One of the issues I was looking to understand during my trip to Palestine was the position of women in Palestinian society – their presence in public life and gender equality.
I was fortunate to meeting a range of Palestinian women – university students and university faculty, home makers and working women. Some from the relatively conservative city of Hebron, and others from the more urbane Ramallah. These are some of their stories.
Some remarkable women I had the privilege to meet
Zelikha lives in one of the most disturbed parts of the West Bank, the old neighbourhood of Hebron. The Israeli military maintains 2,000 soldiers and vast security infrastructure in this area to enable merely 800 Israeli settlers to illegally occupy and encroach Hebron’s Old City. Zelikha’s house is encircled by Israeli surveillance and military installations. Heavily armed soldiers often barge into her house on pretexts as flimsy as to order her off her own terrace. Zelikha always stands her ground, sometimes successfully if the soldiers are not too aggressive. The door from Zelikha’s house used to lead into Shuhada street. Proclaiming “security”, the Israeli military completely blocked off access to Shuhada street for Palestinians and welded shut doors of Zelikha’s house that used to open into the street. One of the most formidable women I’ve met, Zelikha runs a cultural centre at her house and gives political tours in Hebron.
Aliya* is a professor of medicine at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, a small town neighbouring Israeli occupied east Jerusalem. Aliya lived in the US for many years and is a naturalised citizen. About four years ago, she chose to return to Palestine with her two young children. Aliya now lives in Ramallah, driving to work in the mornings after dropping her children off at school, and picking them up in the evening on the way back. A typical story of a working single mother; she told me she faces trouble with cultural attitudes in a society that isn’t quite used to this phenomenon. Yet, she stayed strong and things have eased up considerably over time as her children have grown up and got accustomed to life there.
Tara* is a psychologist, trauma therapist and one of the most awe-inspiring people I have met. Tara has extensively travelled the world, is an atheist and lives independently on her own terms. Almost always singing and laughing infectiously, she appeared to know half the city. Every place we visited, there were people warmly calling out and hugging her. But what sets her apart is that Tara is clinically blind. If being blind is a challenge everywhere, the occupation in Palestine adds unpredictability and dangers that are hard to fathom. She has to constantly navigate aggressive Israeli soldiers and police who are often unable to believe that she is blind.
Education is regarded highly in Palestinian society. The literacy rate among Palestinian women stands at over 95% (estimate 2016) and has been systematically rising. There are more women enrolled at universities than men. University campuses across the West Bank bore this out. I met several graduating students that were aspiring to Masters programmes both in Palestine and abroad.
However, their numbers among the faculty drop substantially – a common concern at universities around the world.
Hijab or not
Christian Palestinian women do not wear the head scarf (Hijab) while a majority of Muslim Palestinian women do. However, some of the younger Muslim women dispense with it too, especially in the more urbane city of Ramallah. Birzeit University is known to be the most secular and tolerant of Palestinians universities. Indeed, a good part of the student population there is indistinguishable from the ones at St. Xavier’s or St. Stephen’s campuses in India. When I asked some women about societal pressure to wear the Hijab, some said that the choice was theirs to make, while others said that they refused to wear it despite the expectation to do so. They clearly hadn’t faced serious censure for not complying. Yet, I do not doubt that greater pressure, possibly unstated, exists in more conservative families.
Culture and arts
The Freedom Theatre located in a refugee camp in the northern city of Jenin is a vibrant cultural space. Plays produced by the Freedom Theatre are generally political in nature and feature both male and female actors. I watched their play titled Jinan with a female lead that is based on the popular Swedish series of children’s books about Pippi Longstocking, a playful and superhumanly strong freckled girl with red hair. It was an energetic and entertaining performance celebrating the strength of women enduring the brutality of the Israeli occupation.
Likewise, the Alrowwad Cultural Centre in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem does fabulous work with the children and youth of the camp. They focus on education, arts and vocational training for adults, prioritising women’s empowerment. By happy coincidence, I caught a fabulous dance performance on the day I visited. Alrowwad also has a library with books in Arabic and English and provides computers for free use.
Domestic challenges in a conservative society
Palestinian women face several challenges in a society that is far from equal. Sons are regarded highly in families and conventional families will continue having children until a son is born. The basic social structure is undoubtedly patriarchal and, as is so often the case, reflects in language and cultural traits. Fathers are commonly called Abu [eldest son’s name] instead of by their own name, Abu meaning “father of”. I found the behaviour of young Palestinian boys to often be particularly unruly and entitled. An observation shared by other visitors as well.
Domestic violence is a major concern. At least 28 women and girls were reported killed by male relatives in 2017 in honour killings. The State of Palestine acceded unconditionally to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Yet national legislation has not been amended in line with CEDAW. The Jordanian Penal Code that is still in force in the West Bank allows for those who commit rape or sexual assault to escape punishment by marrying the victim. Jordanian Personal Status law discriminates against women with regard to marriage, inheritance, divorce, guardianship and property rights. For instance, the 2015 annual report by the International Commission of Human Rights states that,
“The husband also has the right to dissolve the marriage bond without conditions or restrictions. On the other hand, the woman is required to go through certain procedures so as to justify her willingness to repudiate the marriage bond for such reasons as separation due to absence, separation due to dispute and discord, or separation due to imprisonment of the husband.”
Violence due to the Israeli occupation
Yet another major source of violence towards Palestinian women is the Israeli occupation. As for January 2014, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians have been incarcerated in Israeli prisons, including 23,000 women and 25,000 children since the six-day war in 1967. Women in Israeli prisons are frequently subjected to both physical and sexual abuse. Aside from the 750,000 Palestinians that were made refugees in 1948 during Israel’s creation, Israeli forces have also destroyed around 50,000 Palestinian houses since 1967 rendering hundreds of thousands of women and children homeless. Israel has imposed severe restrictions on movement within the West Bank. Between 2001 and 2005, 67 women were forced to give birth at an Israeli erected check point they had to cross to get to the hospital because the occupation forces would not allow them past. Thirty six babies died.
With so many men in prison or killed, and being rendered frequently homeless, Palestinian women face unique challenges in managing their lives and families. For this, among other reasons, women feature prominently in Palestinian non-violent resistance to occupation. The village of Nabi Saleh has been organising weekly protests against the occupation where men, women and children participate equally. Its most famous resident, the 17-year-old girl, Ahed Tamimi, has become a Palestinian and global icon of resistance for slapping heavily armed Israeli soldiers. Another interesting phenomenon is that mothers of political prisoners wield a special moral authority in Palestinian society.
Literacy rate among Palestinian women is high and has been steadily improving. Many aspire to obtain higher degrees. They are present in cultural life including dance, music and theatre in mixed cultural groups across the West Bank.
Violence towards women derives from two sources. For one, problems of domestic violence in a patriarchal society that bear many similarities to women’s issues in India and elsewhere. For another, violence due to the Israeli occupation that has few, if any, parallels in the world today. Circumstances being such, women participate pro-actively in the Palestinian independence struggle.
Chirag Dhara is a climate physicist with PhDs in theoretical physics and earth science. He is keenly interested in the Palestinian situation and visited the occupied West Bank for three months in early 2018 in solidarity with the Palestinians.