by Galia Golan
Palestinian society is based on a patriarchal and male-dominated system of traditions. Everything within it is defined according to masculine values which are premised on controlling women and undermining female indi¬vidualism. Constraints and restrictions have always pushed women away from the decision-making process, even during the peak of women’s polit¬ical activism during the Intifada.
Women have had to continually challenge many societal restrictions and constraints that have been imposed by the religious and conservative ideas that penneate Palestinian society. While those who claim to be progressive and secular can accept, in principle, women’s political activism, this accep¬tance has been confined within the patriarchal lines that guide national strug¬gle. Their belief was that a woman’s place should be within the female masses, restricted to professions which have traditionally been deemed acceptable pur¬suits for women. The controlling male bodies have always wanted to decide how far women’s involvement should go, and whenever their authority has been threatened by the prominence of women, they have tried to force them to withdraw. Thus, these forces have strengthened the gendered division of labor, common to all patriarchal societies, including Palestinian.
Palestinian Women at the Crossroads
The current political transitional phase forms a turning point not only for women, but for the whole of the Palestinian people. New realities are being created as a result of the creation of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and the beginning of the construction of an independent Palestinian entity, and these are accompanied by all the challenges, obstacles and haz¬ards resulting from the complexity of the present situation.
Presently, there are many crucial matters on women’s agenda, and women have had raised hopes of gaining access to larger arenas in which to voice their demands powerfully, and to fill the vacuum that has been solely occupied by the political agenda.
Keeping in mind the painful experiences of other women in different parts of the world, making the transition to liberation and statehood, Palestinian women realize the momentum of this transitional phase and its ability to draw the attention of both the PNA and the Palestinian public to their demands for rights and freedoms. Palestinian women are no longer content with, or fooled by, the compliments and expressions of praise that they have received from their male counterparts and partners during the national struggle.
Palestinian women have had to, and continue to fight on many different fronts. On the one hand, they must confront the continued Israeli Occupation with all the trauma it causes, especially in terms of gross vio¬lations of human rights in an era of promised peace. On the other, women must consider their present situation - they perceive themselves as part of the Palestinian democratic forces that must voice opinions and take action against the new trends prevailing in the autonomous areas, such as milita¬rization. The coming of seven new security forces to the area, for example, is not a contingent thing, but rather an alarming phenomenon which women are beginning to address.
Another burden women have had to take onto their shoulders is the internal struggle for political visibility within their parties. Trends of exclu¬sion from leadership positions, whether at the level of the PNA, of negotia¬tions delegations, or even of parties, have continued, discouraging women who did not spare any effort in the struggle against Israeli harassment and oppression. Women were at the forefront in the defense of the Palestinian existence throughout the national struggle. They have always been part of the active resistance to Israeli Occupation. And yet for four decades now, they have been invisible in the leadership, neglected in political action.
Women continue to be marginalized in political representation, espe¬cially within the PNA. Out of a 22-member cabinet, only one member is a woman. There are five female director generals, of 800, in the various min¬istries and PNA bodies.
Women’s Political Transformation
The political transformation of women has emerged through four different phases, which can be divided as follows:
From charities to political activism: The early women’s movement was an expression of political, economic and social needs. It did not adopt a feminist doctrine, as such, but emphasized the role of women in preserv¬ing the Palestinian national identity and the unity of the family as a social base to support individuals in the absence of a Palestinian national author¬ity. Women’s groups carried out such social welfare functions as providing for the needs of refugees and families of prisoners.
From individualism to grass roots mobilization: The Israeli Occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in 1967 was a major turn¬ing point for the Palestinian women’s movement. Because of severe changes in Palestinian socio-economic infrastructure, there was a sharp rise in women’s participation in all aspects of resistance, including armed struggle. Women’s involvement during this stage succeeded in raising the awareness of the female masses, which subsequently led to the emergence of women’s grassroots, non-governmental, organizations. These were characterized by great flexibility, vitality and strength in confronting the Occupation.
From politicization to socialization: No women’s strategic agenda was clearly articulated until the Intifada began in 1987. At this point, the urgency of formulating a political and social development strategy stress¬ing women’s rights was understood by a wider circle of women activists. Undoubtedly, the Intifada was a turning point, not only for the women’s agenda, but also in the history of the Palestinian struggle.
With the momentum of increasing activism, it is easy to claim victories and achievements, but it is more difficult to maintain them and transform them into real changes in women’s status, especially in the absence of leg¬islation that can protect women’s human rights. Generally speaking, the Intifada has resulted in dramatic awareness and perception of women’s rights, because it has thrust women into leadership roles, and has acceler¬ated the adoption of women’s concerns on a social agenda. The Document of Principles of Women’s Rights (the Women’s Charter), adopted and rati¬fied by the General Union of Palestinian Women, is an expression of women’s social and political development.
From identification to empowerment: In the current political transition, Palestinian women are increasingly seeking to integrate and incorporate their issues and rights within Palestinian development. They believe this is the period in which democratic and liberal attitudes to their status will pre¬vail. The women’s movement must, through skilled organization, build consensus and support among women for a cornmon agenda of demands. A constituency of professional and institutional women’s organizations is required for effective and influential participation in the development process.
Do We Need a United Women/s Movement?
Although Palestinian women have ~ucceeded in establishing various orga¬nizations and temporary or occasional networks, they have not, as yet, managed to maintain a powerful, orchestrated and ongoing movement. There are several reasons for this: the internal divisions of the movement, which remain a mirror of the political map of Palestinian politics, and all the power struggles this implies, have been significant barriers. But the first and foremost problem is the lack of consensus on some crucial issues. For instance, until now, Palestinian women have not been in agreement on the urgency of placing issues of domestic violence on their agenda. Conservative voices within the movement have stressed the potentially damaging effect of airing "dirty laundry" in public. Other women, more eager to address this issue, have been able to provide only a few insuffi¬cient counseling programs and the occasional demonstration against domestic violence, while they have stressed a need for tangible assistance such as women’s shelters at a time when society is seeing the aforemen¬tioned trend towards militarization and the implied escalation of violence.
While the traditionally conservative values in Palestinian society are being fortified by the PNA, the women’s movement as a whole has refrained from raising the question of legislation, and how it must be built upon the basis of equality of women and men. Little has been done, for example, towards the creation of civil personal law as an alternative to the family status law based on the Islamic shari’ a, which is grossly unfair to women. The nervous response of Chairman Arafat to attempts by women to discuss the crucial rights relating to private life reflects the current con¬solidation of traditional values - as does the recent decision by the PNA that women and girls cannot learn to drive unless they are accompanied by malzram, that is, one of their male relatives. Or, for example, the full sup¬port given by the Mufti of Palestine to early marriage and polygamy, under the pretext that these two practices would help prevent adultery and sins that might result from the release from the political struggle against Israel. The PNA has been attempting to placate Hamas and other fundamental¬ists, at the expense of women’s rights.
In this environment, it is obvious that a united women’s movement is badly needed to face the new hazards emerging from the changing reality of Palestinian society. With organized activism and a strategic agenda, Palestinian women can advance from a position of observation to one of participation.