A Voice For the Voiceless
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Hannah Wright and the Women's Affairs Technical Committee
As promised, a final video from the summer. I will let Salam do the talking.
With just a few days of my Fellowship to go, I am beginning to summarise for myself my feelings about what I have seen here over the past three months and how I feel about it all.
Being a woman travelling alone in Palestine is not easy. As my blog attests, gender norms here are rather different than in the West, and where foreigners are concerned there are no clear-cut rules. Some Palestinians will treat foreign women the same as Palestinian women, others will treat us like men. For some there are no rules at all, and they believe the fact that we’re foreign means they can act towards us in ways they’d never dream of acting towards Palestinian women.
Doing gender studies, I am often reminded that my perspectives are coloured by my social and cultural background. Unsurprisingly, my views are in many ways distinctly Western. Feminists from the “global South” have often urged Western feminists not to judge other societies according to our own Western values or to assume that our perspectives are somehow universal or ‘correct’. This is an important point, especially when Western feminists take it upon themselves to speak on behalf of “Third World women” as though the latter were not capable of formulating their own opinions and priorities. We are often urged to try to step outside our usual standpoint and think about things from the point of view of others, through different cultural lenses. This is something I have thought about a lot in Palestine. I wonder, to what extent is it possible to put aside one’s own predispositions in such a way? When I meet women who are forbidden to choose their own husbands I can’t help but feel this is a terrible thing, even if the women themselves accept it. Of course, this is not an exclusively Western viewpoint – many Palestinian feminists also vehemently oppose such practices. But there are also times when even the perspectives of women’s rights activists here elude me. More than once, activists have lamented to me that many of the women here who are murdered in the name of “honour killing” are actually killed for other reasons – that these are not “honour killings” at all, but they are excused as if they were. They tell me these cases must be investigated more thoroughly. I can’t help but think that surely we should be preventing not just the cases which were not really “honour killings” but also those that were.
Of course, as a British woman my criticism of gender norms in Palestine is by no means intended to imply that Britain is perfect in this respect. It isn’t. In fact, in many ways I see the difficulties faced by British and Palestinian women as two sides of the same coin.
For example, the view of women as sex objects is prevalent in both cultures. In Britain, we respond to the sexualisation of women’s bodies by exposing them; we see pictures of naked women with “come hither” expressions in the tabloid newspapers. In Palestine you certainly won’t find such things, in fact women’s bodies are to be covered up for the exact same reasons we uncover them; because they are seen as inherently sexual. Whether exploited or condemned, the woman-as-sex-object cannot win.
Gender stereotyping isn’t only damaging to women, of course. I find some of the views I hear expressed in Palestine extremely misandrist as well. The reason women are to be covered up and often kept separate from men is because men are considered incapable of controlling themselves around women. The assumption is that a man’s sex drive will control his behaviour – a view which is to some extent also reflected in British culture (such as the belief, not as uncommon as one might hope, that if a woman is drunk or wears a short skirt it is her own fault if she gets raped). In my view, this does a disservice to men, portraying them as wild animals when in fact they are human beings who exercise free will over their own actions. On the other hand, it can also give men license to act however they want, using the excuse that it is their “nature” which is to blame.
While in some ways I will miss this place, in other ways I look forward to returning home. I find travelling always opens my eyes, as I learn about other parts of the world but also come to understand and appreciate my own country in different ways. While I will often be the first to criticise what I see as excessive individualism in British culture, community life in Palestine can be claustrophobic, with everyone involved in everyone else’s business. Social pressure and concern for one’s reputation are extremely important regulators of behaviour here. The freedom I enjoy in Britain to do whatever I want without having to care about what everyone else thinks of me all the time is truly a privilege. The trick, of course, is continuing to appreciate the good parts of whatever culture you happen to find yourself in, whilst working to change the other parts that aren’t so good. Saying it is easy, doing it is something else. Let me know if you ever find out how it’s done, and I promise I’ll let you know too...
When I visited WATC member organisation the Union of Palestinian Women’s Work Committees (UPWWC or اتحاد لجان المرأة العاملة الفلسطينية), I spoke to Fadwa Khader, a UPWWC activist and member of WATC’s Executive Board, about the Union’s work.
“UPWWC had started since the beginning of the 1980s,” Fadwa explained to me, “When the trade unions were very, very active and taking a huge role in the Palestinian community. There were active women participating with them and it had been mentioned, why can’t we establish a women’s group or a women’s committee to take up the role of women in the Palestinian community and to take the lead with others?”
Fadwa’s description of the history of the women’s movement strongly resembles many of the arguments and narratives I’ve read over the past year, which detail the changes which have taken place within the movement, particularly since the establishment of the PA in 1994. “In the end of the ‘70s, ‘80s and the middle of the ‘90s… women’s movements were having a huge role in the society, in the time before the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and we were leading the community on our shoulders as women… But in the establishment of the PNA, you know it’s like… it’s working smoothly but not as strong as it was before. What we had realised… the PNA, they didn’t take into consideration the Palestinian women’s role throughout history, to provide the opportunity to participate in all kinds of decision-making and that’s why there was a withdrawal of women’s participation in the field of politics, in the field of struggle and so on. It’s clear enough in the second intifada… of course, it was a bit of change in the second intifada, there was use of weapons and things like that and in fact here, as Palestinian women, we can say 75% of Palestinian women don’t agree with using weapons, so that’s why there were these weaknesses.”
Like many women’s rights activists, Fadwa fears that increasing social conservatism associated with particular brands of religiosity in Palestine threaten the achievements of the women’s movement. As I mentioned previously, Sharia law is an important source of legislation in Palestine, and while some women’s organisations lobby to reform the Sharia, UPWWC is one of those which believes in separating the ‘state’ and religious law. “We believe in having a division between the religion and leading the country. This is very much important. We respect all religions, but on the other hand, there should be that division so as to have a secular community and a secular government in the Palestinian community... We believe that there could be more open opportunities for women’s liberation and women’s rights. It’s part of human rights. So if you believe in human rights and if you believe in women’s rights and children’s rights, it means that you have to take such positions, and to implement it too.”
“Now you could find that even Hamas, they are working for women’s, rights but what kind of women’s rights? In the other groups there are right-wing and left-wing, so you have to be clear.” Since Palestine has been governed for all of recorded history by a succession of colonial administrations with different legal systems, one of the few sources of continuity has been the Sharia as the basis for family law. For this reason, some have tried to portray the Sharia system as something authentic and indigenous which must be preserved at all costs. “To tell you the truth, we have, of course, been pushed also towards… it’s like respecting what’s going on in the Palestinian traditions and customs, but it’s related to religion. So what kind of education had been spread in the Palestinian community? They are using their religion to implement their ideological methodologies and this, in fact, has affected not only us but also it affected other women’s movements. If you go out in the field you will find out that many women are wearing those long dresses with scarves… and we are the ones who fought this, we fought it in Gaza, we fought it in the West Bank and in Jerusalem.” Fadwa refers to a campaign, waged by Hamas during the first intifada of the late 1980s, against women who refused to wear the headscarf. “They threw at us vegetables and eggs and so on, to force us to wear those scarves, but before Oslo we were very empowered. We put an end to this. But they were clever enough to use the mosques and so on to influence others through tradition and religion to push them towards having scarves. It’s really… you can’t imagine, how much nowadays it’s very difficult to make such a change. On the other hand, it’s a challenge, so we have to work more and more on the other [conservative-thinking] side so as to make that mentality change.”
Fadwa’s analysis highlights another of the difficulties of campaigning for women’s rights within the context of a nationalist struggle. Understandably, there is a widely perceived need to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage, however gender relations are very often considered to be a non-negotiable part of national ‘culture’ rather than an evolving and fluctuating aspect of the nation’s social politics. Therefore, there is a tendency to see arguments for women’s rights as attempts to impose foreign ideologies on the Palestinian people, even though it is Palestinian women who are campaigning for these rights, and studies of the history of the movement indicate that it was they, and not foreign donors or ideologists, who provided the driving force behind the movement from its beginnings. One of the major challenges for the Palestinian women’s movement now is to pursuade its sceptics that to give women equal rights is not submission to a foreign cause or a loss of ‘sovereignty’ (in so far as such sovereignty exists here), but a fundamental part of protecting and promoting the human rights to which all Palestinians are entitled.
On Wednesday 23rd July, the women in Ni’lin village organised their first all-women demonstration against the construction of the Separation Wall in their village. Surrounded by the settlements of Shilat, Mattityahu, Hashmonaim, Mod’in Illit and Menora, Ni’lin, as I explained in a previous blog, has become well known as a site of protest against the wall, and of all the villages affected by the wall has been one of the most successful in slowing down its construction.
As Willow’s blog attests, demonstrations are held in Ni’lin several times a week. Usually these demonstrations are attended by the men of the village, as well as international activists and some Israelis, including journalists and refuseniks. The women of the village watch, and provide refreshments and medical relief for protestors affected by tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets, which are regular features of these demonstrations. However, this time they decided to have a demonstration of their own. I reported on the demo for WATC’s Voice of Women newspaper, and interviewed Ni’lin resident Rema Khawaja about the demonstration:
As the army attacked the demonstrators with tear gas and hit them with rifle butts, some of the men of Ni’lin stepped in to try to protect the women, and members of the press, including Ma’an News, Associated Press and Watan News, continued to film. Three people were arrested, including a Canadian activist who was filming the event, and Jamal Hussein Amirra, the father of Salam Kanaan, the young girl who recently filmed a Palestinian prisoner being shot in the foot with a rubber-coated steel bullet by the IDF. Jamal has since been charged with beating a soldier, and sentenced to 100 days in prison. Witnesses report that he was waving a plastic stick but that he did not hit soldiers with it. In a forthcoming blog you’ll see what Salam had to say when we spoke to her about her experiences and the effect her father’s detention was having on her family.
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.”
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.”
Since arriving at WATC I have found that the area in which AP can offer the most help is in building the capacity of WATC’s member organisations. Each of the members is an independent body, but some of them are also affiliated with political parties in Palestine. These relationships with the parties are important for WATC and its members as they provide access to decision-making bodies such as local councils, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and the PA. While some of the member organisations also work with the parties, WATC as a coalition remains independent of them, basing its activities on the consensus of its General Assembly, drawn from the member organisations and also including independent activists and scholars.
On Tuesday I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak with Renad Zurub, a Programme Co-ordinator with the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (UPWC or اتحاد لجان المرأة الفلسطينية), which is one of WATC’s member organisations. I wanted to hear about the life of a young activist in the women’s movement and to learn more about UPWC.
I asked Renad what prompted her to begin thinking about women’s rights, and she explained to me how it all began in her childhood: “I was a child, it was on the feast of Eid Al-Fitr, (عيد الفطر) on the third day. We were on Jaffa Street in Ramallah, and an Israeli military truck, a big one came and hit the car we were in. It was me, my sister, my brother and my aunt’s husband. They hit the car, after that we tried to avoid them and go to another street, but they returned back and hit the car again. Then I was unconscious. I saw myself in the ambulance, and I didn’t know what happened during that period. I stayed at the hospital for five days, then I returned home, but for around three years I would go to the doctor and the dentist every week to make the check up, to see what’s happening with me.” Renad explained to me how, as a girl, she was treated differently than if she had been boy suffering from such injuries: “Then most of our colleagues and my family’s colleagues, they told me, when they saw me - I had broken my face, and my face was changed very much - most of them said they would prefer if I was a boy, not a girl. Because the boy is, okay, even if he had a problem with his shape, there is no problem. And from this point I began to think, why is a boy better than me? And all of these questions, then I began to ask, to defend women’s rights.”
“I began my work with the women’s movement from 16 years old, I was a student at the Lutheran School of Hope, and at the school one of my teachers was Maha Nassar, she was my physics teacher. She introduced me and told me about the women’s movement and all of these issues so I began to work with them as a volunteer at the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees. After that when I went to the university I still was very active in the student movement and with the women’s movement there, and while I was studying at Birzeit University I also became a member of the Young Leaders programme which was held by WATC there.”
In some ways, Renad has led a difficult life, but she is strong, confident and does not feel sorry for herself in the slightest. She is one of the most animated and interesting women I have met here in Palestine. Renad was also one of the first women to demand the right to initiate a divorce. Under Palestinian law, it is easy for men to divorce their wives even without a reason, but for women to get a divorce is much more difficult. There are a limited number of reasons that women can cite for getting a divorce, and judges are less likely to grant it to her than to a man.
Renad explains: “When we got married, me and my husband, we were introduced at university and he was one of my best friends. I had known him for a long time, and when we began in a relationship then we decided to get engaged and married, so we talked about if we can, both of us can get the divorce the same. So, we included this when we wrote the wedding contract, and everything was going well. But a Sheikh then told us that he refused to give me this right, and he said to my husband that, “It’s a wrong thing, and I feel that she’s a strong woman and she’s not good for you.” So [my husband] told him that, okay, I don’t want to get married with her, so we can live together here, and then [the Sheikh] said “Okay, we are an Arabic society so we can’t do this,” so he accepted our idea.”
Another aspect of life which is difficult for Palestinian women is the effect of the conflict on the men in their lives. When their husbands, fathers and brothers are imprisoned, killed or injured, women often become the heads of the household, and are suddenly responsible for earning a living for the family, which is traditionally a man’s role, as well as her usual “women’s work” of caring for her children and looking after her house. Renad’s husband spent several periods in prison: “When he was first he was in prison, we were in a relationship, and also he was in the prison when we got engaged, and when I had our first baby he was in the prison. Every period is different than the other, because it depends… I think the last one when I had our first baby was the most difficult, because our baby was 10 months when his father was in the prison, and when he returned back from the prison he didn’t know him, and it was really a difficult moment for his father that he saw his son didn’t accept him and he thought “My God, what is happening?” Yeah, but I don’t feel that something changed, I was working and strong enough to see… here in the Palestinian society we accept everything and all of us know that it’s something usual. And most of our friends were martyrs or in the prison so I’m not different than the others.”
Renad co-ordinates a lot of work at UPWC, as she explained: “Here at the UPWC, we have different programmes. The Childhood Programme contains 26 kindergartens and daycare centres for the children in all of the regions in the West Bank and Gaza. We have 3 children’s centres for the afternoon after school, they are in villages, in Bethlehem area, Ramallah area and Jenin area. Also we are holding summer camps – every summer we have around 10 to 20 summer camps in most of the regions. Also we have the women’s agricultural co-operatives – honey-producing and food-processing - we have now 10 co-operatives, all of them managed by women.”
Much like WATC, which is currently working on reforming the Palestinian family law, UPWC is particularly concerned with the Palestinian family as the starting point for achieving equality: “We have 26 kindergartens and daycares because we believe that if you want to change the society, that you must work with the family, with the person from his childhood. So we are working not with the child only, even with his family, on how to deal with him, as we believe that if you want to change the whole society then you must change the family and the child from his beginning.” Renad explained to me that one integral aspect of change within the family is helping women to earn their own income, which is why UPWC gives particular emphasis to income-generating projects. “We prepare everything in co-operation with them, for example the greenhouse and the visas and all of these issues, then they go to their administrative committee, they elect a steering committee for the co-operative and we co-ordinate together on managing it. After that, okay, the profit of this co-operative is divided between the women depending on the hours they work in the co-operative.”
“We are talking here at the Union about equal society between men and women, that the laws, especially the family law, criminal law and all of these laws, should deal with men and women the same.”
Sitting down to write this blog I don’t know quite where to begin. I have several other blogs I’m waiting to post, which are all being held up for various reasons, but which I will be able to post very soon, inshallah.
I’ve made a few visits to the village of Ni’lin recently, to report on the women’s demonstration against the Separation Wall there and to interview Salam Kanaan, the girl who made this video. Ni’lin is a small municipality with a population of around 5000 people, and since the construction of the wall began there earlier this year, Ni’lin has been the site of intensive popular protest organised by the Ni’lin Popular Committee Against the Apartheid Wall. The village lost 69% of its land (40,000 dunums) to Israel in 1948, and since the occupation began in 1967, 44% of the remaining land has been lost to Israeli settlements and their infrastructure, which surrounds the village, housing more than 40,000 settlers. When plans to extend the West Bank ‘security barrier’ into Ni’lin threatened to take 25% (2,500 dunums) of what was left, villagers decided they had had enough. Since May this year, demonstrations have been held almost daily, and frequently met with brutal suppression from the IDF in the form of detentions, curfews, tear gas and rubber-coated bullets. Israel now plans to close of the entrance to Ni’lin, constructing in its place an army-secured underground tunnel which will be the only way in and out of the village, taking another 200 dunums of land. Slowly, the story of Ni’lin is trickling out to the international media, and Salam’s video is just one example.
Part of the rationale behind reporting on human rights abuses is that the knowledge that the world is watching will deter perpetrators from committing these abuses. In 1785, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham developed the idea of the Panopticon as the ideal mechanism of social control. Place individuals in a situation where they constantly know that they may or may not be under surveillance, and you will not need to use force to control them; they will internalise that discipline and modify their own behaviour accordingly. The theory was developed as a means to control prisoners, but has been applied to other forms of institution and social situations where surveillance is used as a deterrent. The spread of new communications technology has greatly enhanced people’s ability to record their experiences for the world to see, and for many human rights activists, the camera is more powerful than the gun.
That is, in part, why it was so shocking to receive a phone call on Tuesday evening to say that a child had been shot dead in Ni’lin. The pressure has been rising for months in that small pocket of land, with clashes between demonstrators and soldiers becoming more and more violent. The demonstrators hoped that after Salam’s film was released, the soldiers would be more restrained, aware that the world was watching. This was not to be. Boys continue to throw stones at soldiers and soldiers continue to throw tear gas bombs and shoot rubber-coated bullets. Even a crowd of unarmed women demonstrators were beaten and gassed. More reports surfaced of injuries incurred at demonstrations. The demonstrators hoped these would cause soldiers to exercise caution. The soldiers hoped they would deter demonstrators, but it has become clear that tear gas and rubber bullets are not enough to do that. Then ten year old Ahmed Musa was shot in the head.
In Ni’lin, it seems, the modern panopticon of the international news media is not working.
It’s events like this that make us wonder just what it will take to stop the violence. The world watches, the violence continues, the world gets bored and turns away. When a Palestinian child is killed here it’s hardly even news. Countless film crews and photographers attended Ahmed’s funeral today, but when Hamas youth threw stones at on-looking soldiers and hundreds were tear-gassed in response, what good could cameras do? This was just another day on the job. While Ahmed’s body was being buried, film crews hovered at the entrance to the village where soldiers were waiting for the crowds to return from the funeral. One camera man commented to his colleague, “We’ll just get a few shots of the clashes and then we can go home.” For the children of Ni'lin, this is home, and the perceived inevitability of the violence doesn't make it any less devastating. Ahmed Musa and his peers did not ask for this life. Will they ever know anything else?
Advocating for women’s rights from the Occupied Palestinian Territories is hard.
The audience for news from Israel/Palestine is tends to be starkly divided into two categories: pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. This is no less true in Britain than it is here: debates are always heated, passions run high and accusations of racism fly in all directions. Personally I have never understood why it should be necessary to pick teams as though this were a football match. Anyone who cares about human rights, surely, must care about the suffering of both Palestinians and Israelis. This is not to say that we can’t acknowledge that there are huge inequalities between the two populations, but simply that we should not need to be “pro” one side in a way that entails being “anti” the other. I’m never entirely sure what these terms are intended to mean – what does it mean to say that I am either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli? That I care about the people who live there? That I support their right to live there? That I support their right to have their own state? That I support the current regime? Do I have to agree with all of their policies or just some? Surely any conflict, and especially one with such a complex history as this one, requires a far more nuanced approach than to simply want all or nothing for one side or the other.
Quite often in international relations, and especially in times of conflict, women’s rights become a source of political capital which can be traded or used to further other agendas, to be championed or discarded when it suits. Conflict is notorious for entrenching the prevailing tendencies to see men’s activities as the most important ones to be focused on. Men make up the majority of politicians, intelligence officials, combatants and war reporters, and it is these people who are the centre of attention in wartime. Priorities are reordered, security becomes the main concern, and as “security” is usually understood as the security of the state or regime (as opposed to the individual), it is the masculinised security apparatus whose work is held up to be most important. Women’s rights – well they can wait until the bigger problems have been sorted.
There are numerous arguments, both in Palestine and abroad, as to where women’s rights should appear in the ordering of priorities in the context of the struggle for Palestinian rights. Some, including many Palestinian women, argue that peace and freedom for Palestine must be achieved first, and only then can we turn our attention to giving women equality with men. In pragmatic terms there is something to be said for this argument – after all, campaigning for laws which enshrine women’s right to equal citizenship feels like an uphill struggle when no one here is a citizen, and no laws have the support of a sovereign state to implement them. At the same time, others argue that women’s rights must be won before peace and freedom for Palestine can be achieved, or at least that both must be addressed as part of the same struggle. There are many different and complex analyses at play here, from arguments about the role of gender equality as integral to true democracy to arguments about women’s potential role as peacemakers. However, few of these discussions get the same kind of public exposure and debate as those about occupation, suicide bombing, water resources, land and borders, settlements, the status of Jerusalem, house demolitions, prisoners, “collateral damage”, the separation wall, the rights of refugees… the list goes on.
Talking to some “pro-Palestinian” groups about Palestinian women’s rights can at times be hugely discouraging. For some, any criticism of Palestinian society is perceived as detrimental to the national struggle. Suggestions that some of the major problems facing Palestinians stem not from Israeli oppression but from within Palestinian society can fall on deaf ears. This is particularly difficult where women’s rights are concerned, because it is very common in the West for Arab men to be portrayed as a subhuman “other”, violent and oppressive, who cannot be accorded the same rights as other, supposedly more “civilised” people. The case for the war on Afghanistan after 11th September 2001 was often framed in the British and American media in terms of women’s rights. It was argued that “they” oppress “their” women and this justifies “our” hostility – the use of the phrase “their women” betraying complicity in the idea that women are somehow the property of the nation and its men, such that those women should be accorded rights not out of natural entitlement but because men benevolently bestow them upon them. Arguments for women’s rights in rights in the Middle East are therefore met with suspicion – “What is the hidden agenda here?” – or described as “cultural imperialism”. There is a legitimate, though exaggerated, fear of playing into all those stereotypes about “barbaric” Arab men.
Talk to some “pro-Israeli” groups, on the other hand, and arguments about Palestinian women’s rights will be welcomed for precisely the same reasons – they demonstrate the “backwardness” of the “other”. However, mention that women’s rights are intimately connected with national rights, and you will again be met with silence. When women are being harassed by soldiers, dying because they are made to give birth at checkpoints and having their homes destroyed in retaliation for things they didn’t do, the responsibility for securing their human rights cannot lie solely with Palestinians. There is a joke here which asks who can a woman marry, if a fifth of the men are in prison, a fifth are injured, a fifth are killed, a fifth are abroad and a fifth are gay? Though clearly comedic and not based on real figures, there is more than a grain of truth to the notion that women’s lives are severely affected by the conflict, and Israeli policy is at least partly culpable for that fact.
So, what to do? First of all, let’s view the conflict in full colour, not black and white, refrain from simply picking sides and remember that no one is above criticism. Second, let us consider that women’s rights are human rights, not privileges to be granted when it suits, nor political footballs to be bounced back and forth in service to other agendas. After all, what is “security” if it doesn’t address a woman’s right to be to secure in her own home, in the streets, and in the knowledge that she is an equal citizen protected by the rule of law?
This week, WATC launched a book entitled “Northern Sanabel” (سنابل شمالية). The word “sanabel” refers to the wheat kernels and is the name of WATC’s project to empower rural women, by providing training in areas such as leadership skills, advocacy, gender analysis, conflict resolution, networking and self-confidence in order that they can claim their rights for themselves, for example by starting awareness-raising campaigns and lobbying for legal reforms. The book outlines the history of the project and includes profiles of twelve women who have benefited from it and worked to continue spreading its benefits to others by delivering training themselves. One of the women, Nadia, sadly passed away before the book could be published, however it is fortunate that her story could be recorded in this way before she died, and her family were present, along with the eleven other women. The launch of the book was marked by a celebration in Jenin (جنين), attended by WATC director Rose Shomali, Sanabel project co-ordinator Eman Azzal, the General Director Abdullah Barakat of Jenin governate, Representative of the Municipality of Jenin Layla Shareem, members of the national press, as well as many Sanabel women and their families. The project operates in the most deprived areas, which is why Jenin governate was chosen as the starting point for the project.
You can read an article about the book launch in Arabic from national newspaper Al Ayyam here. (An English translation will follow later).
WATC launched the Sanabel project in 1997, however Jenin is best known for the siege of Jenin refugee camp in 2002, in which approximately 150 buildings were destroyed and many more were damaged. It was shortly after this that WATC set up a Sanabel group in the camp to respond to the community’s growing needs resulting from this disaster. Exactly what occurred in those ten days has been and still is a subject of fierce dispute and perhaps always will be, not least because the UN report was in many respects inconclusive, suffering from a lack of access to Jenin camp and reliance on publicly available information. What is certain is that these events have had a severe impact on the people of Jenin camp, and while UNRWA has rebuilt all but one of the demolished houses, many of the women with whom I spoke still harbour painful memories of losing their homes, possessions and family members and fearing for their lives, and many still suffer from mental illness as a result. The community and its economy suffered a huge blow as a result of injury and ill health; deaths and arrests of husbands and fathers, the breadwinners for their families; lack of access to food and medical treatment; and damage to property, schools and other infrastructure. Jenin's Sanabel groups were part of the leading Emergency Committee established after the siege to assess the needs of the community in the camp.
These are some of the problems facing the women who Sanabel seeks to help. Women trained under the project have now formed their own independent groups to organise events, campaigns and training in their local areas. While WATC trains the Sanabel committee, which is elected by the local groups, the groups are trained by the committee and go on to train others and organise events in the community themselves, often networking with other local and international organisations. For example, volunteers have held summer camps for hundreds of children who would otherwise have had little to do. The groups have collaborated with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society to give workshops on health awareness, including mental health which is a particular problem in some areas, especially among refugees. Women have been given training in literacy, first aid and handicrafts, which has helped them to earn a living, reduce their financial dependence on men and bring new services to their communities. Other groups have met with decision-makers to discuss issues relating to Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons. Last year, Sanabel women organised demonstrations to compaign for unity among the Palestinian people and an end to factional violence. In the run up to elections, Sanabel women have gone door to door in their communities to convince women to vote, or to nominate themselves as candidates. Thus, the project aims not just to improve the situation of individual women but also to improve women's status in society. In some cases the Sanabel groups have been the first civil society institutions to be established in their villages, such as in the village of Fahma (فحمه) where they met with UNDP and obtained grants to construct buildings to host the village council, a health clinic and a women’s centre.
These are just some examples of how Sanabel groups have brought positive changes to their communities. As the groups go on to train more women in the skills they have learned, the project achieves a multiplier effect which will enable these positive impacts to continue growing and spreading across Jenin and the West Bank. In the long term, WATC hopes that Sanabel go beyond raising the confidence and skills of particular women, to change the way women are perceived and society and bring them closer to achieving genuine equality.
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.
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.
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.
The 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 , 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 . 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.
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.
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?
On Wednesday I visited Tulkarim (طُولكَرِم), a governate in the north of the West Bank on the border with Israel. Part of Tulkarim was annexed in the 1948 war and so now the Arab residents in that area are Israeli citizens, while the rest live on land occupied since 1967. The land in Tulkarim is highly sought after as it is known for its rich water resources, and so the negotiations around land ownership in this area have been some of the most difficult of all. Under the Oslo Accords, this land was supposed to be returned to the Palestinians a decade ago, but this agreement was never fulfilled. Today, those living in Tulkarim, as in the rest of the territories occupied since 1967, are officially classed as “residents” by the Israeli government but not owners of the land, despite the fact that they have owned their homes for generations.
Now the infamous 'separation wall' has been erected since 2000, even more Palestinian land in Tulkarim is inaccessible, such that no one is able to visit their family, friends or places of work on the other side. The wall does not run along the border established in 1949, but right through the middle of the villages of Tulkarim. Local women told me that two hundred shops were destroyed in order to build the wall, as well as many homes, and farmers have been separated from their land, leaving the economy in tatters. I was told the story of a bride whose new marital home was demolished on her wedding day. She insisted on going into her home to see the rooms before they were destroyed, and the women of the village had to drag her away so that she wasn’t hurt. Many people in Tulkarim have luxurious homes, but since the wall was erected have had extreme difficult finding the money to feed themselves. Other homes which are close the wall were forcibly overtaken by the Israeli Defence Forces for use as watch towers to monitor activity around the wall, and as we visited these places my Palestinian companions were acutely aware of being watched. Another young woman explained that she had been in high school before the wall was erected, but was forced to quit because she could no longer get there every day. Instead of completing her education she married early; a widespread problem among Palestinian girls whose life chances are severely limited by the immobility imposed by the occupation. She told us how she was afraid to make any improvements to her home because it was continually threatened with demolition. Many of the women in Tulkarim have husbands who work on the other side of the green line, who fear coming back home in case they are not allowed back across the line and cannot return to work, making them unable to provide for their families. For this reason many women live and raise their children alone.
As I listened to these women’s stories, I could see them searching my face for a reaction: surprise, shock, dismay. I have to say, as terrible as these stories are, I am no longer shocked by them. I feel anguish, yes, but not shock. If you are looking for a ‘news’ story here, you will not find one; thousands of stories like these from Palestinians under occupation have been filtering out to the rest of the world for years. No one who pays attention to the news media in Britain can be unaware of what is happening here. Why, then, is so little being done? We often talk about ‘war fatigue’, the idea that the more we hear about the suffering of others the less we can bring ourselves to care. I have often heard people say “I don’t watch the news, it’s too depressing,” which suggests that they have not ceased to be emotionally affected by it, but that empathy is uncomfortable for us – our response is avoidance rather than action. What would it take, I wonder, to change that?
I arrived in Tel Aviv in the early hours of Monday morning, tired and nervous about the prospect of getting through airport security at Ben Gurion, which is notoriously tough on people travelling to the Occupied Territories. I considered blogging about my two hour interrogation, but after careful consideration decided that there are more important things to put in my first blog post from Palestine. After all, Palestinians face much longer waits and worse treatment when passing through checkpoints simply to get from one area to another within the West Bank and Gaza. One thing I will say is that this security ritual often serves more as a means of intimidation for the purposes of deterrence than as an effective way to keep foreigners from supporting the Palestinians. While many visitors, activists and workers are turned away – deported or just prevented from entering the Occupied Territories – hundreds get in by hiding the real reasons for their visits. One quotation has stuck with me, as an Israeli security officer explained, “You must understand, it is difficult for us to see why anyone would come here just for the Palestinians.” In fact, the only way to get into Palestine is through Israeli-controlled borders, so in effect what he meant was, it was difficult to understand why anyone would be interested in meeting Palestinians at all. It is deeply worrying that anyone should take this attitude, as without dialogue and attempts at mutual understanding the prospects for peace are non-existent.
First of all, I must agree with Willow that Palestinians are surely some of the most friendly and generous people in the world, and I was immediately made to feel welcome. My first impression of Ramallah was of how different it is to Gaza, which I visited six years ago. I had expected it to be different – Gaza is known for being more socially conservative, whereas Ramallah is the centre of international activity in Palestine and therefore much more ‘Westernised’. In Gaza, women would approach me on the street and put a scarf over my hair to cover it, whereas Ramallah is a Christian town where many women wear short sleeves and no hijab. It is not all about the hijab, however; although Western commentators tend to focus on traditional dress as the symbol of women’s oppression in the Arab world, I fear this may reproduce the same patriarchal preoccupation with women’s appearance which feminists oppose. For some women, no doubt, this is of great concern, but the Palestinian women’s movement has given relatively little attention to the issue as there are more concrete and prescient issues at hand. Another noticeable difference was that in Gaza, the first thing most people asked when they met me was “What does your father do?” – a surprise to me at the time as I never saw my father’s occupation as being among the most important parts of my identity. In Ramallah, people are more interested in what I study and why, what do I want to do with my life, and what do I think of Ramallah. Despite the number of international agencies operating in Ramallah, many people are still intrigued to see a foreigner around town - testimony to the absence of freedom of movement in and out of the West Bank.
Here in the WATC office, my first task is to conduct a needs assessment to establish what obstacles stand in the way of WATC using ICT and advocacy to achieve their strategic aims, and what I can do to help. I will use video conferencing to speak with WATC's Gaza office, as gaining physical access is impossible. Even electronic communication is very difficult, because although WATC has been able to obtain its own electricity generator, fuel is very difficult to buy, and so communications are limited to a short time slot each day. Palestinians never cease to be angered and frustrated by the way in which economic sanctions are wielded as a weapon of war against their population, such a blunt instrument to deal with so complex a political situation. This week one WATC worker wanted to send a digital camera to a friend in Gaza (as one can’t buy such things there) but was unable to because of the embargo. Such are the problems WATC faces in today’s divided Palestine. One has to ask, is preventing organisations such as WATC from carrying out their work in support of women’s rights really going to help create the kind of society which the Israeli government feels it can negotiate with?
Parked on my sofa, watching the television news whilst flicking through another academic journal, Palestine feels like a whole different world. You know when something huge is about to happen and it just doesn’t yet feel real to you? Since I accepted AP’s offer to work as a Peace Fellow with Women’s Affairs Technical Committee (WATC), I have been studiously reading everything I can find about the Palestinian women’s movement. Although I’m packing my bags for Ramallah, it still feels somewhat like an imaginary. I read the daily reports, commentaries and heated debates on news websites, but as a previous visitor to Palestine I know how limited the coverage can often be as a representation of the reality “on the ground.” Through this blog, I hope to make real for you the voices and the lives of some of the West Bank’s residents. Inevitably, no account is ever exhaustive, and each reflects the author’s ideas about what is important to write about. This blog reflects my reality, but hopefully also brings you closer to the realities of the women whose rights WATC works to protect.
WATC was formed in 1992, when in response to the Oslo negotiations a hundred technical committees were established to begin building the framework for a future Palestinian state. As a coalition of women’s organisations, committees and independent activists, WATC sought to inscribe the rights of women in Palestinian law. When the Palestinian Authority (PA) was formed in 1994, Yassir Arafat incorporated the technical committees into its institutional framework as ministries – all of them, that is, except WATC, who have continued to operate as a networking body independently of the PA. Their mission is to eliminate discrimination against women, develop the role of women in society and empower women to assume decision-making positions, paying particular attention to marginalised women, including refugees and those living in rural areas. WATC’s projects are many, including radio and TV programmes, Voice of Women (صَوت اَلنِساء) newspaper, monitoring and advising the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) on gender issues and training young leaders in gender awareness and advocacy. In 2008, Palestine’s future remains uncertain, between the competing realities of international negotiations pushing for the “definition” of a state by the end of the year, and ongoing violence undermining hopes for reconciliation. How is WATC responding to the demands of this volatile political reality? What is the impact on women’s lives? How does the struggle for women’s rights relate to the national struggle for independent statehood? Over the next three months I hope to find answers to some of my many questions.
I will also respond to your questions and comments, which you can post by clicking on the link below. By making this blog interactive, I hope to bring you closer to the realities of women in Palestine. What would you like to know about the women’s movement, WATC, Palestinian feminism?
I fly out to Tel Aviv on Sunday night, and will post more once I arrive in Ramallah. Watch this space...
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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