Talking about Women and Power

In celebration of International Woman’s Day and in honor of the recent issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal, a panel addressing the topic of “Women and Power” was hosted by the Bookshop at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem on Monday, March 18th. Palestinian, Israeli and international intellectuals, academics, activists and journalists gathered in the prestigious venue in East-Jerusalem in order to approach the topic of women’s challenges and struggles in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Representatives of feminist and non-governmental organizations as well as politicians discussed their articles published in the special issue of the journal and exchanged their visions and ideas with the public.

Women would have caused the situation to develop differently.

Among the speakers was Lucy Nusseibeh who addressed the issue of women as agents in conflict situations: “Women are not more peace-loving than men are”, said the founder-director of the Middle East Non-Violence and Democracy organization (MEND), and affirmed that “there is not a big difference between men and women when it comes to the peace process”. This argument was also supported by gender expert and public opinion researcher for the Tel Aviv University, Dahlia Scheindlin: “We are not able to denote a clear trend of women being more supportive of peace”, she said. Yet, she pointed out that, despite their similar attitude towards peace and the conflict, women tend to be more disappointed when efforts to promote peace are not successful. There seems to be a greater gender difference of vision and processing, not of position: “There should be more women promoting women’s rights and their possible contribution in times of war’, said Prof. Galia Golan, founder of Hebrew University's first women's studies program. According to her, the situation has worsened because it has been exclusively men who have dealt with the Middle Eastern conflict situation. In her view, the consequence is the development of so-called “hard security” measures such as walls, fences and a reliance on weapons. Militarization has “crept” into every single area of Israeli life. Men are particularly subject to constant indoctrination during high school: “Among young men it is still a question of status when they decide to which unit of the IDF they are being sent”. Women on the other hand, Golan asserted, would have caused the situation to develop differently. Even in military positions, they apparently are perceived as less threatening and more caring. Those qualities could have enabled people to solve conflict situations peacefully and advocate dialogue rather than hard security solutions.

The hardships and struggles of a Palestinian mother, wife and working woman.

This argument was underlined by Hind Khoury, former PLO Ambassador to France and PA Minister. She stated that the responsibility of power has been handled incorrectly until now and that the circumstances of military occupation in the West Bank are mainly due to the resolutions made by men. She opened her comments with the words: “I am here as a Palestinian woman”. She then introduced the public to the hardships and struggles of a Palestinian mother, wife and working woman. “I am enraged”, she said, “I live with few rights and that makes it so difficult to believe in peace”. The younger generation has an especially hard time remaining optimistic as they did not witness the visionary years of the Oslo Accords. Khoury describes a daily life in which her children can never get a job after graduating from school; in which they are not allowed to use the roads in order to get to school, in which they do not even know if there still is going to be a school the next day.

More a ghetto than a state

“Life in the West Bank resembles more the life in a ghetto than in a state”, agrees Sonia Najjar, gender affairs expert and consultant. “When you consider the circumstances,” she argued, “it is not easy to work towards improving woman’s status and spreading hope among the young.” The generation of young Israelis has also become more extreme in their attitudes; many of them are more right-wing and more religious than their parents used to be. The imbalance of power and the hardening of opposite positions between Palestine and Israel have increased to a very severe extent. “Israel wants everything in Palestine, except the people”, Najjar said, supporting Hind Khoury’s argument that the Palestinians are living in a neo-colonial environment. In order to fight the collective memory of war and hatred, women need to take part in peace advocacy and peace supporting strategies. The sixth panelist, newly elected MK Michal Rozin, co-chair of the Knesset’s Women’s Lobby and former director of the Rape Crisis Center in Tel Aviv, apologized for not being able to participate because she had to remain in the Knesset session.

Following the opening presentations, a lively and stimulating discussion ensued with the audience, which did not want to leave at 9 p.m.

Not to have a vision of peace would be so sad

To conclude, Scheindlin said that “Values of equality and gender still have to be taught in this region. We are not quite there yet”. That must be the goal in order to overcome the obstacles and to meet the challenge of improving women’s role and status in both Israeli and Palestinian society. All of the speakers agreed that this is absolutely necessary, or, as Nusseibeh put it in the end: “Not to have a vision of peace – that would be so sad”.

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