Palestine at the Crossroads

Palestine at the Crossroads

by Deborah Horan

As Daniela Khalaf sits in the air-conditioned studio of the nascent Palestine Broadcast Corp. where she anchors the first ever Palestinian news broadcast, she speaks of the awakening Palestinian women went through during the intifada, the seven year uprising against Israeli occupation. One of several women working with the television and radio station set up in the sleepy desert oasis of Jericho several months ago – but the only TV newswoman – 25-year-old Khalaf is fast becoming a prominent personality.

Two views of Palestine’s new women: TV anchor Daniela Khalaf (top), students at Al-Azhar Islamic University, Gaza (below).

Although she casually dismisses the notion with a flick of her hand, she partly attributes her celebrity to women’s role in the uprising. The social upheaval that accompanied the intifada, the breakdown of a patriarchal society, the hardship women endured while their husbands and sons were in prison, and the shock of being imprisoned themselves, made women realize their own strength and ability, says Khalaf. It allowed women – sometimes forced them – to break the constraints of age-old traditions, constraints they are not keen to come under again.

Khalaf is not the only woman who landed a choice spot in the early stages of Palestinian self-rule, which began in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho in May 1994, and at press time, was tentatively set to spread to most of the remaining West Bank region in July. Palestinian women are in the newly founded police force, sprinkled throughout the judiciary, in the Palestinian Authority (the interim government), and involved in the factions that make up Palestinian political life. “Women worked to make the dream of an independent state a reality,” says Khalaf, “so it is natural that women would want to reap the benefits, too.”

Whether they will or not – and how those benefits will be construed – is very much up in the air. Women themselves are deeply divided as Palestinian society experiences the revival of religious fundamentalism that is sweeping through the Arab world. As in Egypt, where the miniskirts of the early ’80s are being replaced by long coats and head scarves, religious traditions are increasingly in vogue in Palestinian society. The religious revival has led to increased debate – and sometimes open animosity – between women in various political factions over the role women should play in shaping their society. Discussions often focus on the role the new state will take in such areas as marriage, divorce and family planning. Shortly after the September 1993 Oslo peace agreement came to light, about 20 of the many grass-roots women’s organizations in the West Bank and Gaza formed the Federation of Women’s Actions Committees. The coalition, as they call it, coordinates their fight for women’s rights under the new Palestinian government.

Students at Al-Azhar Islamic University, Gaza

Two hours south of Jericho, in the teeming Gaza Strip, the hub of Palestinian self-rule, Munawar Nijim, 20, sits in the women’s wing of Al-Azhar Islamic University covered from head to toe in the traditional Islamic hijab. She is speaking excitedly about the Utopian future she envisions through the rise of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, an organization outlawed by Israel because of its ties to terrorist actions, is watched closely by the new Palestinian Authority (the name given to the pre-election Palestinian government) because of its opposition to the peace accord the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) signed with Israel. If Hamas comes to power, says Nijim, it would “make all the rights for all the people. All the people will be treated the same.”

But the egalitarian vision Nijim sees Hamas ushering in comes with a price: Like all Hamas women, Nijim believes women should wear traditional Islamic dress and live by the Islamic law, called Sharia, which outlaws the sale of alcohol, forbids abortion and divorce except under certain circumstances, allows men to marry four wives and encourages women to veil. While many women in Hamas are well-educated, the movement’s ideology puts a premium on marriage, often at a young age. Girls are frequently wed and starting a family at 15 or 16. And though they preach freedom of choice or voluntary compliance, fundamentalists have often used force to maintain Islamic law. During the intifada, women in Gaza who didn’t veil found themselves the targets of stones thrown by young men in the street, and gangs of Hamas members are suspected of murdering women accused of sexual impropriety, especially when the group first gained prominence in 1988.

Two Worlds, Two Agendas

The starkly different worlds in which Khalaf and Nijim move highlight a widening schism between the secular and religious realms of Palestinian society. The social freedom and equality that Palestinian women who see themselves as progressive are striving for, are often at odds with the traditional values women from the Islamic movement want to maintain. The new Palestinian government is trying to find a way to satisfy both groups.

We cannot say we are
against men marrying
four women, but we
can put obstacles in
front of additional
marriages . . .

— IntuarAl-Wazir,
Minuter of Social Affairs,
Palestinian Authority

That challenge may prove difficult. “The Palestinian government and the Hamas have two different social, legal agendas,” says Hanan Ashrawi, 48, the internationally famous spokeswoman for the Palestinian negotiating team in the peace talks with Israel who resigned to head an independent citizens’ rights commission. “We know, and we said this earlier on, that if there is political dealing between the Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, the price that will be paid is women’s rights. The men will lose nothing.”

Women of Hamas tend to focus on the positive aspects of the organization, which has a reputation for honesty in matters of money and provides funds for social welfare organizations, such as orphanages and women’s clinics. They argue that putting on a long coat and head scarf liberates women because men look at their minds, not their bodies. They say that women would find freedom in the Koran if it were followed exactly as written instead of abused or neglected. They point to Islamic teachings that allow women to initiate divorce, to agree (or disagree) to their husbands marrying additional wives, and to the condition that the husband must prove he is able to treat all his wives financially equally before additional marriages are approved – a condition so unlikely as to preclude most further marriages. Hamas women often join women’s dialogues preaching the benefits of following the Koran and trying to persuade other women to join their ranks.

While most other women say their participation is welcome, Hamas’ portrayal of the future Palestinian society is not what high-profile women like Ashrawi and Khalaf say they anticipate. “Palestinian people, I believe, as a whole are not fundamentalists,” said Ashrawi, who is married with two teenaged daughters. “They do not want to see an Islamic state.”

While the Islamic factor plays heavily in the way Palestinians view themselves and structure their communities, Khalaf, too, paints a picture of a tolerant and diverse society developing as Palestinians take the reins of government for the first time in their history. “I’m sure Hamas won’t impose their values,” says Khalaf, who is single. “I’m Christian, and I don’t feel Muslims would do that to me. Maybe it’s because we were all part of the struggle, but there are all kinds of Palestinians – from all walks of life – and they can pursue their interests without being bothered.”

The Hamas organization – and the smaller, more radical Islamic Jihad – find support among as much as 25 percent of the Palestinian population in Gaza, with backing dropping slightly if the West Bank is included, analysts here estimate. But that figure is elusive and fluctuating, depending on the state of relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and on the progress the PLO is making in furthering Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza. The number is small enough to be relegated to the ranks of a constant opposition in the Palestinian government, but large enough to have some clout and to pose a threat, especially if some sort of Parliamentary system is eventually established.

If Hamas does come to power, or wins a significant role in the Palestinian government in the coming elections, the social agenda of progressive women may be challenged. Much of their work now is intended to safeguard the rights Palestinian women currently have under the laws of Gaza and Jericho. For instance, while wearing a head scarf is a cultural norm most take for granted, it is not required. With a population that is five percent Christian, 15 to 20 percent Socialist and at least 40 percent followers of PLO chief Yasser Arafat’s secular Fatah party, it is common to see women in jeans without a head scarf in the street, especially in Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank.

Women drive (unlike in Saudi Arabia), birth control is available – although not socially acceptable for unmarried women – and families can choose the type of education they want for their children. Interfaith marriages, while not common, are recognized by the courts, and almost half the students at the prestigious Birzeit University are women, many of them studying in traditionally male-dominated fields. Women can seek divorce and abortion is available in Palestinian hospitals, although finding a willing doctor can prove difficult.

Women’s organizations also work in small ways to empower women – opening frozen food factories, setting up sewing and crafts companies, running day-care centers. But they say there is still a long way to go.

Early Warning Signs

Crises have already arisen, even without Islamic fundamentalists directly involved in the government. Last August, Ashrawi succeeded in squelching an attempt to fire a female judge and two female prosecutors. “There was one person in a position of responsibility who…said women have no jurisdiction in the judiciary,” she recalled. Her citizens’ rights commission dealt with the problem immediately. “I called the Minister of Justice and told him, ‘You really have a problem on your hands. This is discrimination and women will not accept it.'”

But that problem was solved behind the scenes without pressure from Islamic parties, who have no influence at this stage except as a vocal – and sometimes violent – opposition. Once elections are held, that influence may grow. While those overtly promoting violence may be prevented from running for office or casting ballots, their exclusion would rule out participation of only the most militant el ements – a small minority – in the funda mentalist movement. It would be virtual ly impossible to exclude all fundamentalists while maintaining that Palestinian elections are free and democratic.

And while Hamas may not be able to muster the power to directly challenge Arafat’s government, they may work to gain influence in certain sectors of government – like health, education and religion – where their agenda would be anathema to the progressive women’s aspirations.

In a much-publicized episode Arafat largely ignored the Principles of Women’s Rights, a document drafted by the newly formed women’s coalition, that aimed at ensuring equality between men and women before the law in such areas as property ownership and domestic violence. The document had been approved by the General Women’s Union, a huge PLO-associated umbrella organization established in 1964. While the Union encompasses most of the fractious Palestinian political spectrum, it does not include the Islamic parties who refuse to join the PLO, and thus the women from Islamic parties have not put their stamp of approval on the document. That, say progressive women, is what is making the Palestinian government hesitate to accept it.

“We were told that the document’s proposals could only be adopted within the framework of Sharia law because they want the Hamas…to be in the government,” says Ahlman Samhan, 32, who works with the Women’s Federation, a coalition group affiliated with the socialist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine that sets up grass-roots projects to empower women economically.

The document incident was just one sign of attempts by the Palestinian Authority to woo the fundamentalist opposition into the government, possibly at the expense of the women’s agenda. In November Yasser Arafat appointed two judges belonging to Hamas to the religious courts that govern marriage and divorce. What’s more, the mere fact that at least one-fifth of the population favors Islamic fundamentalist social ideas has made the government hesitant to pass laws that would cause direct confrontation.

That reality, and the prospect of facing Hamas legally in the battle for social equality, elicits different responses from different women. The coalition women say they are afraid that the freedoms in these realms of life enjoyed now will be lost, while other rights they are striving for will never be obtained. “If the Hamas is going to be in the government, then we will have a big problem,” said the Federation’s Samhan. “Things like education for children, school choice, birth control, divorce – you won’t have a choice.”

These women remember only too well that Arab women in Algeria and Iran took part in the revolutions there, only to find themselves cloistered and veiled once fundamentalist regimes that promised reform (but were in reality extreme and regressive) came to power. While these women say Palestinian society differs from many other Arab countries in how they apply Islam in daily life, that possibility is taken seriously. We’ve discussed this threat,” said Naimeh SheikhAli, 31, who works for one of the women’s groups aligned with Arafat’s mainstream Fatah party.

The Future: Common Ground – or Losing Ground?

Most women, including Sheikh-Ali, take a more holistic approach, however. They argue that a conservative society like the Palestinians would not countenance extreme liberal reforms anyway. In a society in which the honor of the family is based in the chastity of its women, you cannot, for instance, easily provide birth control to unmarried women or make abortion openly available on demand without incurring the wrath of the population. Instead, they say they favor finding common ground between opposing ideas that might make a basis for compromise, such as proposing laws that prosecute men for “honor killings” – for killing a woman in their family (usually a sister or daughter) because she has brought shame to the family. Radical changes would only alienate mainstream women who otherwise might be receptive to working for social change such as postponing marriage for women, sending more women to universities and opening up career opportunities to them. Especially in villages, this requires convincing families that high education for women will bring them the same social status and respect as marriage does. It also means convincing young women that they can find self-worth and social position through means other than marriage and children.

“I support making some balance between us and them,” says Sheikh-Ali, who, like most women in Gaza, wears a head scarf but considers herself enough of a feminist to have taken the virtually unheard-of step of keeping her maiden name after marriage. “Because of the nature of the Gaza Strip, anything the Koran says is difficult to change. It’s difficult to modify it socially. But I don’t mind making some concessions.” One example: promoting women’s careers that can be based out of the home.

Compromise is possible, says Intisar Al-Wazir, here with Arafat at the funeral of her husband, Arafat’s top aide

One of Palestine’s most famous women, Intisar Al-Wazir, 52, the widow of Arafat’s slain right-hand man known as Abu Jihad, says she doesn’t think the Islamic parties will pose a threat to social freedoms, such as education and health. Now Minister of Social Affairs in the Palestinian Authority, Al-Wazir does not believe a fundamentalist agenda would be forced on the general population.

“There is no way this would happen,” says Al-Wazir. “We can find a way to satisfy everyone. Palestinian society is predominantly Muslim anyway, so I’m sure we can find a compromise so that everyone is happy.” She and other prominent Fatah women point to the agenda of their male counterparts as proof that the Iranian or Saudi Arabian experience won’t be played out here.

Al-Wazir says men in Fatah tend to promote participation of women in positions of power with the line that it is their duty to do what they can to “build the state,” and indeed SheikhAli’s husband, Yousef Issa, said just that while she was being interviewed for this article. “I believe in women’s rights,” he said. “Women are half of this society and it is important for them to have a political role.”

For most of these women it boils down to finding the right balance. “We just have to find a compromise,” says Al-Wazir. “For instance, we cannot say we are against men marrying four women, but we can put obstacles in front of added marriages, like focusing on the rights of the first wife and the children.”

Women’s organizations are busy working separately and in tandem to be an effective voice in politics and government. Locally, they hold seminars on leadership training and women and property rights, and send field workers to villages and refugee camps to teach women about the upcoming elections and encourage them to vote. Internationally, they work closely with women’s organizations from around the world that hold global workshops on empowering women, family planning and economic self-sufficiency.

“We want to make sure that women participate in the national political decision, that they vote and that they are visible in the government,” says Siham Baruthi, a member of the Technical Committee set up by the coalition to draft the women’s rights document. “We’ll be very busy from now until the elections.”

Women say they still have a long way to go in areas such as prosecuting the illegal (but often unpunished) honor killings and gaining the freedom to seek a divorce without social ostracism. But women say they plan to safeguard the strides they have already made by setting up the structures needed to ensure that what was achieved during or because of the intifada – such as increased economic independence and a sharing of power in politics – won’t be lost to a fundamentalist Islamic agenda.

Baruthi says the coalition hopes to put female candidates in to run for seats in the Palestinian Parliament. Much of what will happen depends on negotiations with Israel over who is eligible to vote and what the legislative council will be like. The Palestinians are demanding a 100-member parliament so that the government will be large enough to represent all the political factions, including women. Israel counters that the elected body should be a 24-member council. So far, Al-Wazir is the only woman running for office, although Ashrawi says she is considering the idea.

Saddled with political and economic problems, the Palestinian Authority has yet to address encoding women’s rights into law. It may be a while before they can. In the meantime, coalition women say they will continue to work for small grass-roots victories, groom candidates for elections and government positions, and stay organized and alert.

“While I don’t believe that the battle is half won even,” says Ashrawi, “it will be very difficult for them to contain [us]…and to force women back into the kitchen.”

Deborah Horan is a Jerusalem-based journalist and freelance writer. She currently writes for an Amsterdam-based news wire and several American newspapers. Her articles have also appeared in the Washington Monthly magazine and Psychology Today.