Palestinian women at the site of the Israeli bombing in Khan Yunis, on March 5, 2024 (Photo: Abd Rahim Khativ / Flash90)

The war in Gaza has set the feminist struggle back years

Focusing on October 7, while ignoring what women in Gaza are going through, brings us back to the perception of women as the property of the man, who are tasked with avenging the dignity of patriarchy that has been trampled on.

The Palestine Project
7 min readMar 26, 2024


By Samah Salaime • Translated by Sol Salbe

This year I did not mark International Women’s Day. I don’t have celebratory posts about trailblazing women, women of the year, or feminist superheroes that I wanted the whole world to hear about. Instead, on the eve of IWD, we all went back to October 7, after the United Nations released a report on sexual violence against women.

The report focuses largely on evidence of sexual crimes committed against Israeli women in the bloody October attack. The UN mission noted that it had not heard any direct testimony from a victim, but reviewed and investigated evidence and information collected by Israeli authorities and experts. Part of it, which was almost completely ignored [in Israel], dealt with concerns about human rights abuses and Palestinian women in the war — without allowing UN staff to enter Gaza or meet Palestinian women.

Both the report and the responses to it in Israel proceed on the same line as what has been happening here for the past five months. From a feminist point of view, this is a serious setback. Everything to do with feminism and the struggle for women’s rights has once again been reduced to what we fought so hard to free women from: women’s bodies and sexuality have once again become a battleground in the national conflict.

For years we have worked to expand the discussion from sexual oppression of women to gender oppression — which combines both the sexual aspect, as well as the physical, social, economic and political aspects of women living in the shadow of patriarchy. We explained to the world that a woman is a complete and holistic being, which includes sexual identity, body, thoughts, behavior, education, social, familial and political status — it’s all relevant and included in the liberation movement.

We struggled to ensure that women’s security would include safeguarding women’s bodies, as well as protecting a woman’s right to shelter, food security, health, motherhood, and healthy pregnancy and childbirth. Some of us have dealt with the representation of women in the centres of power in politics and the media. Others focused on wage gaps and equal opportunity at work, access to education, and more. And we have all always agreed that the struggle against male violence or gender-based violence is persistent and ongoing, a struggle around which we are all united.

Then came October 7, and the obsessive preoccupation with rape of Israeli women took over and became a major driving force for revenge against Palestinians everywhere. The best Jewish feminists dealt with the question and worked tirelessly to prove to the world what was unfortunately clear from the outset. In turn, politicians lined up to use these sexual abuses for their own purposes. All in an attempt to restore the dignity of the Jewish male, who failed to protect the bodies of women who were supposed to be under his protection.

We regressed many years, to the unrestrained male instinct, which sees woman’s body and womb as part of his exclusive property, which gives him the task of avenging the honor of the patriarchy, which was trampled on by Hamas fighters who attacked the Gaza enveloping communities that Saturday. On the other hand, some of these armed men marked women’s bodies as a weak point, designed to humiliate and intimidate and control their victims.

I subscribe to a consistent position that sexual abuse by armed men is not committed in the name of any Palestinian woman, despite all the oppression under which she lives. I don’t want any national struggle to be waged against women’s bodies in the name of any homeland. I also expect that any man who raped, sexually abused or touched a woman against her will be dragged to prison and held accountable, absolutely. But it is very difficult for me to return the feminist struggle for women’s safety in the world to this rather limited arena in which the only valid sexual abuse is a terrible attack on women in wartime.

This irony was summed up nicely by a CNN news anchor when she noted how many Palestinian women were killed by Israeli soldiers in the war: but we still haven’t seen any of them being raped.

Don’t fall into the ancient male trap

How can you not think on International Women’s Day about the thousands of women murdered in the Gaza attacks? How did our struggle against militarism and the arming of violent men get severed from the humanitarian catastrophe that the army imposed on the women of Gaza? There are 60,000 pregnant women in Gaza, 5,000 give birth every month — they do not have the benefit of personal security, proper nutrition or health care. Mothers in Gaza are regularly saying goodbye to yet another baby killed in an attack or dying of hunger and disease.

How is it that bombing hospitals, women’s clinics and fertility laboratories and wiping out thousands of embryos is not a feminist issue that preoccupies feminists here?

Isn’t the scene of a battered women’s shelter being burned in Gaza by soldiers, who made sure to leave a memento with the words “We came to fuck you, you sluts” left on the walls, a feminist issue?

Refugees and displacement, starvation and terror are they not feminist issues?

The thousands of orphans who were left penniless, without parents, without family, without a home or a clinic or a school, and that’s before we deal with the mental state of the survivors of the attacks and shelling, is not that a feminist issue?

Don’t the testimonies of stripping, humiliation and abuse of female prisoners from Gaza assembled in detention centers also fall under the definition of abuses against women and basic human rights?

And pictures of soldiers rummaging through the intimate wardrobes of Palestinian women who were forced to flee their homes by the inferno, what section of abuse against women and their sexuality does that go into? What is that considered exactly?

Why are most of the victims in Gaza from the shelling of the world’s most moral army, which does everything possible to protect the lives of civilians who are not involved in the fighting women and children? Indeed, the proportion of children in Gaza is higher than the average in the region — this is a very young population — but the demographic explanation does not explain why women and children are more affected by the shelling.

Last week I visited the grieving home of the Abu ‘Anza family in the Naqab (Negev), where a Bedouin woman wept bitterly for her sister, who was murdered along with her daughters and grandchildren. Twenty-seven members of a family were killed in one bombardment of a building where they were hiding in Rafah, after leaving their home in Khan Yunis and moving “southwards,” as they had been told.

She said refugees prefer, for reasons of protecting the lives of women and children, as well as for modesty and conservative tradition reasons, to let women and children hide in those residential buildings that can still be inhabited, which are perceived as a safer space. Adult, and younger men are able to sleep on the street and in dilapidated tents on every corner. Therefore, she said, shelling residential buildings kills more women and children than men. She described to me two rooms where 20 women and their children stayed; altogether about 100 people, while the men stayed outside. And one bomb kills them all.

By the way, these days religious women will always be found wearing the traditional prayer attire, even while sleeping, because they don’t know whether they will have to flee to the street again or whether they will die from a bomb at night, and they want their bodies to be found modest even under the rubble.

This war began with a shocking attack on humanity, which harmed many women and children, and left abductees, who we all hope will soon return to their families safely. It has continued for over five months, during which we witness daily the atrocities to which Palestinian women in Gaza are subjected to.

In recent weeks, there have been stories of mothers looking for something to feed their hungry children, women who have abortions or get their periods in refugee camps without access to basic hygiene products, and other feminist issues that should occupy us all, Palestinian and Israeli women. We must never again fall into the ancient male trap in which we play the role of weak, helpless, vulnerable and frightened women, who stand behind brave armed soldiers, who replaced the white horse with an armored tank, and who are supposed to protect us from any violent rapist around.

But not everything is dark and hopeless. I am proud to be part of a collective of radical feminist women, Arab and Jewish, who are conducting this courageous discourse about women and war, dark militarism versus enlightened and inclusive feminism. I see in many places circles of women who are willing and daring to talk about the horrors that women in Gaza are going through, and in the same breath do not give up on the 19 women abductees and do not forget the Israeli victims of October 7.

I see social workers and psychologists coming together to talk about the trauma, loss of parents and the situation of children in Gaza; And countless small initiatives of flashes of healthy humanity, of feminism based on compassion, empathy, solidarity and sisterhood, and of less celebrations on IWD of the armed woman soldier or the woman tank commander, who is destroying the lives of Palestinian women.