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…
Posted By Hannah Wright
Posted Aug 27th, 2008