A short story based on works by Eileen Kuttab, Amal Amireh, Daniel Hirsch, Nahla Abdo, Islah Jad and Virginia Quirke.

Palestinian women struggle to be heard, both inside and outside the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The significant discrepancy between how they are perceived outside and what they can actually do at home means that women who could be serious counterparts in ending the occupation, remain invisible where they are needed most. Like women in so many war zones, they cannot break through the patriarchal attitudes of either national or international political parties, groups or central media networks. Yet, they continue to express creativity, pragmatism, suggestions, political aims and sheer hopefulness when they discuss their aims and work. This short story is an attempt to honour Palestinian women in Gaza, the West Bank and in diaspora.

According to Eileen Kuttab, the women’s movement provided the backbone of the resistance in 1987, the first Intifada, after a decade of mobilization and democratization through its continuous work with women in villages and refugee camps. They acted as the local authority together with other mass-based organizations. A new platform was formed that combined national, cultural, social and economics; all including women’s issues. Women’s rights included the right to work, to be educated, to struggle and to be represented equally in political decision-making. They created an alternative space for popular education to replace regular schools, which were closed by the occupation forces for a long time during the first Intifada. These groups also boycotted Israeli products in an effort to enhance national identity. Kuttab pinpoints that all these activities were crucial for the continuity of the Intifada and the empowerment of women.

The Oslo Agreement created an optimism among Palestinian people and a new mode of thinking that assumed liberation and independence. This new mindset however caused a split within the national movement, which had been unified against the occupation. The focus was now more on international affairs and less on national issues. Consequently, the mass-based organizations weakened and the informal grass-roots network collapsed, whilst the elite leadership was not accountable to any constituency. Their legitimation was symbolically representing the Palestine people. Thus, the hegemony of the Palestinian Authority (PA) was growing. Only the Islamist opposition succeeded in maintaining a popular base through the elections of 2003 and the victory of Hamas in 2006.

According to Kuttab a fragmented, liberal movement led to compromise on national issues, coopting neoliberal paradigms and losing their organic structural ties with the national movement and the grassroots. The emergence of feminist NGOs during the early 1990s led to a growing number of specialized and professional feminist NGOs dedicating themselves to intervening in national and international policy processes. Thus, the NGOs started to play a prominent role in transforming the local women`s agenda, mostly due to the split between Fatah and Hamas. NGOs receive funds from bilateral and multilateral agencies. Kuttab identifies that the neoliberal paradigms are headed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, and international institutions like UN organizations and donor organizations, which have unified and general programs at all levels.

Women’s rights of the NGOs are according to Kuttab mostly understood as human rights. Thus, avoiding religion, culture, settlements, borders, unemployment, poverty, the ‘Apartheid Wall’, the blockade of Gaza and the fight against occupation and for freedom.

Thus, we are dealing with different models of Muslim women, like different models of women in other religions. Because of the occupation, which includes raiding and assaulting homes, families, schools, national libraries and museums, destroying civilization, heritage, culture, money and hope, we have to – although reluctant to many – accept that Palestinians themselves have to decide their cause, whether it is violent or non-violent.

Ideal models of Palestinian women are often based on laws, customs and religious practices. What can be said about the gendered laws and their practices?

Nahla Abdo states that Palestinian social relations are based on three sets of law: First, the formal ‘state’ or civil laws; second, the un-written customary laws; and last, the religious shari’a , governing personal status (marriage, divorce, inheritance etc). Concerning the civil/formal laws, Palestinians are still subject to a combination of Ottoman, British, Jordanian, Egyptian and Israeli laws, as well as extralegal complications imposed on the PA after the Oslo Agreement. Palestinians of both sexes share many legal restrictions, but a number of restrictions apply only to women. A Palestine citizen within the PA jurisdiction is defined as someone whose ‘father’ must be an Arab Palestinian living in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip and holding an Israeli identification card. Thus, the laws themselves are both racist and discriminatory, because Palestine people need an Israeli identification card in order to identify themselves via their ‘father’. Palestinian Muslim women, but not men, must according to Daniel Hirsch, get a male relative’s consent to marry. A female journalist in the Gaza Strip told me that in towns the fathers agree on marriage as soon as they meet the young couple and see for themselves that it is a good relationship. Normally it is no problem.

Women, but not men, must relieve their spouses of all financial commitment to obtain divorce. These laws violate the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the leading global convention on women`s rights that the Palestinian president has ratified. Because of the Israeli occupation and system of colonial and racist oppression alot of the old-fashioned laws are fixed and difficult to change. Customary laws tend to predominate over written laws. Given the hegemony of Islam in Palestine and elsewhere in the Arab world, sharli’a laws govern, according to Abdo, most aspects of women’s lives. Hamas gendered ideology, like that of the secularist parties, remains according to Isah Jad contradictory, and doors to women`s equality are only partly open.

These are, however, still the conditions for women in most of the world.

The PA has according to Daniel Hirsch amended many discriminatory laws, drafted gender-sensitive legislation and created agencies that promote women’s rights. More girls enrol in school, and graduate, than ever before. Women are venturing outside the home, having decent private-sector jobs and gaining seats on local political councils. Women’s organizations in the West Bank, in Gaza and throughout the diaspora document human rights abuses and propose reforms. They celebrate women’s day, like women in many other countries. The western stereotype picture of Palestinian women in Gaza, as only housewives, is incorrect. Some are educated mothers, other are single, some are active in local politics and searching for jobs, some take care of their children as and when their husband is in and out of Israeli prison. Israeli racist and colonial customs create everyday barriers for men and women in Gaza who want to start and continue with small businesses to earn money to avoid relying on charity.

The Israeli Occupation Forces denies the citizens of Gaza their right to travel outside the tiny Strip, steal their electricity, money, soil and even destroying their chances for a healthy swim in the Mediterranean by denying them clean water.

Finishing off this short story, I will include a narrative which symbolizes the heroic mindset of Palestinian women under occupation, from a story of Virginia Quirke, quoted from Amal Amireh, (2012, p438):

Israeli soldiers chased a group of young Palestinian rock-throwing men and finally caught up with one of them. As the Israeli soldiers were dragging him towards their jeep to arrest him, a young woman with a baby in her arms rushed up, screaming in anger, at the young Palestinian man. “There you are! I told you not to come here! I told you there would be trouble! Now what do you expect me to do if you are arrested? How will I eat? How will I feed our baby? I’m tired of your irresponsibility! Here, you take the baby and try to feed her!”

And shoving the baby into the arms of the dumbfounded young man, she fled. The soldiers, as shocked as the young man, suddenly had a baby to deal with. In a state of bewilderment, the soldiers shoved the young man back into the street, jumped into their jeep and sped away. The man was left holding the baby. Finally, the mother reappeared from behind a nearby building where she had been hiding, went up to the grateful young man, whom she had never seen before, took the baby from his arms, and went home.

Written by: Gerd von der Lippe, WBG
Photo by: 'Impotence'/@Patricia Bobillo Rodríguez