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?
Posted By Hannah Wright
Posted Jun 16th, 2008