in his stories, especially in The Land of Sad Oranges. Though it was very useful in initiating the emergence of the mother character and emphasizing her crucial role in the status of women and the diaspora, this captivating style of writing was not unique to Kanafani and other Palestinian diasporic writers at the time. In his essay on Arabic prose from 1948-1967, Edward Said argues that literature became sociopolitical evidence of the sustained tension between the past and the future of the dispersed people[7]. He notes that popular literary devices of Arabic writing included a more involved, ‘spectating’ writer, and the use of repetition[8]. Another characteristic he highlights in this period’s canon of text is of the development and differentiation of local versus transregional identity reflected in the actors, settings, and the climax of events in the text[9]. Additionally, Said describes that prose in this period commonly included a nod to the implications faced by all Arabs from ‘the disaster’ of the Palestinian exile[10]. From this analysis, it appears that Kanafani’s short story follows the common narrative procedure of prose at this point in literary history and thus his contribution to the intensification of the mother character is quite exemplary and innovative. Considering the inherent limitations of this inclusionary style, Kanafani’s narration was able to still involve the experience of a woman in his story without being a woman himself.

The mother, who in this inclusionary style of writing also refers to the reader’s ‘mother’, plays the role of protector and defender against both new external and internal dangers implicated by their exile. At the very beginning of the story, the reader is introduced to the mother right away in a chaotic scene in which the physical process of dispersal and exile from the land for this Palestinian family begins. The narrator observes, “I was standing leaning against the ancient wall of the house when I saw your mother climb into the lorry, followed by your aunt and the children[11].” The depiction of the mother being the first person into the lorry which would bring the family to Lebanon is very important because it represents a fearlessness the Palestinian mother takes on in this time of crisis. The mother accepts the fate of the situation and shows no active resistance in taking whatever action necessary to protect her family. After a series of descriptions of the declining mental state of the father who vividly struggles with his displacement, a very poignant episode of his stress emerges. Subsequently the narrator observes, “Your mother had understood everything in an instant and, caught up in the agitation that mothers feel when their children are exposed to danger, she set about pushing us out of the room and telling us to run away to the mountain[12].” In this part of the story, the mother evolves even further in her self-sacrificial tendencies. The Palestinian woman is highly aware of her surrounding situation despite her own feelings of grief and insecurity she may feel herself and yet she ensures the security of the children first and foremost. By the end of Kanafani’s story, the narrator and audience returns after the episode to a strange tension. The narrator notes, “Your mother was choking back the tears of a tragedy that has not left her eyes till now[13].” This literary illustration of the mother’s current state drives home this evolution of the mother overcoming a limited, traditional role as a biological and domestic stakeholder in the diasporic family. The mother shows an unmatched strength and determination to restrain her true intimate grief of displacement for the sake of holding the mental fort down for the rest of the family. The character of the Palestinian mother is like a military leader who minimizes the showing of their own feelings of fear for the sake of the soldiers’ integrity.

The next period of literary representation of Palestinian women came during the rise of armed resistance from the 1970s till present in Israel. Women, still serving as mothers to the diaspora, are given more voice in literature and become the story tellers too. Rafeef Ziadah’s English-language poem, We Teach Life Sir serves as the main source of departure for understanding the transformation of Palestinian feminine identity in diasporic literature in this period. Ziadah is a young Palestinian woman, born outside of Palestine almost forty years after the establishment of the State of Israel. This writer is a part of the subsequent generations born outside the homeland, who have never even seen or been in the homeland, yet inherit refugee status at birth. Written in the early 2000’s, this poem catapulted Ziadah’s fame and exemplifies this coming movement of Palestinians, especially women, being raised and educated outside of Palestine and advocating for what the movement demands as an end to the occupation of Palestine.

Ziadah’s poem is a retelling of a media situation the writer faced after being posed a provocative question by a reporter about the state of the Palestinian people and their children. Ziadah recounts, “But still, he asked me, Ms. Ziadah, don’t you think that everything would be resolved if you would just stop teaching so much hatred to your children[14]?” Firstly, this question bestows a responsibility of parenthood onto the young female poet, despite the reality of her not having any biological children at this point and furthermore biological children who live in the disputed territory and conflict zone to which Ziadah defends but does not and has not ever resided in. The narrator in this poem is charged with parenthood by the virtue of her femininity. This one line can be taken further, with the other underlying assumption and depiction of mothers as having agency in the education of the children. The central prose and question claims that the Palestinian women, as a mother has the ultimate or at least a significant obligation of power to educate future generations in ways that will determine regional peace and eventually the overall improvement of the diaspora. The poem’s refutation of this assumption by repeatedly claiming, “We teach life sir,” demonstrates that the poet, as a Palestinian woman, accepts these calls to responsibility over the children and their education. The poem’s use of this supposition as a basis to highlight an overarching bias the Palestinian liberation movement and its refugees face in Western media, represents a new intensified consent to the representations of diasporic Palestinians and their family roles, especially of the parent and mother. Furthermore, this central part of her prose exemplifies the emerging, advantageous motherly instinct which modern diasporic writers utilize to convey affect. Near the end of her poem Ziadah writes, “I wish I could just run barefoot in every refugee camp and hold every child, cover their ears so they wouldn’t have to hear the sound of bombing for the rest of their life the way I do[15].” The poet uses adjectives and actions commonly associated with motherly affection to draw sympathy and emotion from the audience, inviting them to empathetically put themselves in the stressful shoes of the mother-protector of the Palestinians and to remind the audience of the inherent innocence of these young displaced people. Ziadah’s poem attempts to restore the sense of humanity that is seemingly lost as reflected in the reporter’s question, to remind the world that Palestinian children are children first, before any sort of politicization or media interpretation. The archetype of mother becomes any person defending and maintaining the diaspora’s right to existence by ideological and social means.

The overarching perception of women as representatives of the nation and mothers of the collective is furthered by the evolving Arab-Israeli conflict itself according to Hanna Herzog. In her essay Women in Israeli Society, she highlights the shared traditional patriarchal roots the Jewish and Palestinian women share[16]. Additionally she shares how both groups of women converge in their struggle in unending war. Paradoxically Herzog says that the cooperation between Palestinian and Jewish women is ultimately reduced by the intifadas and wars[17]. Ebba Augustin writes that the intifada resistance movements which began gaining ground in the 1970s, sparked the rebirth and branching off of already existing Palestinian women organizations[18]. Starting in the 1920s as women anti-colonial groups, these women organizations transformed into anti-Zionism based movements in 1948, later progressing into women labour associations. The final formation as armed resistance activists is the most radical according to Augustin[19]. From their roots to their current manifestation, these activists faced both internal and external issues, dealing with the internal resentment from their breaking of social norms and struggling with the rapid influx of Jewish settlers who forced them out of their homes[20]. Women emerging as fighters for the Palestinian diaspora in literature is backed by this historical lineage of activism.

A gendered divided lens is no stranger to diasporas and their depictions in literature. Familial order and roles becomes one of the first areas of change and rupture in exile and migration. The dependency on these roles, especially of the female mother, evolves from the nuclear family definition of responsibilities during times of deep restraint caused by exile and dispersion. The Palestinian women as mothers are agencies of strength for the transition into diasporic life and legitimize the efforts of resistance to occupation and exile. The literary depictions of the Palestinian mothers have intensified as important voices of the diaspora that emerges from the creation of the state of Israel. Their transition from leading roles as characters in literature like in Kanafani’s short story to becoming the narrator themselves like in Ziadah’s powerful poem, coincides with the changing situation of the diaspora’s state of oppression. To feminist theory standards, the automatic portrayal and connection of Palestinian women as mothers is not ideal to the progression of equal rights and opportunities of men, but there is still something to say of the intensifying depictions of strong mothers who increasingly have more voice and agency in maintaining the sanity of the diaspora and its will to survive. In the absence of the homeland, the Palestinian women as mothers give the dispersed Palestinians something to live for.


[1] Yaron Ezrahi, Rubber Bullets University of California Press: 1997. p.235

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid p.236

[5] Ghassan Kanafani, The Land of Sad Oranges. Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc.: 1999. p.75

[6] Ibid p.80

[7] Edward Said, “Arabic Prose” in Reflections on Exile. Harvard University Press: 2000 p.56

[8] Ibid p.50-51

[9] Ibid p.53

[10] Ibid p.60

[11] Ibid p.75

[12] Ibid p.79

[13] Ibid p.80

[14] Rafeef Ziadah, We Teach Life Sir.

[15] Ibid

[16] Hanna Herzog, “Women in Israeli Society” in Jews in Israel, edited by Uzi Rebhun and Chaim Waxman. University Press of New England: 2004. p.200

[17] Ibid p.217

[18] Ebba Augustin, Palestinian Women: Identity and Experience. Zed Books: 1993 p.22

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid p.23


Augustin, Ebba. Palestinian Women: Identity and Experience. Zed Books: 1993.

Ezrahi, Yaron. Rubber Bullets: Power and Conscience in Modern Israel. University of California Press: 1997. P.235-266

Garfinkle, Adam. “Relations with the Diaspora” in Politics and Society in Modern Israel: Myths  and Realities. M.E. Sharpe: 2000. p.145-153.

Herzog, Hanna. “Women in Israeli Society” in Jews in Israel: Contemporary Social and Cultural Patterns, edited by Uzi Rebhun and Chaim Waxman. University Press of New England: 2004. p.195-220.

Kanafani, Ghassan. The Land of Sad Oranges. Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc.: 1999.

Palestinian Women in Gaza and the West Bank, edited by Suha Sabbagh. Indian University Press: 1998.

Said, Edward. “Arabic Prose and Prose Fiction After 1948” in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Harvard University Press: 2000.

Ziadah, Rafeef. We Teach Life Sir.

– – – – – –

Myra Wein PictureMyra Lisselle Wein is a fourth year, Trinity College student wrapping up her undergraduate degree with a major in Diaspora and Transnational Studies and minors in Canadian Studies and Political Science. Acting as Vice-President of the Canadian Studies Student Union in charge of Academic Affairs and as Treasurer for the Jewish Studies Student Union from 2015-2016, Myra is an active student in both social and educational leadership in the Faculty of Arts and Science. In 2014 and 2015, Myra was invited to present at the Canadian Studies Undergraduate Conferences, was a participant in Women in house 2016, and a member of the DTS journal team.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s