Maha Abu Dayyeh (b. 1951 in Jerusalem) cofounded and served as the general director of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling (WCLAC), a center dedicated to promoting the social and legal status of Palestinian women. A tireless women’s and human rights activist and pioneering feminist, she was recognized across the world for her work and vision.
Maha Abu Dayyeh
Childhood and Upbringing
Maha Abu Dayyeh was born in Jerusalem on August 24, 1951, to Christian Palestinians Emile and Wedad Abu Dayyeh. She was the third of four siblings.
Family history might help explain the later success of the Abu Dayyeh children. Their mother, Wedad (Umm Hani), was originally from Beit Jala and had a particularly inspiring role in their lives. She was 15 years old when she married 32-year-old Emile in 1941. She had wanted to pursue her education, but she eventually agreed to get married on the condition that she live and work in Jerusalem. Perhaps even more surprising than a 15-year-old who had the vision to know how she wanted to live and the courage to place conditions on a grown man was the fact that her terms were accepted.
The newlyweds settled in the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem. However, the 1948 War soon broke out, and the couple, by that time with two small children, were forced to flee their home in Musrara—in what later became West Jerusalem.
After some instability in their living arrangements as they lived in Beit Jala and then Jericho, the family (which by then included four children) managed to go back to Jerusalem. With the help of the Lutheran World Federation, they rented a room on the Mount of Olives. With hard work and creativity, the couple turned their modest dwelling into a small tourism business. Using an old typewriter given to her, Wedad (now referred to as Umm Hani, or the Mother of Hani, her firstborn son, as is customary) helped her husband organize tours and book hotel rooms for visitors and pilgrims.
Soon enough, the couple’s work became so successful that they opened a small office on al-Zahra Street in East Jerusalem. This enterprise, which they called the Near East Tourist Agency (NET) (founded 1964), eventually became a leading tourism and pilgrimage business in the region. It is still successfully run by the family. The Abu Dayyeh sons are prominent figures in Jerusalem’s tourism sector today.
Maha Abu Dayyeh grew up watching her parents as they worked tirelessly to transform their lives. Whenever discussing her development as a feminist activist and thinker, Maha Abu Dayyeh cited her mother as her source of inspiration. Umm Hani not only inspired her daughter, but she became a role model in society; she often encouraged female students to excel in their studies and take on professional careers. In 2019, Bethlehem University dedicated an annual award for Academic Excellence in Hotel Management and Tourism in the name of Wedad Abu Dayyeh.
Education and Early Career
Growing up in Jerusalem, Maha Abu Dayyeh attended Schmidt’s Girls College and graduated from high school in 1969. She then entered the University of Tennessee and went on to receive her BA in English and History there in 1973.
Upon her graduation, she worked in education. She taught English at the Ramallah Women’s Training College. Soon after, she pursued her master’s degree from Columbia University and proceeded to teach English Language at Birzeit University. During this time, Maha Abu Dayyeh married Charles Shamas, who cofounded al-Haq, a leading Palestinian human rights organization; he also founded Mattin, an industry promotion organization in the occupied West Bank. Maha Abu Dayyeh and Charles Shamas had two children, a boy, Raja, and a girl, Diala.
In the late 1980s, Maha Abu Dayyeh left the university and went into the legal field. She was a staff member and then became director of the Quaker Centre for Legal Aid for Palestinian Political Prisoners. With the dedicated efforts of Maha Abu Dayyeh, the center assisted Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails, with a focus on meeting the specific needs of Palestinian women.
Maha Abu Dayyeh’s experience in the legal field qualified her to assist in offering legal and social protection for Palestinians, particularly women, whose rights were violated. She used the legal framework as a tool to reform existing policies and to create new ones to protect those rights. This strategy became a crucial element in her work at the WCLAC.
The Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling (WCLAC)
For Palestinian women, the call for gender equality has been an integral part of their work for liberation. By the end of the 1980s, several feminist formations emerged to address women’s issues and secure their rights. The aim was to build up a bold feminist movement that would fight for women’s rights through offering legal aid and counseling.
In 1991, during this historic moment in Palestine leading up to potential negotiations, a group of feminists founded the WCLAC in Jerusalem. Maha Abu Dayyeh, a cofounder, was appointed as its first general director.
The establishment of the WCLAC was timely. It was founded before the formation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994 and the first Palestinian elections in 1996. The founders understood the critical importance of including women’s rights as part of Palestine’s Declaration of Independence, and toward that end, a coalition of women’s rights organizations, including the General Union of Palestinian Women, women’s networks, the WCLAC, and other women’s centers, drafted a “Women’s Rights Document” for inclusion in the declaration. This move ensured that national liberation and women’s rights were inextricably linked, and that women’s interests and rights would be included in the Parliament’s legislative and policy agendas in the lead-up to the 1996 Palestinian elections, securing political, economic, and social rights, rights of citizenship, and personal status laws.
As Zahira Kamal notes:
It was the first time Palestinians had a legislative council, and it was Maha’s idea to create a shadow parliament: a place where women could advocate for their rights with decision makers, to say how they thought the legislative council should work and what sort of decisions they should make. It was Maha, in 1996, who made it happen.1
Maha Abu Dayyeh’s daughter, Diala Shamas, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, recalled that her mother was most proud of “her central role in conceptualizing, preparing for, and launching the Palestinian Model Parliament in the 1990s, an initiative that explored ways that Palestinian women would be able to insert their voices into the budding Palestinian national discourse in the wake of the Oslo Accords.”2 After two years of discussions of ideas on how to eliminate discrimination in law among regional committees across the occupied West Bank and Gaza, the first full PMP convened in Ramallah in 1998. Dozens of suggestions on legal improvements were proposed and vigorously debated at this pioneering forum.
Throughout more than 20 years as a feminist leader, Maha Abu Dayyeh, along with staff and supporters, built the center into a formidable organization that has been at the heart of the Palestinian women’s movement. Since its founding, the WCLAC has protected and provided guidance to Palestinian women in economically, socially, culturally, and legally difficult circumstances. The work also has moved women across Palestine closer toward social, economic, and political justice.
The WCLAC has also strived to ensure the continuity of the work of an earlier generation of feminist activists and inspired younger generations to innovate and generate methodologies that can move society to the realization of women’s liberation, as well as national liberation.
The work of the WCLAC garnered much respect. In 2005, the Welfare Association awarded it $50,000 for excellence in achievement during a ceremony in Jordan that was attended by Queen Rania of Jordan and other major political and social figures. Maha Abu Dayyeh accepted the award on behalf of the WCLAC.
Women’s Rights across Palestine
Primarily, Maha Abu Dayyeh focused on providing equal protection for Palestinians under the law and argued for a system to handle marriage, divorce, custody, inheritance, and other matters that was separate from the religious authority (sharia and ecclesiastical courts), which, together with conservative social practices, often discriminated against women. She stressed that the absence of such protections put women, especially those in abusive relationships, in a position of dependence and deterred them from leaving their situations. She spoke up against laws that kept women dependent on the approval of men and families to get an education, travel, and work.
Maha Abu Dayyeh did not live to see the publication of the book she cowrote, Palestinian Model Parliament: Towards Legislation Based on Palestinian Identity, Progressive Ideals, and Just Content (published in 2015). A piece of work that took well over two years to complete, it documents the pioneering experience of the Palestinian Model Parliament (PMP).
The primary developers of the model described the history and the complex and contradictory political dynamics leading to the event, as well as the intense backlash of opposing forces, and the betrayal of progressive bodies. The book also highlights the difficulty and unpredictability of working for fundamental societal changes and discusses the lessons learned for future activists and movement leaders.
Although the PMP did not directly achieve its goals of enforcing regulations and legislation, the initiative was a crucial step in strengthening women’s rights and promoting democratic principles toward Palestinian state-building. It also ensured that women’s rights were part of the national discourse.
Successes and Challenges
The WCLAC earned a reputation for providing legal and social services to Palestinian women, calling for democracy and equality for women, and defending, advocating, and promoting human rights in the face of the Israeli occupation.
In challenging traditional groups and seeking to ensure fundamental changes in social norms, religious authorities, and gender relations, Maha Abu Dayyeh’s commitment to raise the issues that affect women’s lives infuriated some of the parties who generally benefit from keeping women in inferior positions. There were times when Maha Abu Dayyeh’s personal safety was threatened. She also faced censure from religious courts. For example, the Islamic religious courts criticized Palestinian women’s rights activists for recommending laws to restrain and regulate polygamy, which they deemed as undermining the authority of the sharia court system.
At a 2013 benefit for the WCLAC, Gloria Steinem, the internationally recognized American feminist journalist and social political activist, lauded Maha Abu Dayyeh with these words: “There is no one on earth I would be more proud to introduce than Maha.” She went on to describe Maha Abu Dayyeh as “completely honest, devoted, and empathetic,” yet as one who “doesn’t say much about the price she pays for doing her work—and those objecting to her work.”3
In addition to her challenging work on the social level, carrying out projects under direct Israeli occupation presented daily frustrations for Maha Abu Dayyeh, especially with offices in both Ramallah and Jerusalem. Her Jerusalem office in the Palestinian neighborhood of Shu‘fat in East Jerusalem had been within walking distance of her home, but once the Separation Wall was completed, she had to cross the Qalandiya military checkpoint and roadblocks just to reach her office (see Closure and Access to Jerusalem).
Apart from the personal inconvenience, she identified the very real inhibiting effect of the Separation Wall on Palestinian women, for whom Jerusalem had become inaccessible. She expressed her dismay as well as her worry about the psychological effect that such oppressive systems have on Palestinians who are stuck between the wall and the caged buildings “in a narrow channel, like cattle”:
You know what happens with cattle: The cattle are lined up and the machine takes them one by one while they can’t move, like in a cage. The same happens to us. You cannot run away. You cannot backtrack. You cannot go left or right. You are stuck between the Wall and the other buildings. You’re in a line and whatever happens, you cannot act on your own or control your own destiny. This happens all the time.
You get the feeling that, inevitably, you are going to be destroyed, killed, stampeded, caught in the middle of a shooting, as if you are living your life in one giant, ubiquitous crossfire. You are constantly on the alert and feeling very vulnerable. To say this is a disempowering experience is an understatement. In fact, you are being choked unmercifully, cold-bloodedly.4
In early interviews, Maha Abu Dayyeh talked about her discussions with Israeli feminists about a two-state solution. She was founding commissioner of the International Women’s Commission for a Just and Sustainable Palestinian-Israeli Peace.5 In later years, however, her perspective changed. In a 2014 interview (one year before her passing), Maha Abu Dayyeh acknowledged that Palestinian and Israeli women’s attempts at dialogue were unsuccessful:
Previously, in the 1990s, I was involved in dialogue and coexistence groups with Israeli women. We believed it would be possible to speak to Zionist women but now it is different. I still believe in co-existence but I have a problem with women who belong to a group which kills and excludes others—like Zionists. So, it is up to the next generations. Now we must document our experience, I am optimistic about the young people, they know more about what is going on and are smarter than us. Their strategy will be more effective because they are better informed, more professional, but still just as political. I do not believe in depoliticization but in another form of politics because the parties are disappearing. They have lost their power and their values. Women are also thus more individualistic. The question today is how to lead all these talented young people. This is a universal problem. For that, there needs to be a clear political vision, a clear ideology.6
Civil Society Leadership and Honors and Awards
Maha Abu Dayyeh was active in Palestinian civil society and sat on the boards of prominent organizations that promote democracy and an engaged civil society. She was a board member of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees, the Jerusalem Center for Women, and the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center.
Although very rooted in Palestine, her reach extended beyond it. The distinguished writer, poet, lecturer, and community activist Dr. Faiha Abdulhadi observed that:
Although Maha’s life and work were deeply rooted in Palestinian society, she was not content to remain only at home. In the Arab region, she was instrumental in creating a space for fruitful dialogue with Arab women and activists through her membership in “SALMA,” a network against Violence against Women in the Arab World, and in “AISHA,” the Arab Women’s Forum [Arab Women’s Regional Human Rights Network]. She also was active internationally. She participated in international conferences and workshops to speak about the agony of Palestinian women and about their struggle for their political, social, and legal rights, and to assert their right to protection based on international agreements, conventions, and human rights standards. Maha used the international arena to demonstrate how Palestinian women are denied the rights and dignity that women worldwide are entitled to enjoy, very much compounded and complicated by the Israeli occupation of Palestine.7
Maha Abu Dayyeh made enormous contributions to eminent institutions worldwide. She was a member of the International Jury of the Body Shop Human Rights Award (1998–2002). She was also a long-time board member and served as president of Equality Now, an international women’s human rights organization dedicated to promoting the rights of girls and women. She served as Commissioner of the Independent Commission for Human Rights in the Palestinian Territory and was also on the global advisory committee of “Stop Rape in Conflict.” Maha Abu Dayyeh was part of the advisory group for UN Women’s global study assessing the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for the protection of women in conflict.
Additionally, Maha Abu Dayyeh was a key speaker at high-level platforms, including at the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Human Rights Watch, OXFAM, and the World Affairs Council. In her eloquent presentations, she emphasized the need to promote security, justice, and full rights for the Palestinian people.
Maha Abu Dayyeh’s work was acknowledged worldwide. In 1998, she was a recipient of the French Republic Human Rights Prize, awarded in support of projects that promote and protect human rights. In 2002, she was one of 13 women (including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi) honored as the “Ms. Women of the Year.”8
As cofounder of the International Women’s Commission for a Just and Sustainable Palestinian-Israeli Peace, Maha Abu Dayyeh was interviewed on the American television talk show Charlie Rose (PBS) in December 2007, together with cofounder Naomi Chazan. In the interview, she touched on the dangers of failed negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians and warned against the lack of concrete results, agreements, and implementation.
Death, Tributes, and Legacy
Maha Abu Dayyeh passed away on January 9, 2015, at the age of 63. She had cancer, which she had struggled with for many years. She left behind her husband and two children—Charles, Raja, and Diala Shamas.
Several women activists, including Dr. Faiha Abdulhadi, Zahira Kamal, and Reema Nazzal, wrote about Maha Abu Dayyeh’s role in raising issues concerning Palestinian women. UN Under-Secretary-General and former UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and Radhika Coomaraswamy, lead author of the “Global Study on Implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325,” issued a joint statement on behalf of UN Women describing Maha Abu Dayyeh’s passing as a great loss for women’s issues and rights on the global and Palestinian front. The statement described Maha Abu Dayyeh as “a valued member of the UN High-Level Advisory Group of the Global Study on Implementation of Security Council resolution 1325” and credited her with helping to shape the study.9 The statement went on to say:
A remarkable woman, Ms. Abu-Dayyeh’s ceaseless work and unwavering commitment to advance women’s rights globally have inspired all of us who are working for this same goal to reach ever higher, and to realize ever more tangible results.
In the preface to Gendered Lives: Interpersonal Perspectives, authors Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey described Maha Abu Dayyeh as a “visionary feminist and human rights defender, who dedicated her life to the liberation of Palestine and Palestinian women.”10
On a more personal note, in a tribute to her mother penned in This Week in Palestine, Diala Shamas recalled:
Perhaps most importantly, Maha never lost sight of the individuals, the clients, and the countless women and men for whom she felt a sense of fierce protectiveness that I so often benefited from as her daughter. Many dinners were interrupted as my mother would get a phone call to troubleshoot a particularly difficult or urgent case at the center—calmly and skillfully handling the complicated dance between the Palestinian and Israeli authorities and complex familial and societal dynamics to ensure that the woman was best served. Twenty years into doing this work, she never lost her outrage or her compassion. She never got used to the stories she heard.11
Maha Abu Dayyeh’s funeral in Jerusalem on January 10, 2015, at the Augusta Victoria Chapel on the Mount of Olives, was attended by hundreds of people. Several TV and radio stations dedicated programs in her memory, and short documentaries were made about her life and work (see Sources list).
One month after her death, the WCLAC organized a celebration of her life at the Ramallah Cultural Palace to commemorate her work. The event was attended by hundreds of people, including key figures who described the enduring significance of her work.
Several women leaders drew attention to Maha Abu Dayyeh’s work in mentoring and helping young women assume prestigious and significant leadership roles in Palestinian society.
Randa Siniora, current general director of the WCLAC, recalls that Maha Abu Dayyeh once told her: “It is only with strong women that I truly want to work. Strong women don’t intimidate me; they further empower me.”12
Abu Dayyeh, Maha, Sama Fayez Aweidah, Taghreed Ibrahim Duaibes, Reema Nazzal, and Randa Siniora. Palestinian Model Parliament: Towards Legislation Based on Palestinian Identity, Progressive Ideals, and Just Content. Jerusalem: Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, 2015.
Abdulhadi, Faiha. "Maha Abu Dayyeh: A life of Dedication.” The Feminist Wire. February 17, 2015.
Adalah. “The Welfare Association Awards a Prize for Excellence in Achievement to Adalah.” May 10, 2005.
Bahdi, Reem. “Security Council Resolution 1325: Practice and Prospects.” Refuge: Canada’s Periodical on Refugees 21, no. 2 (2003): 41–51.
Chasan, Naomi. “A True Partner.” The Times of Israel. January 19, 2015.
Cîrstocea, Ioana, Delphine Lacombe, and Elisabeth Marteu. The Globalization of Gender: Knowledge, Mobilizations, Frameworks of Action. Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2021.
Donor Direct Action. “In Memoriam: Maha Abu Dayyeh (24 August 1951 – 9 January 2015).” January 9, 2015.
Feminist Majority Foundation. “Ms. Honors 2002 Women of the Year.” December 9, 2002.
Human Rights Watch. “A Question of Security: Violence against Palestinian Women and Girls.” November 6, 2006.
International Civil Society Action Network. “In Memoriam: WCLAC Executive Director Maha Abu-Dayyeh.” January 12, 2015.
Johnson, Penny, and Diala Shamas. “Um Hani: To Live and Work in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem Quarterly 73 (Spring 2018): 117–23.
Kamal, Zahira. “Legacy of Strength: Saying Goodbye to Palestinian Feminist, Maha Abu-Dayyeh.” Middle East Eye. February 13, 2015.
Kirk, Gwyn, and Margo Okazawa-Rey. “Preface.” In Gendered Lives: Interpersonal Perspectives, 7th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 00–00.
Ma‘an. “Women’s Center Organizes an Event in Commemoration of Maha Abu Dayyeh.” [In Arabic.] February 11, 2015.
Norwegian Refugee Council. “Realities from the Ground: Women’s Housing, Land and Property Rights in the Gaza Strip.” Research Report. October 15, 2013.
Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture. “Human Rights versus Security Rights.” July 8, 2003.
Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. “Shamas, Maha Abu Dayyeh 1851–.” Accessed May 20, 2022.
al-Quds Newspaper. “A Month after Her Passing … Who Is Maha Abu Dayyeh?” [In Arabic.] February 10, 2015.
Rose, Charlie. Women for Palestinian-Israeli Peace. December 31, 2007.
Scheindlin, Dahlia. “Palestinian Women’s Model Parliament.” Middle East Review of International Affairs 2, no. 3 (September 1998).
Shammas, Diala. “A Tribute to Maha Abu Dayyeh.” This Week in Palestine, no. 186 (2015): 50–51.
United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. “Human Rights Council Holds Annual Full-Day Discussion on Women’s Human Rights.” June 4, 2009.
UN Women. “Joint Statement on the Passing of Maha Abu Dayyeh.” January 16, 2015.
van Teeffelen, Toine. “Maha Abu Dayyeh: The Writing on the Wall” (Interview). Miftah. January 26, 2005.
Watan News Agency. “Feminist Activists Remember the Late Maha Abu Dayyeh.” [In Arabic.] February 10, 2015.
Watan News Agency. “Palestinians – Shedding Light on the Life of the Fighter Maha Abu Dayyeh.” [In Arabic.] January 14, 2015.
Wilson Center. “Fresh Ideas, New Perspectives: Israel-Palestinian Dialogues Led by Women.” May 5, 2006.
Women’s Media Center. “Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas.” Accessed May 27, 2022.
World Affairs: Conversations That Matter. “Speakers.” Accessed June 1, 2022.
YWCA of Palestine. “Women’s Freedom, Peace and Dignity in Palestine: UNSCR1325 for Accountability.” 2014.
Zahira Kamal, “Legacy of Strength: Saying Goodbye to Palestinian Feminist, Maha Abu-Dayyeh,” Middle East Eye, February 13, 2015.
Donor Direct Action, “In Memoriam: Maha Abu Dayyeh (24 August 195 — 9 January 2015),” January 9, 2015.
Wilson Center, “Fresh Ideas, New Perspectives: Israel-Palestinian Dialogues Led by Women,” May 5, 2006.
Ioana Cîrstocea, Delphine Lacombe, and Elisabeth Marteu, The Globalization of Gender: Knowledge, Mobilizations, Frameworks of Action (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2021).
Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey, “Preface,” in Gendered Lives: Interpersonal Perspectives, 7th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 00.
Shammas, “A Tribute.”
Randa Siniora in “Feminist Activists Remember the Late Maha Abu Dayyeh” [in Arabic], Watan News Agency, February 10, 2015.