Women’s rights in the Westbank

Palestinian women are –without doubt­– the best educated of the entire Arab world. Still, you rarely find them in high career positions, more likely they are condemned to the life of a housewife. While opinion leaders are racking their brain to find out whether this is due to the occupation or the patriarchal society, political and social reforms are still to be expected.
Stones Cafe is a hotspot in Ramallah. The alcohol is served over the counter, the dress code tolerates a veil with tight hip jeans, sturdy high heels and sophisticated make-up. Even a cigarette is contingent, and male and female students share the table here. What a difference from the hotel where I am staying.
Although promoted in a progressive Palestinian travel guide, the hotel gives the impression of a caricature of the patriarchal culture. Everything is done by men: they manage the reception, they serve in the kitchen and in the restaurant, they even make the beds and vacuum the rooms. There’s a total lack of femininity. Quick conclusion: Stones Cafe thus represents the “lighthearted” Ramallah? ‘I do not know if I, myself would call this place lighthearted’, Mona laughs *. She is my 22-year-old interpreter and table companion. ‘Ramallah is really a progressive and diverse city. Old patriarchal traditions can now be matched with the so-called western modernity. They don’t necessarily have to oppose.’
Six years ago Mona’s family moved from the United States to Ramallah.
She lost her American passport and with that the liberty to cross the borders of the West Bank. She has learned to live with the consequences of the conflict. “In this society, young women have less freedom of movement, but what counts for me is that individualism is considerably less embedded here. The family is the cornerstone of society. This is a warm relief and it keeps me alive.”
Yet, Mona’s world is now reduced to a small piece of occupied land, with walled boundaries which she is not supposed to cross. Ramallah may be “the Beirut of the West Bank”, it can’t hide its gray side. The many private construction projects in the city and prestigious shopping malls near the centre of Al Manara strongly contrast with the vacant seminar centres and hotels, public landfills, ramshackle buildings and visible poverty. Yesterday’s rain converted the shabby roads into rivers in no time.

‘Blame the Occupation’

The long-promised political reforms came to a stance since the political split between Gaza and the West Bank in 2007, and so did the reforms for more women’s rights. All too often the lack of women’s rights are linked to decades of occupation, gender experts say. ‘Equal rights for women are the responsibility of the Palestinians’, says Heba Husseini, a staff member of the PWWSD (Palestinian Working Woman Society For Development).
‘But it’s hard for us to admit it. Recently, my little brother did not make his homework. He said with a grin that he could not help it, the occupation was to blame. He already knows our mantra well enough: We use the occupation as an excuse for everything that goes wrong in our society. If things are not going well with women’s rights, then the cause is already determined.’
‘That’s only partly true, because you can not separate one from the other’, Mona responds. ‘A society, daily confronted with poverty, hopelessness and humiliation, bends back to traditionalism.’ No impoverished or oppressed people ever made history because of progressiveness, she adds laconically.
‘When I still had my American passport, I could easily go from the West Bank to Israel and back. One day I came back from Bethlehem in a taxi with a couple of friends. Initially at Gilo checkpoint there was no problem, until a soldier saw me and ordered me to step out of the car. He took me to a small office and closed the door. He asked me if I had a boyfriend, ‘because such a pretty girl like you should have a boyfriend’. He wanted to ‘fill that gap, together we could do fun stuff’. The other soldiers were just standing there and laughed. I started to scream very loud, the soldiers got angry, but they let me go.’
Because no physical violence was used, Mona tried to forget the incident. She didn’t consider herself a victim. But this sexual harassment provided her with a simmering fear. ‘It showed me my position when I am face to face with an Israeli soldier. This is pure exhibition of power, which I so far only experienced with the Israeli army. No law or code of conduct can protect me against intimidation or sexual assault.’

Constant insecurity

In a recent report the WCLAC ­–a Palestinian women’s centre that provides legal help and advice about women’s rights– collected testimonies about human rights’ violations of women in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers, Israeli settlers and the state of Israel. ‘Our report shows the effect on women of the destructions of many houses, evictions and blocked files concerning family reunification’, says British lawyer and project assistant Hannah Rought-Brooks.
‘Since 2000, Israel blocks applications for family reunification in East Jerusalem. Because of that, some families are living separated or in illegal conditions for years already. Quite a few women have to raise their children on their own, because one partner has a pass for the West Bank and the other one is a “Jerusalemite”. Women with a pass for the West Bank living illegally in Jerusalem with their husband, can not drive a car or take a taxi and they have no access to health care. They live in constant insecurity.’
WCLAC further reports how women face sexual harassment and violence by soldiers and settlers. The settlements are growing rapidly, Rought-Brooks says. ‘While the population in Israel grew by 1.8 percent in 2008, it grew by 5.6 percent in the settlements. The ultra-nationalists are determined to confiscate land, through harassment or if necessary by force. Especially in the area of Hebron and Nablus, the number of violent incidents by settlers increased.’

Psychological impact

Besides violence by settlers against olive pickers in the fields, there are also the harassments of Palestinians at home. For instance the story of the Palestinian woman Ahlam R., who was home alone with her four children in Hebron when armed Israeli settlers surrounded her house. As she and her children sought refuge in a bedroom on the ground, she heard shots and stones against the windows. When the colonists set fire to a woodpile next to her house, she fled to the neighbours. The damage was enormous. The tank was broken, the area around the house was burned, windows were broken and the house was permeated with a pungent smell of burning.
‘We spoke to women who hardly dare to leave their homes, especially in a city like Hebron,’ said Rought-Brooks. ‘The psychological impact of the attacks is not to be underestimated, even though there are no deaths or injuries.’
Formal complaints are scarce, Palestinians have the feeling that the settlers are above the law. And that is not just a fantasy. According to the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, ninety percent of the complaints against settlers end up in the paper bin.
Living in an occupied country affects all people who live there. ‘Emotionally, women have a different experience from men,’ says Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas, director of the WCLAC. ‘Once you have children, it is hard,’ she adds, a bit more quiet. ‘I have two sons myself, and there comes a time that you can no longer protect them. Palestinian adolescent boys are not seen by Israel as children, but as potential troublemakers. Each time they pass the checkpoint, they are humiliated. The street is dangerous ground for boys, even within Palestinian security zones, and so you end up as a mother who deprives her children’s freedom to protect them. Even if you don’t want to.’

Part-time Feminism

Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, there’s an upsurge of violence in the Palestinian society, said Islah Jad, a respected female gender expert at the Birzeit University. According to Jad, the Palestinian Authority (PA)  is partly responsible for the violent society and a reduced social status of Palestinian women.
‘Before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, the violence there was against the Israeli army and settlers. Since the PA is responsible for security budgets, violence in society only increased, especially against women.‘ This is mostly in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is in charge, though there should be no comparison of women’s rights under Hamas or Fatah, according to Jad.
‘The situation is different, Gaza literally has nothing and is completely isolated, whereas the West Bank has a certain standard of living. Remember that Hamas was the Palestinian answer to the corruption of the PA, which is Fatah. Yet Hamas never had the chance to do anything because of the global boycott. The budgets of the Western PA totally depend on donations, and not a penny goes to Hamas. Thirty-nine percent of the national budget of the PA goes to security, but we have never felt so unsafe on our own land.’
There is no strong women’s movement on the West Bank, says Jad. The Arab feminism of the seventies and eighties also reached the Palestinian women, then decreased but had a bloom during each of the two intifadas and finally faded out in 2004.
‘The only feminism we know now is a ”part-time feminism”,’ says Heba Husseini. ‘Many women who call themselves feminists today, step out of that role when they leave their cherished paid job and come home to withdraw within the four walls of the family home. The gender gap occurs in many areas. Even in most of the women’s centres it is still men who are the directors.’
It is not because of the training: Palestinian women are the best educated in the Arab region. Per 100 male students there are 107 female students, says the UNESCO documentation centre for Palestinian women. Strangely enough this is not reflected in employment. The employment rate of Palestinian women is even less than half of Arab women.
‘As a woman you have to be damn stubborn to deal with gender inequality here, and I am not even talking about non-issues like the veil,’ says Husseini, ostensibly putting out her Gauloises cigarette. Behind her, on a wall poster, a woman looks at me defiantly, with the following footer: ‘Give me credit for being a woman.’

‘A woman should not do business’

Obviously there are enough Palestinian women, such as Iman, who are coping with the patriarchal commandments. Her small but colorful salon is located across the prestigious Intercontinental Hotel in Bethlehem. Iman called upon the micro credits UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, provides. In the meantime she had three small loans, which she spent on decoration, furniture and cosmetics.
Iman also attracts customers from the hotel. This is necessary because she wants her daughters to have -an expensive- private education. ‘I want my daughters to learn to be independent, and therefore they need a proper education -outside the state-education.’
Iman is the sole breadwinner since her husband became ill. She tells that it was not obvious for a woman to start a business, especially not in a conservative city like Bethlehem. ‘Men are in charge of the family fortune, as a woman I had no money. Initially I was not always taken seriously.
‘Iman, a woman should not go into business’, I was often told, and certainly not only by men. Now the business is doing fine, luckily I get an increasing respect from my surroundings.’ Imam would certainly call herself a feminist. She thinks the Palestinian Authority works to achieve equality between men and women. ‘Of course the occupation plays a major role in this. The PA gets enough money, but not a single penny goes to the empowerment of women.’

Honour killings

The PA itself cannot deny that the Legislative Council finds itself in a state of chronic paralysis. Almost nothing of the announced legal reforms of women’s rights has been accomplished. The Palestinian National committee made a law proposal, though, that had to confine and ameliorate the juridical status of women by fighting discrimination. The laws on personal status now are in fact based on the Sharia, often religious laws hostile toward women, which also vary depending on the region.
On the West Bank Jordanian laws are still applied, while in the Gaza Strip the ancient Egyptian laws are used. Palestinians in East Jerusalem are both under the laws of the West Bank and under Israeli legislation. Moreover, the recognized Christian communities in the Palestinian Territories have their own courts and laws concerning personal status. Both the Jordanian and Egyptian laws contain discriminatory provisions concerning marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance rights.
‘Islam is a law, not a religious experience,’ says an employee of the women’s documentation centre PWDRC. Sharia is a thorn in the eye to her, but not everyone agrees on that. ‘The problem is the patriarchal side of our society, not the religious one,’ says Salwa Najjib, a gender specialist and amongst other things president of the Palestinian women’s centre WCLAC.
‘Even under Sharia law, women have custody of their children, and men have the duty to maintain their wives. Only women don’t know that. There really is a lot of disinformation. Women themselves contribute to the preservation of a male dominated society. In successions, the Sharia requires that jewelry and cash go to the daughters and houses and livestock go to the sons. But in practice this is not applied.’
‘Mothers give a share of their daughters’ inheritance to their sons, which then serves as a sort of grant to maintain their sisters. There is indeed a legislation that protects women, but as a woman you cannot take unequal inheritance rights to trial. Then you will be excommunicated. A few years ago there were a couple of so-called honour killings. Well, those honour killings were not about the name of the family, but for legacy issues.’

Breaking Taboos

Palestinians love to watch television, and especially local television stations are doing well. But there is not much substantial information to gather. The 32 private Palestinian channels are family enterprises and neither have the money nor a professional background to make sturdy and critical television.
‘Palestinian TV-stations fail to show a correct image of women in television shows or video clips,’ says Suheir Farraj, the director of Tam, an NGO for women, media and development. ‘Violence against women, husbands who beat their wives “out of jealousy and love” is still considered to be normal behaviour. And in honour killings you can read the suggestion that women themselves provoked them.’
Tam sees television as the perfect channel to correct the distorted image of women and has set a target for the Palestinian television to be sensitive to gender equality. The NGO has a partnerships with eight local Palestinian TV stations. They give gender specific training to documentary makers, cameramen and women, and they themselves make documentaries too.
Tam wants to place taboo topics like polygamy, divorce and mixed marriages up for discussion. ‘We really want to reach men as well. NGO’s and projects on gender issues reach the women, but often not the men. This rather leads to more segregation between men and women, to conflicts with fathers and brothers instead of bringing change.”
Women are not only treated as helpless victims, but also as role models, people who have to stand up for their rights. ‘But we show everything, we also want to confront. So we show the negative sides too, mothers with a ‘male mentality’, which do everything to maintain the inferior position of their daughters, for fear of losing their family position.
Starting point for our documentaries is that we don’t present women as people who want to overthrow the family system, but who want equal opportunities within that structure.’ Tam’s success is not measurable, but Farraj notes that things are changing. ‘Male television makers and cameramen search specifically for female witnesses, women call us to ask why they have not been addressed with in a particular program.’
*Fictive name
Palestinian Women: facts and figures

The literacy rate of Palestinian women is hight, compared to their Arab sisters (MENA countries).
Literacy rate Palestinian women: 89,8  %
Literacy rate Arab women: 66,48 %
(PWRDC, 2007)

Palestinian women’s participation in the labor market is the lowest amongst all MENA countries.
Employment Palestinian women: 14,7 %
Employment Palestinian men: 67,7 %
Employment women Arab Region: 29 %
(PCBS, 2007)

There’s a lack of women in decision making positions
Female ministerial representatives (PA and Hamas): 0 %
Representatives Palestinian Legal Council: 12,9 %
Judges: 11 %
Lawyers: 11 %
Doctors: 12,1 %
(PWRDC, 2007)

There’s a gender gap in the Palestinian wages
In the West Bank, women are paid 66 % of men’s earnings and in Gaza women receive 72 % of men’s earnings.
(PCBS, 2007)

Increases in disease affect Palestinian women of all education backgrounds.
Mortality female breastcancer patients: 65 % (Belgium: 18 %)
Breast cancer has become one of the most prevalent cancers in all of Palestinian society, 16.4% in the general population and 31% in all women, and is the second leading cause of cancer mortality, 11.5%.

Domestic violence often occurs
Verbal violence: 61,7 %
Physical violence: 23,3 %
Sexual violence: 10,9 %
So-called ‘honor’ killings have not subsided either as nearly 50 were reported in 2007
(PWRDC, 2007)

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