by Galia Golan
and Zahira Kamal
Women in both Palestine and Israel tend to be more active in NGOs and extra-parliamentary politics than in formal party politics.1 One reason for this— apparently the same applies to both societies despite the different histories and circumstances of each— is the male domination of both societies and what has been called “blocked opportunities” for women in the formal political arena. There are, of course, other reasons, but women do tend to outnumber men in grass-roots people-to-people activities, though not necessarily in dialogues and definitely not in unofficial, non-governmental track two activities. In fact, women are only rarely (if at all) to be found in track two forums. These are usually organized by men, and are viewed by their participants as close to if not a substitute for official policy-making or negotiations — an arena from which women are regularly excluded. With regard to all types of activity (grass-roots, dialogue or track two), much depends on the organizers.
One broad generalization that can be made is that, whether by choice or imposition, most women peace activists may be found in all-women’s groups or encounters, as distinct from mixed people-to-people activities. Whether this is a function of preference, societal norms (and male chauvinism), or mere coincidence, is a question of interest, but perhaps more interesting is an understanding of the differences between the two.
Women’s Activities Began in the Mid-1980s
People-to-people activities were organized in some form or another well before the advent of the Oslo peace process, and women participated in some of these, albeit in very small numbers (relative to the number of men). The advent of women’s activities of this type began in the mid-1980s, behind the scenes at the UN women’s conference in Nairobi, continued in the occupied territories, and were launched more formally during the first intifada (primarily through the Jerusalem Link based upon two independent women’s peace centers— The Jerusalem Center for Women and Bat Shalom— established to advance the active involvement of Palestinian and Israeli women in achieving peace and social justice).
Beginning as dialogues, they rapidly included everything from meetings of a track two nature (locally and abroad), to grass-roots activities primarily of a political nature, but also leadership-training courses and feminist discussions. With Oslo, such efforts broadened enormously to include joint projects in a wide variety of fields, as was the case also with mixed-gender activities. Obviously most projects tapered off during the al-Aqsa intifada, but many of the more politically oriented people-to-people activities have continued, including those between women.
Israeli and Palestinian women get together (Bat Shalom) Why Women Prefer Women
A look at what happens to women in mixed groups (primarily dialogue and track two) may throw some light on why many women prefer all-women groups. As participants of over more than twenty years in a myriad of dialogues and track two activities, our observations are that women tend to be ignored in mixed groups. They are not invited to the planning or agenda setting for the meetings, especially track two meetings. Thus they are not perceived as proactive participants even if they are invited to join the larger groups. As participants, if and when they speak, they are interrupted more than men, and their contributions are frequently attributed to men, as if a comment or proposal coming from a man carries greater legitimacy.
Thus the asymmetry that exists between Israelis and Palestinians is extended to all women; power relations cross national lines, reflecting basic gender power relations. Style, if not actual content, also reflects the dominance of gender rather than national differences, as men tend to be confrontational, speaking in accusatory terms while women tend to be less confrontational, more cooperation- and future-oriented.2
Women-Only Dialogues and Track Two
Yes, there are women’s track two meetings, even if men are not aware of them.
Perhaps the most striking difference is in the presence of emotion and personal accounts in the opening of women’s dialogue and even in track two meetings, as distinct from the more confrontational and accusatory openings of men in mixed groups. The clear implication is that “the personal is political.”
An advantage of the women’s approach, however, is that it can serve immediately to break down barriers — an advantage not enjoyed by mixed groups. Indeed, the more aggressive approach of men may actually fortify rather than weaken the barriers already impeding communication. Barriers are also further overcome through women’s “shared experience,” of living in patriarchal societies. No matter how different the strata of society or the respective cultures, women, as women, have experienced some form of oppression, gender discrimination and sexist slights. Thus, women have been able to build on a mutual understanding of injustices experienced as women in either society.
A less fruitful characteristic of women, however, is a tendency to try to avoid difficult issues. Having been socialized for the most part not to be confrontational, women try to stay with the subjects upon which they can agree and drop those upon which they cannot agree. An example of this in the Jerusalem Link was the question of Jerusalem. This was avoided for a very long period of time in both dialogues and track two types of meetings. The women pussy-footed around it until finally they were able to come up with a “compromise” — a slogan in English which was actually translated one way into Arabic and another way into Hebrew. In fact, the issue was not squarely faced and subsequently returned in a disruptive manner in the form of disputes over exactly what had been agreed. The right of return was another question that was avoided, ultimately causing indefinite delays and the absence of a common position. Both subjects were finally broached, without much success, and only after a conscious decision taken by both sides to cease avoiding the difficult issues.
Vulnerability and Militancy
One difference that has appeared between Palestinian and Israeli women, though not between the men in mixed meetings, is what may be a sense of vulnerability on the part of Palestinian women, leading to certain militancy on their part. Possibly because of their fragile position in the Palestinian political sphere, the women do not want to appear to be “soft” or more compromising than the male leaders of their institutions.3
One Palestinian woman has pointed out privately that the Palestinian women do seem to need consensus of their own group, in contrast to Palestinian men, who act individually and boldly. The same could be said of Israeli men, with their sense of confidence and entitlement, but the Israeli women’s behavior has not been similar to that of the Palestinian women in this respect. The difference may be because the Israeli women involved are often less mainstream, in fact, more marginal in terms of their own society than the Palestinians and, therefore, perhaps less concerned about repercussions. Thus, the Israelis involved do not exhibit this sense of vulnerability and they demonstrate a greater willingness to diverge from the consensus in their own community.
Differences between Women and Men
Women on both sides are consistently concerned about reaching the grass roots, not remaining elitist. Men, while speaking of broadening constituencies, rarely seem to express the need for grass-roots participation. Women’s concern may be explained by the already mentioned sense of vulnerability, that is, a desire to be joined by others so as not to be isolated or exposed. In this case, however, the concern is apparent on the Israeli side as well as on the Palestinian. It may be explained by a lack of a sense of self-worth, that is, the need to feel part of a larger group, or the sense of not having the “right” to be considered part of the elite. A male sense of entitlement may account for the distinction.
A more psychoanalytic explanation might see this as women’s sense of responsibility, namely women’s connectedness with the other and sensitivity to social relations as distinct from male independence. It may even be connected with men’s concept of power as “power over,” to change or influence others, as distinct from women’s concept of power as cooperation or working together. Certainly, a characteristic of women’s dialogue and track two has been compassion as distinct from men’s concentration on the issues.
Women are particularly concerned with human rights, suffering, loss of life and violence, while men tend to speak in pragmatic rather than humanitarian terms. Similarly, the issue of reconciliation is raised far more in women’s than in mixed groups. Women more than men, though not exclusively, raise the matter of future generations, the need to get along with others and to reach a degree of mutual trust. This difference, as with the matter of compassion, may be connected with the male view of themselves as leaders, the negotiators who must deal with the issues and the larger picture, while women deal with daily life, family needs, children and so forth. This is not unlike their differing concepts of security: men viewing security in terms of weapons systems, territory, borders and strength; women viewing security in terms of food on the table, roof over their heads, clothing and education for their children, that is, human well-being.
These differences impact on the content of the agenda and the nature of peace proposals. Women’s greater concern for — and understanding of — grass-roots considerations connected to human rights, welfare, the effects of violence, as distinct from the more formal, abstract and elitist preoccupations of the men have been most apparent. Moreover, these very considerations are often given priority in women’s meetings by means of repeated and concentrated efforts to listen to and understand the effect or meaning of each of these problems in the daily lives of each side.
Are Women More Effective?
But do these differences between men and women in people-to-people efforts impact on their effectiveness? That, of course, depends upon how one determines effectiveness. Clearly, women on both sides are well aware of the fact that they are not the negotiators in the conflict (although in some cases, the Palestinian, women have actually been on the PLO negotiating team). On the whole, they also realize that they do not have the influence that men have. There is no expectation on the part of the women that they will resolve the conflict through their encounters, even if they hammer out mutually acceptable proposals. Yet, one of the purposes of people-to-people in the form of dialogue, and even track two, is to dissolve the psychological barriers standing in the way of the resolution of the conflict.
People-to-people efforts serve to dismantle the dehumanization and demonization of the enemy, and to expand one’s understanding of the other’s positions, interests and constraints, thereby paving the way for an eventual resolution of conflict and for reconciliation. Given these objectives, one may conclude that women’s people-to-people encounters may actually be more effective than mixed encounters, and ultimately no less important, as a model for both genders.
It may be wise to take the positive aspects of the women’s approach, namely their concern for the broader concept of human security, their greater connection with and understanding of the grass roots as distinct from the elites in society, their interest in learning and understanding the actual experience of the other side, and, perhaps, combine these with men’s willingness to tackle the hard issues — though not necessarily in the same aggressive manner.
Still more important would be the expansion of women’s influence — an engendering of the peace process — so that the potential of women’s approach, attributes and advantages could be brought to bear more widely and in the highest circles.
1 See Galia Golan and Zahira Kamal, “Bridging the Abyss: Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue” for mixed dialogue, in Harold Saunders, A Public Peace Process (N.Y.: St. Martins Press), 1999, pp.197-220.
2 One striking phenomenon in the track two meetings, however, was that the Palestinian men rendered far more respect to women speakers on the Israeli side than did the Israeli men, while Israeli men tended to ignore the Palestinian women or even treat them with some condescension. Put somewhat differently, Israeli men had little respect for women on either side; while the Palestinian men displayed equal respect for Israeli men and women. Palestinian men were somewhat less respectful or attentive to the women in their own Palestinian group. This would seem to confirm an impression that men from cultures in which women are not considered equal do not necessarily carry over this attitude when dealing with women from another culture.