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06/20/08

There is No "I" in "Women"

Posted By: Hannah

This week I visited Mazari’ An-Nubani (مزارع النوباني), a village close to Ramallah with a population of about 2500, for a focus group WATC held with some local men and women. WATC has trained many young women on how to use focus groups as a way of researching topics for advocacy campaigns, and for two of those women this was their first opportunity run a focus group themselves. In the morning, they gathered together ten women to talk about such questions as how decisions are made within their families, what are their aspirations and dreams for the future, what stands in the way of achieving their aspirations and what would they change about their village if they were put in charge. In the afternoon, the same questions were posed to a mixed group of men and women, for the purpose of comparing the concerns of women and men to see how similar or different they were.

Focus Group, Mazari' An-Nubani
Focus Group, Mazari' An-Nubani

I have to say, I expected the men’s and women’s responses to be different, as men and women in Palestinian culture generally perform very different social roles, but this discussion really brought out for me the stark differences between their perspectives and the language they used to express themselves. On the whole, the culture in the villages tends to be more conservative than in large cities, and gender roles are no exception. Most people in Mazari’ an-Nubani work in the labour-intensive agricultural sector, often with both parents in a household working long hours. One of the women recalled how as a child she spent most of her time taking care of her younger brothers and sisters while her parents worked, as they considered that for her, unlike her brothers, this was more important than getting an education. She described herself as having become a “little housewife”. The village school accepts children up to 9th grade, after which time they must go to the city if they are to finish their schooling. Few fathers in Mazari’ an-Nubani will allow their daughters to go, however; instead many of them are married by the age of 16.

Focus Group participant

When asked what their dreams were, most of the women responded immediately that they wanted their children to be successful, to get married, to have good jobs. Heba, who was supervising the group, had to rephrase the question: “What do you want for yourself?” Again came the response: “I want my children to get married and be successful.” It took some coaxing before they would consider the idea that they might want something not for their children but for themselves. These women were not accustomed to using the word “I” (انا), especially not to describe aspirations they might have for their own lives. They had been raised to view marriage and child-rearing as their sole purposes. Once they understood the question being asked, several women said that they would have liked to finish school, perhaps go to university. One woman said that if she had finished school she might not have married so early, and blamed her father for making her stay at home and marry.

Focus Group participantThe women in this focus group identified early marriage as the greatest obstacle to achieving their dreams. There is no unified family law in Palestine; such matters as marriage, divorce and child custody are dealt with not by civil courts but by Shari'a courts, which adopt different versions of Shar’ia law (شريعة). While the West Bank still employs Jordanian codifications of the Hanafi fiqh (فقه حنفي) tradition of Shari'a interpretation, courts in Gaza employ Egyptian versions of that law [1], although these have been adapted somewhat over the years. Currently, the minimum legal age for marriage in the West Bank is 16 for boys and 15 for girls, while in Gaza it is 12 and 9 respectively [2]. These are calculated in lunar, not solar years; 15 lunar years for girls in the West Bank is in fact 14 years and 7 months in solar years. In practice, however, these laws are applied at the discretion of individual judges, and so there is no guarantee that even these limits will be upheld. In a recent opinion poll, 76.3% of respondents stated that early marriage was an important problem affecting the status of Palestinian women, while 78.7% said it was important to increase the age of marriage. Many women (but not men) must also get their parents' approval of their choice of husband, and one man told the group that he would rather kill his daughter than let her marry someone he did not approve of. Family law is one of the issues that WATC continues to campaign most actively on, and the testimonies of these women confirm that this priority is not misplaced.

WATC-trained women run their first focus group
WATC-trained women run their first focus group

The mixed-sex focus group in the afternoon had an entirely different atmosphere and highlighted very different issues. Many of the younger, unmarried women felt they could not stay for the focus group if men would be present, and left before the men arrived (in another village it was decided that a mixed-sex focus group could not be held at all). While the women’s concerns had focused largely on their status within the family and lack of access to education, the greatest concern for most of the men who attended was the political situation, and they felt the greatest obstacle to achieving their goals was the occupation. The effects of the occupation can be found in all aspects of life here, and the women did refer to it implicitly – for example, lamenting that they only had enough running water to last for 2 or 3 days each week (a result of the water quota system) – but it was only in the mixed group that it was mentioned by name. It is not that these women are not affected by the occupation, but simply that they feel some of the most pressing problems for them originate from within Palestinian society itself. One woman mentioned that women’s organisations had been more helpful to her than the local council, but that women cannot always take advantage of the services offered, for example if they were invited to the city for a training workshop their families would not let them go.

Focus Group participant

It is notoriously difficult in the context of national liberation struggles for women to aim criticisms at the national community to which they belong. The perception tends to be that when facing an external oppressor, internal dissent only serves to undermine and weaken the nation. However, Palestine is currently in a state of political disarray in which its internal problems must be confronted before the external ones can be solved. Is it not possible, even probable, that improving the status of women in society will play an important role in securing peace, justice, equality and human rights in the Middle East?

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4 comments

Comment from: willow [Visitor] Email
Great job Hannah! Living in a house with Palestinian boys I am constantly aware that I have freedoms that are not acceptable for their sisters. It is a long road ahead for gender-equality but your observations are right on and I commend all your hard work and advocacy on this issue.
22/06/08 @ 03:45
Comment from: Noosim [Visitor] Email
Hey Hannah!!! Your article is very enlightening for me, particularly because I know very little about the women in Ramallah. I can say, with modest confidence that many of their experiences are reminiscent of the plight of many women in the South. As I read through Butler's 'Bodies that matter' (with the dictionaries and headaches that come along with it) I am questioning how a postmodern feminism can embrace parallel experiences of women, with the embedded knowledge of a constructed sex and fragmented identities. Although I am only beginning to absorb these profound revelations, i wonder whether they will help us with short-term urgent matters... such as Ramallah's women's personal/political frustrations or whether in their complexity and depth, they are intended for a long painful term?
03/07/08 @ 09:48
Comment from: Hannah [Member] Email
Willow - thank you! I don't know about you, but as a foreign woman I am sometimes treated as though I was a man (though this was more true in Gaza than here). Which, all things considered, may be no bad thing, but then it does set up something of a divide between myself and local women.

Noosim - I had to read that several times before I understood what you mean. Which I take to be: if the experiences of women are different in all parts of the world in virtue of being embedded in their particular culture and its particular notions and customs regarding gender, what possibility is there for drawing comparisons or acting in solidarity? I think one of the most important things is to always recognise that diversity/fragmentation/embeddedness in your approach - that's half the battle. Therefore you have to be cautious in drawing parallels, but that doesn't mean there's no value in doing so. Of course, you can always have strategic alliances over particular issues without necessarily agreeing/empathising over everything - that's what the whole feminist movement has been built on.

Chandra Mohanty wrote a book called Feminism Without Borders which (I believe) addresses these issues. I have it at home but haven't got round to reading it yet. Christine Sylvester writing on 'Empathetic Co-operation' is also very interesting (she wrote an article in Millennium about it).
07/07/08 @ 06:07
Comment from: Natasha [Visitor] Email · http://www.natashazoe.blogspot.com
I don't have much to add to the great comments above, just wanted to say thank you for insightful thoughts. I echo Noosim's sentiment that what you're describing sounds awfully similar to many women's plight in the South... I've definitely witnessed an awful lot of what you're describing here in Rwanda. It's very interesting to learn more about Palestinian women, thank you for taking the time to write this.
09/07/08 @ 05:38

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Hannah Wright is studying for a MSc in Gender and International Relations at the University of Bristol in the UK, after graduating from the University of Oxford with a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 2005. She has had a keen interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since her first visit to the region in 2002, and is excited to have been selected to work as an AP Peace Fellow with the Women's Affairs Technical Committee (WATC) in Ramallah in the summer of 2008.

Hannah is interested in the relationship between gender, security and development, and is working with WATC to promote women's participation in conflict resolution and state-building, whilst producing research on the experiences of Palestinian women activists. She is studying Arabic alongside her MSc and is looking forward to developing her language skills during the fellowship.

Hannah's previous experiences include teaching English in Rio de Janeiro, project management for the British Civil Service, organizing and promoting a local festival to raise awareness of gender issues, and working in the independent music industry with labels and live events promoters.

This AP fellowship will provide an ideal opportunity for Hannah to consolidate her skills and gain experience working in her area of special interest and supporting a cause in which she believes strongly.

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