Zahira Kamal (b. 1945 in Jerusalem) is a Jerusalemite educator, warrior for women’s rights, and trailblazing political leader and activist. She was the first female leader of a Palestinian political party, and she served as the Minister of Women’s Affairs from 2003 to 2006 in the Palestinian Authority (PA). She has been instrumental in promoting women’s legal and employment rights, and she founded or cofounded several women-led NGOs, including several major ones in Jerusalem. She is now retired.
Kamal’s family has lived in Jerusalem since the 12th century. She is the eldest of eight siblings and grew up in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi al-Joz. In 1948, thousands of Palestinian refugees from what became West Jerusalem fled to the eastern part of the city, which had a profound impact on Kamal and shaped her politics from a young age (see The West Side Story).
Kamal’s commitment to equality for women began at a young age, too. When she graduated from high school, she learned that her family’s life savings would be used to educate her younger brothers. Enraged by the injustice, Kamal threatened to go on a one-woman hunger strike. Not long after that, her father agreed to let her attend university in Cairo.
Education and Early Career
In 1968, Kamal received her BSc in physics from the Ain Shams University in Cairo. She returned to Jerusalem and was hired as a science instructor at the Women’s Teacher Training College in Ramallah. She worked there for 21 years, from 1968 to 1989, while building her career in politics. In 1978, Kamal received her diploma in teaching methodology from the University of Jordan.
From 1976 to 1980, Kamal served as a board member for the Employees’ Club in Jerusalem. From 1978 to 1988, she served on the Board of In‘ash al-Usra Association (the Family Revival Society), an organization that promotes social assistance and women’s empowerment. Its services included offering annual scholarships to Palestinian universities across all studying fields, as well as further training in a variety of sectors. Kamal also served on the Board of the Graduates’ Club in Ramallah from 1980 to 1984.
Kamal was a leading force in the Palestinian feminist movement. In 1978, she founded the Palestinian Federation of Women’s Action Committees (PFWAC) and served as its chairwoman until 1992. PFWAC was the first women-led union in Palestine, and led efforts to improve conditions of female workers in the West Bank. Under Kamal’s leadership, the PFWAC mobilized women to enroll in trade unions, circumventing traditionalism by setting up union centers in the homes of PFWAC leaders. According to Birzeit University professor Sumaya Farhat-Naser, “Such activities were socially acceptable; they raised women’s consciousness and helped them break the social barriers without provoking men or families.”1
Kamal focused on mobilizing the masses of women who lived outside the urban areas of Bethlehem and Ramallah to join unions. These women were often uneducated and illiterate, so to understand their struggles better, Kamal persuaded members of PFWAC to travel to periphery areas and learn about the issues women face in camps and villages across the West Bank.
Kamal’s grassroots activism made long-lasting impressions on her feminist allies. This work introduced feminism to Palestine’s national consciousness, improved the social and economic status of women, and included such discourse in the Palestinian liberation movement. Islah Jad, cofounder and current director of the Institute for Women’s Studies at Birzeit University in the West Bank, observed,
The committees represented a school for women. Although they never really developed a social platform, it was a means to achieve political mobilization of the masses. Women became politicized, as they gained self-confidence, speaking ability and a feeling of control over their own lives.2
Town Arrest and Political Career
In 1979, Israel placed Kamal under town arrest (i.e. banned her from leaving town borders) for around six months because she had protested the Camp David Accords Israel had signed with Egypt in September 1978 and established the PFWAC. She was further detained from 1980 to 1986 in what Israel labeled “preventative imprisonment”; it was the longest time any woman has been detained before or since. She later observed: “It was a time of nationalism, Arab nationalism. With Camp David, Egypt was trying to control the Palestinians and decide—instead of us—what was best for us. We were not part of the Camp David Accord[s]. The Palestinians are the only ones who have the right to decide their future.”[ref]
Kamal’s arrest made her even more determined to pursue a path in politics, and in 1991 she served as a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid peace conference, one of only three women to serve on the advisory committee on the Palestinian team in these negotiations (alongside Hanan Ashrawi and Suad Amiry).
In 1992, Kamal traveled to Tunis with other Palestinian activists to meet with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); the trip was not publicized, because at the time it was illegal for Palestinians in the occupied territories to have contact with members of the PLO.
In 1992, Kamal became head of the Women’s Affairs Technical Committee, a coalition that promotes participation and partnership with affiliated organizations and wider communities alongside open, multidirectional communication with the aim of eliminating all forms of discrimination against women. In the same year, Kamal became an Executive Committee member of the Palestinian Democratic Union party (FIDA), an offshoot of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine; and a founding member of the Jerusalem Link, a project that brought together the staff from two women’s organizations: the Palestinian Jerusalem Center for Women and the Israeli Daughters of Peace. (The project eventually failed because the two parties could not overcome fundamental differences on issues of normalization, Jerusalem, and equality.)
Palestinian women have criticised their Israeli partners for considering joint works in terms of a “normalised” illusion of equality, instead of reflecting on the increasing discrimination between the “occupier” and the “occupied.” Another factor in the continuation of such asymmetries between Palestinian and Israeli women activists has been the difference in the objectives pursued by the two sides, and this condition has obscured the most controversial challenges related to the Palestinian refugees’ right to return and to the status of Jerusalem.3
In 1995, Kamal was appointed Director General of the Directorate for Gender Planning and Development at the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation in the Palestinian Authority, establishing its first gender planning and development directorate.
In 1996, she ran for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) as a representative from Jerusalem (for the FIDA party), winning enough votes that she would have been the seventh elected candidate had there not been a requirement under Palestinian election law to place two Christians in the seven seats (Kamal is a Muslim).4
In November 2003, she was appointed Women’s Affairs Minister in the PA. This role was her first foray into mainstream Palestinian politics, and she held her post for three years, until 2006. Kamal was the first woman to take this new position, and was responsible for promoting and protecting the rights of women in Palestine. She also developed and implemented policies and programs aimed at improving the status of Palestinian women. She explained her mission in these terms:
From April 2006 until May 2012, Kamal served as the General Director of the Palestinian Women’s Research and Documentation Center, a UNESCO project, in Ramallah.
Before retiring, Kamal served as General Secretary of the FIDA party, the first Palestinian woman to head a political party. She used her position to give women and youth opportunities for leadership positions. Her focus was on raising the minimum wage, introducing social security laws, and creating laws and regulations to help combat violence against women.
Advocacy for Women
Kamal has dedicated her career to platforming and advocating for women. Her work is devoted to improving life for Palestinian women by introducing laws against domestic violence, improving educational opportunities, and establishing a mandatory minimum marriage age. She strongly believes in the empowerment of women through education, and most of her NGO work platforms this issue.
Kamal is a founding member of the following women-led NGOs: Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling (WCLAC), Women’s Studies Centre (WSC), Women’s Affairs Technical Committee, the Palestinian Business Women’s Association (ASALA), Jerusalem Link, and the International Women’s Commission for Just Peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Kamal chaired the boards of the Jerusalem-based WCLAC and WSC, and she was a board member of Foundation for the Future in Amman until it ceased operations in 2014. Of the establishment of the WCLAC with founding director Maha Abu Dayya, Kamal later recalled:
You can make change from above, or you can make it happen from the bottom up. WCLAC worked on both ways. First, it raised women’s awareness about their rights, allowing them to begin to fight for those rights—that was organising from the bottom up. Secondly, it worked to convince decision makers to put good laws in place, ones which would enable women to actually fight for their rights.6
Avagar, Amy. “Palestinian Women at the Crossroads of Mideast Peace.” Lilith, September 14, 1993.
Brenoff, Ann. “Zahira Kamal.” Los Angeles Times, November 29, 1998.
Kamal, Zahira. “Legacy of Strength: Saying Goodbye to Palestinian Feminist, Maha Abu-Dayyeh.” Middle East Eye, February 13, 2015.
National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the Carter Center, The January 20, 1996, Palestinian Elections (Washington, DC: NDI and the Carter Center, 1997).
Wikipedia. s.v. “Zahira Kamal.” Last modified April 16, 2023, 08:00.
“Women’s Affairs Technical Committee (WATC).” Anna Lindh Foundation.
“Zahira Kamal.” FemmeQ.
“Zahira Kamal.” Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.
“Zahira Kamal (Occupied Palestinian Territory).” WikiPeaceWomen.
[Profile pic: Stephan Röhl, Flickr]
Amy Avagar, “Palestinian Women at the Crossroads of Mideast Peace,” Lilith, September 14, 1993.
Avagar, “Palestinian Women at the Crossroads of Mideast Peace.”
Giulia Daniele, “Jerusalem Link Feminism between Palestine and Israel,” Ingenere, March 25, 2014.
National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the Carter Center, The January 20, 1996, Palestinian Elections (Washington, DC: NDI and the Carter Center, 1997), 147.
Zahir Kamal, “Legacy of Strength: Saying Goodbye to Palestinian Feminist, Maha Abu-Dayyeh,” Middle East Eye, February 13, 2015.