Hannah Wright

Hannah Wright: Hannah received her BA in philosophy, politics and economics from University of Oxford in 2005. She went on to teach English in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and worked in Project Management for the British Civil Service. Hannah has had a keen interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since her first visit to the region in 2002. At the time of her fellowship, she was studying for a MS in gender and international relations at the University of Bristol in the UK, and also studying Arabic. After her fellowship, Hannah wrote: "I felt that blogging and producing articles for the British media was one of the most important things I did, because while there is a lot of information available in Britain about the situation in Palestine, very little of it comes directly from people on the ground speaking about their own experiences. I feel this is a very important aspect of international advocacy."

Why Care About Women’s Rights?

16 Jun

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.

Palestinian girl from Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, enclosed by the Separation Wall

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.

Graffiti art in Bethlehem by Banksy

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?

Posted By Hannah Wright

Posted Jun 16th, 2008


  • Willow

    July 16, 2008


    Once again Hannah, a job well done. The situation for women in Palestine is so complicated, and you again brought forth all the right points. What I have found really interesting here is that there is a very active debate about women’s rights here, an active civil society working on women’s issues, but there are still huge gaps in how women are perceived. Norms for women vary from village to village, from city to city, and from social class to social class. I really applaud all the work you are doing and appreciate how you look at all the issues on both the macro and the micro level. I appreciate all your insights on these particularly tough topics here.

  • IRBarb19

    July 16, 2008


    Excellent points. It seems to me that women’s rights are inextricably linked to all concerns about peace. From the family (how can children believe in justice and equality if they don’t see them in action between their parents?) to the world (the mainstream conception of the state is “male”: isolated, violent, suspicious, exploitative, dominating) gender equality has to be factored in.

  • Hannah

    July 18, 2008


    Hi guys, thanks for your comments.

    Willow – yes, it is heartening that there is plenty of active debate about women’s issues. If anything I feel it’s more acceptable to talk about it here than in Britain, perhaps because in Britain there is such a backlash against feminism and so many people think equality has been achieved, therefore any women talking about women’s rights must have some selfish motivations. Here, even if many people see feminism as a foreign ideology, they tend to acknowledge that there are issues to be resolved around gender relations. I find it odd how the way women are portrayed here is often very contradictory. On the one hand, women are expected to cover up and avoid doing anything which be seen as sexually provocative to men, but on the other hand women’s magazines are all about beauty, make-up etc. and advertising and music videos etc. are all full of images of women trying to be seductive. There is pressure exerted in both directions.

    IRBarb – I agree that women’s rights and peace are inextricably linked, especially if we’re talking about “positive peace” rather than “negative peace” (I see you discuss these issues on your blog). I think the issue of women and peacemaking has to be dealt with in a very nuanced way though – the argument that women make good peacemakers has been widely used and was instrumental in passing UN Security Council Resolution 1325 – http://www.peacewomen.org/un/sc/1325.html – but it has also been argued that potraying women as more peacefully tends to play into essentialist stereotypes which say that women are naturally more passive etc. – the same stereotypes which ultimately have kept women oppressed. A very tough dilemma!

    I do think that, like you suggest, we need to think not just about relations between men and women but also about the masculinity and femininity embedded in concepts like the state, security etc. A very thoughtful comment!

  • Oleastra Kyprianou

    August 5, 2008


    Dear Hannah

    I have just accessed this excellent blog from your link on the Seth Freedman [CiF] Guardian thread.

    I will give the insightful material you present here a thorough read and get back with a proper comment later.

    Thank you very much!

    Efgharisto poli!

  • Hannah

    August 6, 2008


    Thanks, Oleastra, I’m glad you enjoyed our blogs!

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