The 11th Sjövik seminar 2013 started one day after the Swedish Minister of International Development Cooperation announced that Sweden should cut its development aid to Palestine, since it yields no visible results. The focus of the seminar was the water situation and the situation of women in Palestine. As usual, restrictions on travel for Palestinians implied that the planned participants were not able to attend which resulted in a list of guests that were not necessarily as familiar with the topic of women’s rights in Palestine as the original plan. However, the guests made up for it with compelling and moving personal stories about being women in Palestine.
The only guest from Israel, Lihi Joffe from New Profile, did a very good job of focusing on feminism and the impact of militarism on the Israeli society. She spoke in depth about the way in which militarism infiltrates all parts of Israeli society. Her talk started with the question: “Do we have a country with an army or do we have an army with a country?” and went on to inform the audience about the societal sanctions that people who leave the army or refuse to serve will face in the Israeli society; how schools create a ranking system or a pecking order between students based on how many in their family that have served in the army during the history of wars in Israel.
Lihi referred to the way in which the chauvinism and the patriarchal norms of militarism affects the society’s and the army’s rhetoric of feminism. Feminism in Israel is a concept entangled with the wish to show case a modern, democratic and secular nation meaning that it gets used also in relation to the army. Lihi mentioned that women usually are allocated support functions in the army and that the real combatants usually are men. She said that women who perceive themselves as feminist (and this is supported by the army rhetoric) will be asked to become combatant soldiers in the army. Many prominent women politicians, like Tzipi Livni have held such combating positions in the army which in Israel is translated into being capable, of high rank and by implication, having a chance to be an equal to men. New Profile tries to fight militarism, since it is a means to keep up the occupation, and raises awareness of the public so as to criticize militarism and ultimately to criticize the occupation.
Alex Abu Atta working for EWASH (Emergency Water Group) held an illustrative presentation of the water situation in Palestine which has been largely affected by the Oslo agreement, in which 80 percent of water resources in the West Bank were allocated to Israel. Since the Oslo accords the Palestinian population has increased and with it the demand for water, at the same time as Israeli use of the West Bank water resources has increased to 86 percent. Furthermore, due to the hilly terrain in the West Bank, it is hard to dig wells there and in the plains of Israel many wells have been dug outside the green line, extracting the West Bank water resources. Israel then sells this water back to the Palestinians very expensively.
Water shortages hit women
Alex spoke specifically about that water shortages hit women hardest as Palestine is a patriarchal society where women are responsible for all the unpaid care work in the family, including cooking, cleaning, washing dishes and clothes and keeping the family clean. Women need to plan for the use of water in the family and the lack of it is a constant source of stress for many women, in particular in rural areas like Area C where water tanks are frequently destroyed by the Israeli army or can contaminated with sewage from settlements. When women are blamed for the lack of water they can be subject to domestic violence.
Water is also essential for sanitation. In rural schools water may not be available whereby toilets can be very basic and sometimes not available at all. This causes problems for young women who cannot, like the boys – go outside – as there is a shame connected to the risk of being seen and women’s periods are also a taboo which may keep them from going to school where toilets are rudimentary or an otherwise non safe space (i.e. where others can see).
Islam and feminism
The guest from Gaza, Hanan Abu Nasser, is a teacher at the governmental school in Gaza city and spoke about the restrictive rule of Hamas in Gaza and how the Islamic “superstitions surrounding the image of women” is restricting women’s freedom. Hanan had spent the week before Sjövik at a seminar at Kista Högskola debating Islam and feminism and said that she was saddened by the women that she had met at that seminar, saying that they had accused her of being against Islam because she was criticizing Hamas politics and policies in Gaza. Hamas is now supporting a more conservative, fundamentalist Islam, one that is inspired by the Salafists and Wahabis of Saudi Arabia and that it is largely a consequence of the financial support from Saudi and Iran.
Hanan made it clear that the International community’s failure to find a way to let Hamas develop as a democratically elected party in 2006 has contributed to this development. She was also clear on that women’s lack of freedom in Gaza and the restrictions on women’s possibilities to go out, that is completely dependent upon the permission of a male family member, is closely linked to the lack of freedom of men in Gaza. The siege has had a devastating effect on Gaza in terms of the economy and lack of employment for men and women. When men do not have work and stay at home which implies fewer possibilities for women to go out and it also increases domestic violence.
Occupation in focus
The discussions about women in Palestine concluded that it is the occupation that has lead to the economic and political crisis and the lack of justice in Palestine. The political split is one of many consequences of the occupation and women’s organizations in the west Bank and Gaza are holding weekly demonstrations for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas but it is clear that the ultimate focus of Palestinian and international civil society and governments should be directed at fighting the occupation as it is the root cause of the problems in Palestine.
The Sjövik seminar concluded with a statement by the participants, demanding that Gunilla Carlsson does not punish the Palestinian people for the “lack of results” of the development cooperation in Palestine, when it is clear that the Israeli occupation and its expansion policies are the greatest hinders to a just peace and development results.
Anna Björkman, Kvinna till Kvinna’s coordinator for Israel and Palestine