This past spring during one of the largest hunger strikes in Palestinian history, Fadwa Barghouti, 53, stepped out of a black SUV in downtown Ramallah wearing black pants and a long-sleeve chiffon blouse. She made her way into a blue tent lined with pictures of men incarcerated in Israel. The tent was a meeting place for families of prisoners who were starving themselves for rights like education and family visits. Old women holding framed portraits of husbands, brothers and sons stood and Fadwa’s hand and young people snapped selfies next to her. Fadwa didn’t smile.
The hunger strike was led by Fadwa’s husband, Palestinian political prisoner Marwan Barghouti, and ended after 40 days with small victories: proof that Marwan can negotiate with Israelis and among the divided Palestinian factions from behind bars.
Fadwa says Palestinians have a magical love for Marwan. Israelis see him as a murderer who incited acts of terror against innocents. He’s made a name for himself as a freedom fighter, the Palestinian Nelson Mandela — a connection he recently made in a New York Times Op-Ed. His giant portrait colors Israel’s concrete separation barrier in Ramallah, and tags of his face are spray-painted on walls all over the West Bank.
And while Marwan’s face is everywhere in the Palestinian territories, it’s Fadwa’s voice that disseminates his message to the world. She is his proxy.
Her oldest son Qassam says if it weren’t for Fadwa, Marwan may have been another forgotten prisoner. “Maybe people keep saying she’s Marwan’s wife. But for us, no, she’s Fadwa Barghouti, who achieved a lot.”
Fadwa is one of Palestine’s favorite leaders, too. In the last local election for Fatah’s revolutionary council, Fadwa got the most votes. And it’s not all about Marwan. While Fadwa is committed to broadcasting her husband’s message, she’s also working for something else: She wants Palestinian society to accept women as partners in decision-making. Palestinian women have been accepted as partners in fighting, suffering and incarceration, she says, but not in decision-making. She wants Palestinians to see her partnership with Marwan as something worth imitating.
The evening after Marwan called off the hunger strike, Fadwa is at home in Ramallah, wearing floral-print house pants and a T-shirt. There’s a newspaper on the kitchen table and a tray of dirty coffee cups by the sink. Framed pictures line the hallways: Fadwa and Marwan in the ’80s holding hands at a restaurant in Egypt, their grandchild posing in front of an iconic handcuffs-in-the-air poster of Marwan, a collage of family photos from Qassam’s wedding celebration containing a passport-like photo of Marwan’s face in the bottom corner.
Fadwa lives alone. Her kids are coming for dinner tonight, though. She pulls plastic containers of meat and rice and chicken from the fridge and dumps them into pots on a gas stove, frantic. She can’t use the microwave because there’s a power outage in her neighborhood. Fadwa’s 30-year-old daughter, Ruba, walks in with her toddlers, Talia and Sara. They’re both dressed in bright pink. The girls run to Fadwa and she scoops them into her arms, smiling big. Fadwa gives each girl a cucumber to munch on.
“She doesn’t like cooking,” Qassam says. “She does it, but she doesn’t like it.”
When Marwan was arrested in 2002 and charged with five counts of murder and directing attacks against Israelis, Fadwa closed her legal practice to build Marwan’s campaign to free Palestinian prisoners. She believes in the campaign, but doesn’t like being in the spotlight. “I like helping women, empowering women. Being behind the scenes,” she says.
But Fadwa is front and center. Her first trip abroad for the campaign was in 2002. Back then, she says, it was hard find people to host her because most of the world saw Palestinians as terrorists. Fadwa has since visited more than 50 countries to establish his campaign. She’s built relationships with hundreds of world leaders to rally support the Palestinian cause. There are streets named after Marwan in Europe and last year, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Fadwa grew up in the West Bank village of Kobar. Her father was one of three in the village to send his daughter to school after 6th grade, which Fadwa says was a big deal. When Fadwa graduated high school, she founded The Women’s Union for Social Work where she promoted access to education for other women. After nearly 40 years, she’s still active in the women’s union; Fadwa’s main passion is elevating the status of Palestinian women. In her private life, she pays school fees for smart girls who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford an education.
Some Palestinians wish Fadwa would put more time into helping women. According to the U.N., almost a third of Palestinian married women have been subjected to domestic violence and there are no specific laws to protect them from it. Feminist blogger and Ramallah radio station manager Muna Assaf wishes Fadwa would use her power to create legislation to protect women. She’s a lawyer, Assaf points out. “She could stand up for vulnerable women.”
But Fadwa’s professional focus these days is building the campaign for Marwan. Her role in his campaign, she says, runs parallel to her goal of helping women. To Fadwa and other Palestinians, Marwan is one of the only leaders with potential to make life better for future generations of Palestinians, and he specifically wants to help Palestinian women. Fadwa is his lifelong partner in that endeavor.
Love and a shared vision for Palestine, Fadwa says, is what drives that partnership. Fadwa and Marwan have never had a disagreement about what Fadwa relays on Marwan’s behalf. “He never reviewed me about a message that I carried [from him]. I’m proud to say that for 15 years I never made a mistake in delivering his messages.”
“We have a great love story,” Fadwa says.
Fadwa and Marwan grew up together in the West Bank village of Kobar. When Marwan was 18, he was jailed by Israeli authorities for five years. Fadwa was then 14 and they wrote letters throughout his incarceration. The day he was released, he proposed. “I love you. I see no other woman in the world,” Fadwa recalls him having told her.
But, he warned, he had committed to fighting for freedom — their lives wouldn’t be normal.
Marwan gave Fadwa a week to think about it, but she didn’t need a day. “Am I not Palestinian as well?” she remembers saying. “I want to be with you. You’re the man I choose. Palestine is not just yours. It’s for me too. It’s for everyone. And we all have our parts to play in this fight.”
Their engagement lasted an entire year because Israelis constantly detained him. When he was finally out of jail for one week, the family quickly arranged a wedding. A few days after, he was sentenced to six months of house arrest. “That was one of the happiest moments of my life,” Fadwa says. Marwan’s house arrest was the best thing Fadwa could have hoped for as a newlywed. Her fantasy ended the next day, though. Marwan left home to sort out a dispute among student leaders at Bir Zeit University, and was arrested coming home.
Years and arrests later, in 2002, Marwan was convicted of murder and being part of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the terrorist group behind suicide bombs and attacks against Israelis. Hundreds of Israelis were killed in cafes, buses and nightclub during the Intifada. Reflecting on that time, Fadwa repeats over and over that Marwan never killed with his own hands. He led, she says, but he never killed.
Since then, Fadwa and Marwan have been separated by prison walls. The hardest moments are family celebrations. Qassam says Fadwa is a mother, father and friend. He was 16 when his father was arrested. When he got into fights in high school, Fadwa showed up. “The other kids would bring their fathers,” he says. “Sometimes I used to steal her car when she was asleep. She would take a taxi in the middle of the night to come and find me and to give me a hard time.”
When her other son Sharaf got married, Fadwa took on Marwan’s role. “You know when you have the future talk with your father?” Sharaf says. “I had it with her proudly.” Fadwa says one reason Palestinians respect her is because she has raised a strong family on her own.
Inside the Ramallah prisoner’s tent a few nights before, a young woman spoke to that phenomenon. Haneen Assi, 27, sat with a picture of her husband who will spend the rest of his life in prison. She’s pregnant. Almost every woman she knows has a brother, son or husband who was killed or is in an Israeli prison. “All of Fadwa’s children have university degrees,” Assi says. “She gives me strength.”
A few meters away from the tent in an empty mall hallway, Fadwa broke down, mumbling through tears as she recalled her last visit to Marwan. “It was so hard. I left him behind,” she says. “I tried to hide my tears from him and not to let him see my weakness.”
Fadwa wiped away her tears. “It’s like I’m not allowed to be weak or cry,” she says. “I’m carrying the message of their [Palestinians’] leader so I have to be strong.”
She went back into the tent to be near other women with incarcerated relatives. “I take strength from them,” she says.
When Fadwa agreed to marry Marwan, he told her that when Palestinians are free, he’d leave politics and come home. Fadwa didn’t hesitate to join his cause. But she also didn’t expect their struggle to last this long — to have grandkids who don’t know their grandfather. “Marwan and I thought the suffering we will go through will make our kids’ lives better,” she says. “I have been waiting for that for 32 years.”