Zahiya Nashashibi (born in Jerusalem) was an influential women’s rights activist during and after the British Mandate rule over Palestine. She was a founding member and president of the Arab Women’s Association (AWA) between 1946 and 1973.
Nashashibi studied at the school of Notre Dame de Sion (the Sisters of Zion French Catholic Girls’ School) in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Active Involvement in the National Struggle
On October 26, 1929, a group of young women (headed by Zulaykha al-Shihabi), including Nashashibi, founded one of the oldest women’s movements in Palestine: the Arab Women’s Union Society in Jerusalem. The founding event was the Palestine Arab Women’s Congress, held in Jerusalem, and attended by over 200 women who converged on the event from all over Palestine. The media at the time heralded the event as the first of its kind.
In the beginning, the movement called for the engagement of women in the national political struggle. As a result, women—including Nashashibi—participated in the Great Palestinian Revolution of the 1930s. In these demonstrations, they expressed their dismay and disapproval of the British policies and Zionist proclamations over land. By raising their voices, they attempted to protect the people on the ground from the imminent displacement that would follow the massive Jewish immigration to Palestine. By then, Palestinians had realized that the British and Zionist political agenda would have hazardous consequences on their future.
Recognizing the significance of their role in the national struggle early on, distinguished women in Palestine, such as Nashashibi, decided to step out of their comfort zones and make their voices heard. They thus took part in demonstrations, wrote memoranda in protest of the British government authorities, and advocated at the local and global levels for the Palestinian national movement. The women’s political engagement and powerful nonviolent assertion stood out—particularly in Jerusalem and Jaffa. Some sources state that the British had described the Palestinian women partaking in those demonstrations as more courageous than their fellow men.
Volunteerism and Presidency of the Arab Women’s Association
Nashashibi had an instrumental role in raising awareness of the Palestinian cause through local events and international conferences. She also got personally involved in voluntary and charity-based activities that focused on economic, social, and educational development.
By 1933, the Arab Women’s Union Society had established 14 branches in major cities and towns in Palestine. By late 1938, the women’s movement had split in two: the Arab Women’s Union (AWU), and the Arab Women’s Association (AWA). In 1946, Nashashibi headed the latter, which focused mainly on charity-based work, including offering medical aid, helping families, organizing cultural events, and providing childcare services. She remained president of the AWA until her death.
It is worth mentioning that during the time Nashashibi headed the AWA, the Nakba (Catastrophe) occurred. As a result, the Jerusalem branch stopped functioning and most activities came to a halt. However, it was eventually reestablished and registered as a charitable association in 1965.
The AWA of Jerusalem has had a vital role for various decades. It managed to persevere despite the disastrous wars and historic transformations that followed.
The Arab Women’s Union in Jerusalem.
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