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.
Posted By Hannah Wright
Posted Aug 19th, 2008