The Murabitiyyn and Murabitat of Al-Aqsa Mosque: Transforming resistance, nationalism, and gendered activism in Jerusalem and Palestine

By Kenny Schmitt
Submitted to Session P4660 (Gender and Conflict: Activism, Resilience, and Disengagement, 2016 Annual Meeting
Palestine; West Bank;
Arab-Israeli Conflict; Cultural Studies; Current Events; Ethnography; Gender/Women's Studies; Islamic Studies; Middle East/Near East Studies; Nationalism; Political Economy;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
This paper is an ethnographic study of Murabitiyyn and Murabitat (female) activists in Jerusalem who see themselves as the guardians of Al-Aqsa Mosque, protecting it from Jewish individuals and groups who seek to change the status quo on the site. I argue that these activists have combined the symbolic power of sacred space with innovative religious practice and discourse to redefine the opportunities and limitations of Palestinian political agency on the Holy Esplanade. I focus on the practices of masatib al-‘ilm (learning circles) and takbiyr (saying ‘Allahu Akbar’) as they are used within and around the mosque. I investigate the theological, historical, and ethical discourses Murabitiyyn and Murabitat utilize to articulate their activism. By their presence, their voices, and their bodies, the Murabitiyyn - and specifically Murabitat - have transformed the conflict by galvanizing mass public support for the protection of Al-Aqsa mosque in the wave of unrest which hit Jerusalem in the fall of 2015. Within Palestinian society itself, they have altered traditional paradigms of Palestinian nationalism by pioneering new terminology - Ribat (or guardianship) - to articulate their ideological motivation for resisting Israel and remaining in Jerusalem. The female Murabitat have also transformed women’s political agency within Palestinian society. Historically, women have played a significant yet limited role in the national project. Today, however, as one Palestinian put it: “[The] Murabitat are pioneers and heroes - the new virgins of the Palestinian resistance” (East Jerusalem, 2015). By taking this leading role, the Murabitat have reconfigured gender relations in Palestine and opened new horizons of political agency for women within an Islamic framework. This study is based on ethnographic data collected in Jerusalem between 2013 and 2015. I conducted ethnographic interviews with Murabitiyyn and Murabitat activists and Jerusalemites more broadly. I engaged in extensive participant observation at al-Aqsa mosque and reviewed social media sites such as Facebook and Youtube which dealt with the issue directly. My analysis is located at the nexus of three broad and interconnected lines of academic inquiry: the anthropology of Islam, female activism in Islamic contexts and Palestinian nationalism.