NGOs and (feminist) solidarity — a fraught relationship

Solidarity is a very fraught concept for many in the global development and humanitarian sectors. Just look at their responses to the genocide in Gaza

Leila Billing
9 min readNov 5, 2023
Bright mural on a wall with hands painted different colours joining fingers with each other

Note: this is piece is not aimed at those on the frontlines in Gaza. It is not directed to those providing vital, immediate assistance. It is for those of us in the global development space watching from a distance, who can and should do better.

My social media feeds have been full of anguish over the past four weeks. I imagine yours have been no different. Some of my friends have been personally affected. Many are experiencing communal grief and trauma — when one of us hurts, the collective feels it, too.

No small part of the distress I have witnessed has come from feminists in the Middle East and Palestinian feminists in the diaspora, who have been disappointed by what they perceive as the silence or obfuscating language coming from many women’s rights organisations and other international NGOs (INGOs) about the living horrors of the past month.

I started to explore what many prominent INGOs and women’s rights organisations were saying and doing about the Israel-Palestine crisis. I spoke to friends working in INGOs in the UK — where I am based — to see how the issue was being approached in their organisations. I pored over INGO statements and press releases. What spurred me and who am I do to this? My mother supported the struggle for Palestinian liberation to the extent that she named me after Leila Khaled. (She wanted my second name to be Khaled, but my grandmother overruled her.) I have been a feminist working in the global development sector for about 18 years. I am particularly interested in the notion of feminist solidarity. I think it has a lot to offer development workers over and above some of the configurations of solidarity we have been witnessing in the past few weeks.

Some of you may be thinking, ‘What’s the use of analysing these statements? It’s what the sector does that really counts.’ Well, I beg to differ. These messages and NGO narrative framings about Israel and Palestine really matter. They prepare audiences for very particular courses of action. They can — and do! — transmit and produce power.

What did I learn?

First, I need to say I have been impressed by a number of organisations’ powerful and deeply analytical approaches to responding to recent events. Some feminist organisations in particular have released bold and astute statements and there are a few human rights organisations who have been campaigning to end apartheid systems in Palestine for years.

But for the most part, my impression is primarily of an INGO sector that continues to root its ideas of solidarity firmly in a colonial project. The responses from some women’s and girls’ rights organisations have a clear historical resonance — one which illuminates Western feminists’ long-standing refusal to engage in the social and material injustices in Palestinian women’s lives.

Words carry power

Many parts of the INGO sector are too squeamish to use certain words in their statements. For example, it is rare to find the word ‘genocide’ mentioned at all. In its emergency briefing of 18 October, The Center for Constitutional Rights reported, ‘There is plausible and credible case, based on powerful factual evidence, that Israel is attempting to commit, if not actively committing the crime of genocide in the occupied Palestinian territory…’ UN experts, meanwhile, ‘remain convinced that the Palestinian people are at grave risk of genocide’. Yet far too many NGO statements use sleight-of-hand tactics — e.g., passive language or some variation of the phrase ‘both sides are to blame’ — to avoid any mention of genocide or its imminence.

Another taboo concept for INGOs seems to be that of settler colonialism — few statements will contextualise what is happening as part of a long-standing colonial system which encompasses occupation, apartheid and colonial militarism. It’s as if the sector fears that to contextualise the horrific violence of 7 October in Israel means that we condone it. I cannot escape the irony of an NGO sector that has spent the past two years pontificating about its role in decolonisation, supposedly educating itself about what decolonisation means and how to enact it, failing to apply any such lens to the situation in Palestine. Is this cognitive dissonance? Wilful ignorance? Can we simply call it hypocrisy? Philosopher Slavoj Žižek, in his response to the 9/11 attacks pointed out that settler colonial societies seem to be on a permanent ‘holiday from history’. This ‘holiday’ isolates them from the realities of those who are on the receiving end of colonial brutality. This ‘holiday from history’ in the INGO sector needs to end.

‘Feminist’ foreign policy

An acquaintance pointed out to me that a lot of organisations and informal collectives working on feminist foreign policy were being relatively quiet on the issue of Israel and Palestine. How could this be, I wondered, given that most States who have active feminist foreign policies in place are failing to adopt a feminist lens to respond to the conflict. Who, if not these groups, is doing the work of holding these States to account for their so-called feminist commitments?

Some of these collectives working on feminist foreign policy state they are committed to highlighting colonial legacies within traditional foreign policy approaches. They commonly use the language of intersectionality, explaining it is foundational to their work. Yet they were being pretty quiet, or were using the familiar, painstakingly ‘balanced’ messaging expressing solidarity with ‘both sides’. These organisations and collectives are right to point to the ways in which unforgiveable atrocities have been committed on both sides. Yet, to me, a blanket expression of solidarity, based upon a notion of ‘sameness’, without any further contextualisation erases so much. With this type of language, we disguise many of the power asymmetries involved in this conflict. We contribute to a denial that even before the current escalation, discussions about a ‘slow-motion genocide’ taking place in the Gaza strip were not uncommon. Despite what the authors may think, narrative frames like this are not objective or ‘balanced’ in any way. If it does anything, feminism asks us to apply a nuanced, historical and forensic analysis of power; to hold inequalities up to the light and parse how power is being produced and reproduced. It bears repeating: to contextualise abuses of power in this way does not mean we condone them. This should drive what feminist expressions of solidarity look like.

Several NGOs that work on gender issues at the time of writing have also been silent. A friend working for a girls’ rights organisation said her non-profit had been very vocal over the invasion of Ukraine and had used terms like ‘gender apartheid’ to describe the exclusion of girls from school in Afghanistan. Now, she was struggling to get her organisation to even say anything publicly about Gaza, let alone use the term ‘apartheid’ to describe the systems at work there. (At the time of publication, this organisation had said nothing at all about the events in Palestine.)

Western feminists have been and remain quick to denounce the oppression of Arab women by Islamist fundamentalist groups over the years — why weren’t there more robust condemnations of the gendered manifestations of militarism and settler colonialism we can see playing out today? Why did my friend have to fight to get her organisation to openly acknowledge the horror? When the evacuation orders were issued by Israel to Gaza, another friend urged her non-profit to say something. They landed on some vague messaging calling for ‘peace’. What is this peace that these INGOs are calling for, I wondered? Is this the language of ‘liberal’ peace that denies the foundational history of the conflict in Israel and Palestine? Here is a perfect example of a narrative frame being used to prepare its audience for a certain course of action — the return to the type of status quo which rests upon ongoing occupation of the Palestinian people.

A history of ‘global sisterhood’ with Palestine

We have known for a long time about hierarchies within the notion of ‘universal sisterhood’. Yet it is very clear to me that these recent failures of feminist solidarity from women’s and girls’ rights groups have a very specific historical resonance — one that is linked to anti-colonial and nationalist struggles. Sara Salem’s work describes the ways in which Western and Middle Eastern feminists have been disagreeing about Palestine for over 100 years. She gives the example of how in the 1920s, feminists in Europe — some of whom had previously forged strong links with feminists in Egypt — could not understand why Egyptian women saw the struggle for gender equality as inextricably tied to Egyptian independence. These two groups vehemently argued over European colonialism and over Palestine in particular. The failure of Western feminists to speak out about the Balfour Declaration was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Feminists in the Middle East started to turn elsewhere for solidarity — in this case, towards African and Asian activists engaged in anti-colonial struggle.

What also of famous American feminist Betty Friedan, who at a 1985 UN Conference in Nairobi tried to silence Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi by saying: ‘Please do not bring up Palestine in your speech. This is a women’s conference, not a political conference.’ And that, right there, is the age-old problem. (Of course, El Saadawi ignored Friedan, went ahead and made her solidarity speech anyway.)

The reluctance of so many feminists to understand that solidarity cannot be forged through the single lens of womanhood — but must be nurtured through a deep, material understanding of how gender oppression intersects with forces such as colonialism, capitalism and militarisation continues to disappoint many of us. Palestinian writer Nada Elia says ‘Feminism in the Global North…. is an approach that seeks, often actively, to decontextualize the circumstances of Global South communities… as if they functioned in a space of their own, immune to the macro-environment of global politics in the form of colonialism, occupation, militarism… or other such manifestations of foreign intervention.’ Look again at some of the recent statements coming from large INGOs who also work on gender. They are comfortable speaking about the vulnerability of Palestinian women and girls, but they don’t seem to want to engage at all in their politics. This is solidarity as conceived and rooted in the colonial project. This is the kind of solidarity that says, ‘we will support you in calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, but we draw the line at mentioning the need for occupation to end.’

Searching for solidarity

No wonder that it has been those who have been affected by similar oppressive systems who have shown some of the most powerful expressions of solidarity with Palestine. Black people’s solidarity for Palestine is not free of tensions, but it is longstanding — from Toni Morrison, Angela Davis and James Baldwi to Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah and beyond. Many paid the price for it. I am reminded of the Jamaican-American activist and poet June Jordan, who used her art as an expression of solidarity. In her poem ‘Moving towards home’ she writes, ‘I was born a Black woman and now/I am become a Palestinian’. Publishers refused to work with her for a long time after she became more outspoken about her support for Palestinian liberation.

For expressions of feminist solidarity today, I do not look to the NGO sector. I do not turn to those INGOs who claim to centre feminist leadership or a commitment to decolonisation in their work and approaches. Instead, I turn to Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, South Asian and Black women around the world leading protests, fundraisers, political action campaigns, teaching sit-ins and so on. I look at the Labour councillors in the UK who are resigning from their party. Just like June Jordan, many of them continue to pay the price for this solidarity — with attacks on their safety, doxing, harassment or threats to their employment.

It feels fitting to leave you with the words of Palestinian scholar Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian. She reminds us that we can and should do better. That solidarity cannot be presumed. It must be built with intention and attention. Attention to power differences and intersecting systems of power. Feminism, she says, ‘entails understanding the nature and significance of solidarity with the dispossessed, something that global feminism has so far failed to do’.