We had all taken refuge from the heat of the sun in the cool Palestinian stone walled center of Women´s Study Center (WSC). The meeting in Nablus had been arranged upon the request of Gunilla Carlsson, the Swedish Minister of International Development Cooperation. The topic at hand: Palestinian women: what are their situation, what are their obstacles in daily lif, their roles in society and their dreams?
The young women taking part in the advanced training on human rights and democracy organized by the Palestinian Center for Peace and Democracy (PCPD) were eager to discuss with the Minister first. In the morning they had been mounting a public campaign in Nablus about women´s rights to equal pay and had gotten positive response from the community. They spoke of the obstacles of getting a job and how they are discriminated against in the labor market and treated unfairly due to prevailing norms of being less capable than men. However, they all agreed that their situations now are better than when their mothers were young as there are more jobs for women and they can leave home to study and work.
When asked “Would you like to become a politician like me?“, all the young women expressed a desire to become politically involved, not on the national but on municipal level. All of them however, said that they would prefer to be independent, as the current parties all are male dominated and include women just for show. When asked about the training and what happens after the project one girl said: “It´s a personal change we go through which lasts even when the project is over. The training starts with ourselves to give us tools to change our communities.” Another one followed: “Politics is important in our lives and women have to take a bigger role and initiative and that will change the community.”
The young women´s attitudes on the role of their own agency in the political sphere and voicing their rights and needs publicly came across very strongly and when asked about their dreams many said they wanted to stay in Nablus and change the situation there (also stating the situation as becoming more and more difficult). This positive attitude toward the role of women´s political participation was reiterated by the older generation of women representing WSC and the bereaved women´s roles as community leaders after receiving support was discussed and exemplified. However, the position of the older women was that younger women are worse of today and one of the major reasons was stated as religious fundamentalism. They argued that fundamentalism is stopping women from participation in the public sphere and it diminishes women´s rights into a bargaining tool that can be set aside when more pressing issues have to be solved. The young women themselves clearly withheld that it is culture and cultural norms rather than religion that stand in their way.
In sum, the meeting was very successful, the Minister was very moved by the WSC representatives and asked engaged questions on the possibilities for the young women to pursue their political dreams. And the partners thanked her for listening to their voices.
Today, May 15, marks the Nakba (catastrophe in Arabic) in Palestine. It is the day that thousands of Palestinians left their homes, for the violence or the fear of the violence that was sweeping across villages as Israel took over the land. 2012 marks the 64th year that countless Palestinians have been displaced from their homes.
Last year I went to a conference hosted by a Kvinna partner organization, Ma´an, where Safa Abu Rabia spoke about Bedouin women´s memories of the Nakba and their place in history. She had to make a concerted effort to find their voices, as a gender blind-look would have easily made them invisible. They told her how they remember land and landscape and the expulsion from their land. Their land, she explained – as well as remembering how they cared for it, how they moved across it – is integral to their identity.
And yet, now, there is a law in Israel since 2011 against remembering! More specifically it says that organizations that receive state funding cannot commemorate – that means schools, possibly community centers, and so on. Without remembering your past, how can you know who you are. This year, students who hosted an event at Tel Aviv University to remember were not allowed to hold it on campus and are being forced to cover security expenses – unlike other student-hosted events.
But remembering is still visible in our public spaces. Poster and leaflets appear on notice boards. Statements are circulated. Facebook and twitter explode with commentary. Patriarchal norms and even legal measures cannot get rid of a memory – especially when that memory is still so real and forms a cornerstone in the identity of thousands of people.
Since last I wrote, I have been thinking a bit about rule of law. You can never go wrong with the rule of law, someone said at a conference I went to a good while back. But that is exactly what you can do here, you can go very wrong with rule of law.
Rule of law is a basic tenant of democracy, at least that´s what they taught me when I did my masters in international studies! And that means that as a citizen you have to be able to influence the law. As the West Bank operates under Israeli military law, in addition to their own civil administration law, citizens have basically no chance at influencing it. The Palestinian Parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council is not working since the internal split between Fatah and Hamas brought it to a close. That means law can only be changed through Presidential decree at best. This has obviously challenged the advocacy work of some of the organizations that we support. Meanwhile Israeli military law is developed by military leaders and not necessarily through the Israeli Parliament, where of course Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza have no influence.
I went to see the film The Law in these Parts (http://www.thelawfilm.com/eng), which if it comes to a cinema near you I can certainly recommend. The film shows how rule of law was changed and adjusted to better fit the development over the years of the occupation. One such development is that people can be kept in administrative detention, without being made aware of the allegations against them, as was the case with Khader Adnan. Adnan had been on hunger strike for 66 days when he stopped on Wednesday, and was told he would be released in April, still unaware of on what charges he was being held. Whether Adnan is guilty or not, the point is that the rule of law should protect people from such arbitrary detention. Like one interviewee in the film said, and I paraphrase, the approach might be adequate in emergency situations. But how long can an emergency period be extended to?
This is the first time I write a blog… ever. So for this momentous occasion, I’ve decided to share my thoughts on the recent media reports of the ultra-orthodox community committing acts of violence directed primarily against women for not being “modest” or for not complying with the community’s unspoken rules (i.e. sitting at the back of the bus while the men sit in the front). This has become such news that I even read an article about it in my parents’ local newspaper (the Herald-Tribune… not the International Herald Tribune…the Sarasota Florida Herald Tribune )!
While I think it is great that media is writing about the image of women in public spaces (or the disappearing image) and what impact conservative practices are having on women’s lives… there is still something that doesn’t feel right about all this sudden media frenzy. So I decided to have coffee with an Israeli friend to discuss.
Rina told me that she feels that what we are seeing is a response backed by liberal Israelis who need to show that they respect women’s rights so that they can keep proving that this is a modern, democratic society – the only democracy in the Middle East, according to Israel. Yet there is no real analysis coming out as to why these extreme acts against women are taking place nor what has made these groups so strong. There is no discussion that the state has supported them financially for years and let them live by their own principles in their own neighborhoods.
Rather than an open debate on root causes, the reaction has been to vilify the religious conservatives, to show how weird they are, that they are just a rare anomaly, and in fact, overall, Israel is still a modern, liberal society that respects women’s rights.
What am I trying to conclude by writing this? Well, that the international media attention against the ultra-orthodox is perhaps not painting the whole picture.