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Hanan Mikha’il Ashrawi is a prominent Palestinian academic, politician, and human rights activist.


Ashrawi was born in 1946 in the West Bank town of Ramallah, just outside of Jerusalem, to a prominent Protestant Christian Palestinian family. Her father Da’ud Mikha’il was one of the founders of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Her mother, Wadi’a As’ad, was of Lebanese ancestry and was a devout Christian.

Ashrawi attended the Friends Girls School, a Quaker institution in Ramallah, where her four sisters also went to school. She went on to study English literature at The American University of Beirut (AUB). While there, she was a member of the General Union of Palestinian Students from 1967 to 1970 and the General Union of Palestinian Women from 1967 to 1972. She also worked in the Palestinian Information Office from 1968–1970. She completed both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at AUB in 1968. In the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel took control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, where Ashrawi’s family lived. The Israeli government then passed a law designating anyone who was out of the country at the time an “absentee” without legal status and without the right to return to the newly occupied territories. Ashrawi was not allowed to return to her hometown, which was under Israeli military occupation. She was forced to remain outside the country, first in Lebanon and then in the United States.

She made use of the opportunity to continue her higher education. For the next six years, Ashrawi pursued graduate studies and obtained her doctorate in Medieval and Comparative Literature from the University of Virginia in 1971. Ashrawi went on to be awarded honorary degrees from Earlham College and Smith College.

While working on her graduate degree, Ashrawi also developed an interest in the women’s movement and deepened her dedication to the Palestinian cause. She married Emile Ashrawi and has two daughters, Amal (b. 1977) and Zeina (b. 1981).

In September 1973, Ashrawi was finally granted permission to return to her home in Ramallah. She was offered the chairpersonship of the Department of English at Birzeit University and served in that position from 1973 to 1978 and again from 1981 to 1984. She later served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1986 to 1990 and continued as a faculty member at Birzeit until 1995.

Ashrawi has published numerous articles on Palestinian culture and literature as well as politics. She also has written some poetry and short stories. Her major publications include the Anthology of Palestinian Literature (which she edited), The Modern Palestinian Short Story, and An Introduction to Practical Criticism . In July 2001, she became spokesperson for the Arab League.


Ashrawi gradually became one of the few Palestinians to transcend the media’s popular stereotype of the Palestinian terrorist. She is a masterful spokesperson for Palestinian issues who can conduct press conferences and interviews with great poise and political savvy.


Name: Hanan Mikha’il Ashrawi

Birth: 1946, Ramallah, mandatory Palestine

Family: Husband, Emile; two daughters, Amal and Zeina

Nationality: Palestinian

Education: American University of Beirut, 1968, B.A. and M.A. English literature; University of Virginia, 1971, Ph.D. medieval and comparative literature


  • 1967: Member of General Union of Palestinian Students and General Union of Palestinian Women in Beirut; unable to return to Ramallah
  • 1968: Works for Palestinian Information Office in Beirut
  • 1973: Granted permission by Israel to return to Ramallah; begins teaching at Birzeit University
  • 1974: Helps establish Legal Aid Committee at Birzeit University
  • 1988: Appears on ABC-TV’s Nightline program with Ted Koppel
  • 1991: Participates in Palestinian talks with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker; official Palestinian spokesperson at the Madrid peace conference
  • 1993: Resigns all official Palestinian positions
  • 1994: Helps establish the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights
  • 1996: Elected to the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) Palestinian Legislative Council; serves as PA minister of higher education
  • 1998: Resigns as minister; establishes MIFTAH
  • 2001: Becomes spokesperson for the Arab League

Ashrawi’s political activism continued while she worked as a professor. The Legal Aid Committee she helped to establish in 1974 to pay the fines of students arrested by Israeli occupation authorities was a reflection of the suffering that Bizeit University and students faced under occupation. The intermittent closures that the Israeli military imposed on students and faculty and the university at large also impacted her and her work.

After a number of successful appearances on live American television during the first intifada, which began in December 1987, Ashrawi became involved with the Palestinian Diplomatic Service and a political committee she helped form in 1988 to muster support among Palestinians for the PLO’s diplomatic moves. Beginning in April 1991, she was part of a team of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians who conducted a PLO-approved dialogue with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and part of an U.S. peace initiative that led to the October 1991 Madrid peace conference among Arab states, Israel, and a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation. Because she held a Jerusalem identity card, Israel would not allow her to be a member of the joint delegation; however, she was one of seven members of the delegation’s steering committee, which served as a liaison between delegation members in Madrid and the PLO leadership in Tunisia. She also served as the delegation’s official spokesperson. Some say that the eloquent Ashrawi upstaged her Israeli counterpart at the Madrid Conference, BINYAMIN NETANYAHU , who later became the prime minister of Israel.

After the signing of the September 1993 Declaration of Principles (Oslo Accord) by PLO chairman YASIR ARAFAT and Israeli prime minister YITZHAK RABIN , Palestinian self-rule was established in parts of the West Bank and Gaza, and Ashrawi resigned from all official positions in December 1993. She headed the Preparatory Committee of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizen’s Rights (PICCR) in Jerusalem, and later headed the PICCR until 1995. Ashrawi was elected to the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996.

She went on to become the PA’s Minister of Higher Education in May 1996 and Head of the Political Committee, but resigned in August 1998 in protest of wide spread political corruption. In December 1998 she founded the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, which is also known by the Arabic acronym MIFTAH (Arabic: key). The aim of the organization, which she continues to head, is to foster “principles of democracy and dialogue on the free and candid exchange of information and ideas”. Its aim is also to provide accurate and reliable information. MIFTAH also represents Ashrawi’s wish to end the Israeli occupation based on humanitarian grounds in addition to historical facts.

In 1995 Ashrawi published her memoir, This Side of Peace: A Personal Account , which was an immediate success. She also served on the international advisor board of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, and the board of trustees of the Carter Center at Emory University.


Ashrawi first came to international public prominence during the first Palestinian intifada that began in December 1987. As a well-educated woman speaking flawless, American-accented English, Ashrawi quickly caught the attention of the many international journalists who flocked to cover the intifada. She was one of four Palestinians (and the only woman) who participated with Israeli officials in an April 1988 broadcast of ABC-TV’s celebrated Nightline show, with host Ted Koppel. She continued to be a darling of the media for several years during the intifada and during the period of the Oslo peace process between Israel and the PLO in the 1990s and proved herself to be one of the best—if not the best—Palestinian to explain Palestinian national ambitions to the world. She continues to receive worldwide recognition and was awarded in 2003 the Sydney Peace Prize in spite of a great uproar amongst conservative Australians who still called her an apologist for terrorism. In October 2005, Ashrawi participated in the Distinguished Joan B. Koc’s Institute for Peace & Justice Lecture Series. Her speech was entitled “Content, Context, and Process in Peacemaking.”


Ashrawi is still a leading Palestinian spokesperson, so it is too early to assess her ultimate legacy. Still, it is clear that she will be remembered as one of the best-spoken advocates for Palestine and an important voice in the international discussion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.


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