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08/11/08

Women's Struggle

Posted By: Hannah
Ibtessam Zeidan, Director of the Union of Palestinian Women's Struggle Committees and member of WATC Executive Board

On my next stop on my tour of WATC's member organisations, I was lucky enough to speak to Ibtessam Zeidan, who is the Director of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Struggle Committees (UPWSC - اتحاد لجان كفاح المرأة الفلسطينية) and also a member of WATC’s Executive Board. Ibtessam has been active in the women’s movement since she was a school girl, when the movement was focused largely on the Palestinian national struggle rather than on gender issues specifically. She explains, “To begin with I joined the Palestinian national movement, but because I was a girl I was active in women’s unions, which were part of the national struggle. This was in the 1970s. I wasn’t specifically campaigning for women’s rights, but later moved in that direction. When I went to college I started to think more about women’s rights; I went to lectures talking about the women’s movement, which was forming as part of the student movement at the time.”

UPWSC started up in 1987 as a body affiliated the Palestinian Arab Front (الجبهة العربية الفلسطينية), and Ibtessam explains that men and women have always co-operated in the nationalist movement. I asked her whether she thinks men and women view the conflict with Israel differently: “Women believe more in peace, in dialogue, not fighting. Palestinian women have two goals. One is to free the country. The other is to free the women. We are still working on both of these goals.” In contrast to other WATC activists, Ibtessam personally believes that before women can fully achieve equality with men, Palestinians must claim their rights as a nation of citizens. “We cannot ask Palestinian men for our freedom if they are not free themselves. We have to free the whole society first and then we can ask for freedom for women.”

Ibtessam spoke eloquently about the recent violence between Fatah and Hamas, and how women have been affected and responded to it. “Women are the ones most affected by this conflict between Hamas and Fatah. The burden falls on our heads – the poverty affects the women more, the violence affects the women more… Women are at the centre of society – this man who is fighting is her son, her husband, her brother. Women are pulled in all directions by this conflict. Women always invite Hamas and Fatah to talk peacefully, and they write messages asking for this. They want peaceful resolution between Hamas and Fatah. They went on strike, asking for both of them to think of the bigger thing – freedom for Palestine, not their small problems between Hamas and Fatah. Don’t think “I’m Fatah”, “I’m Hamas” – we are Palestinians. Think of the bigger picture.”

One of the major aims of UPWSC’s work is to empower women through training and education, and to integrate women into the development process. For example, they ran a ‘Folklore Carpets Project’ (مشروع السجاد الفلكلوري) recently to train women to make carpets, to help them find work, gain financial independence and to revive traditional Palestinian culture. When I asked Ibtessam what kind of discrimination against women most needs to be addressed, she explained, “Mostly it’s at work – we don’t have a high percentage of women working… especially in decision-making positions. Even where there are, they are just a few. Even if it’s increasing the number is still not enough. We need more.” She continued, “The women’s liberation movement should focus more on integrating women into development and guaranteeing their economic independence. If they have economic independence then they can be more involved in politics and every other aspect of life.”

Graduates from UPWSC's Folklore Carpets Project celebrate their success. Photo credit: UPWSC

Ibtessam believes that legal reform in Palestine will play an important role in protecting women’s rights. WATC and other women’s organisations have successfully lobbied for some important changes in Palestinian law in recent times, including the introduction of a 20% quota for women candidates on party lists for local and national elections. “If we have laws and legislation that guarantees women’s rights we can overcome this discrimination. There should be justice in the laws,” Ibtessam explains, “Changing attitudes takes a lot of time. We have to start from zero and work our way up. You can’t just bring in laws and expect the culture to change immediately. People’s ideas have to be changed first. This can happen with training. Like with the quota – it took five years to campaign for this law. We did awareness campaigns, advocacy campaigns, lectures, TV shows, so people can understand what the quota is.”

“The quota was a positive thing, it’s not going to be for long. It’s just for a specific time. When people start to think more that women can be in power then we won’t need it anymore. It’s going to work towards changing how people think. It is a positive interference – they have to put women in power – so they start to see how women can be decision-makers, they start to understand the idea more, appreciate it more.”

“WATC has brought about some change in gender relations. As women, we have a role more than just a gender role. We have a bigger role in development, and now with the Palestinian Authority we have some women in the government… Our current political situation is going to destroy these achievements. Our role is to try to keep these achievements and build on them in the future. Not to go back and start from zero. Especially since Hamas won the election, we were afraid that this would be all lost. We asked the PLC to guarantee that we would keep these achievements and they agreed, but in real life they are going backwards. They are not keeping these promises. For example, the family law is not good for us now or for the future so we need to work on it. In the custody law, when parents divorce, the children go with their mother until they reach a certain age, then they go with their father. But in Gaza now they are not following these rules, they are doing whatever they want.”

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2 comments

Comment from: Marina [Visitor] Email
Hannah,
I love these last couple of posts from you. Profiling these women helps to give us a much better insight into the work that WATC's partner organizations are doing and the challenges that Palestinian women face while working towards social justice. Keep up the good work!
Marina
11/08/08 @ 06:35
Comment from: Hannah [Member] Email
Thanks Marina. I'm putting together profiles of the member organisations for the WATC website. I hope they will all be done and translated before I leave in 3 weeks!
12/08/08 @ 13:46

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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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