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Interviews with Palestinian women activists in honor of International Women’s Day

08 March 2011 | Ramona M. And Cicarre Parrhesia

Tuesday marks International Women’s Day, a global celebration of women. In Palestine, rallies and conferences were organized to celebrate this day. These provided a chance and space to reflect on the achievement of Palestinian women, and the many steps still needed to attain full equality with men.

To commemorate this special occasion, we have interviewed two Palestinian women representing different women’s organizations engaging in extraordinary work aimed at achieving gender equality.

The first interview is with Rania Khayyat, the head of public relations for the Rural Women’s Development Society (RWDS). RWDS, which was formed in 1987, aims at empowering Palestinian women in rural areas by supporting and creating local women’s clubs. The club’s purpose is to give women space to develop themselves in order to attain more representation in all aspects of Palestinian society, including social, political and economic spheres. According to RWDS, the clubs “are committeed to the principles of equality, equity and civil society values.” RWDS has established 65 women’s clubs, with more than 4,300 members. For more information, visit the RWDS website.

The second interview is with Hitam Saafin, the Chair of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (UPWC), which was founded in 1980. UPWC’s aim is to empower Palestinian women, while contributing to the Palestinian national struggle against the Israeli occupation. According to its mission statement, UPWC “strives to build a civil democratic progressive community free of all forms of discrimination and respects women rights as part of human rights in general”. UPWC goal is to eradicate all forms of inequities including those between Palestinian women and men as well as those within social classes. For more information, visit UPWC’s website

First interview: Rania Khayyat (RWDS)

Ramona M.: Why was it necessary to create separate clubs for women?

Rania Khayyat: Actually women have a special situation because they are responsible for the family. They are the ones that [connect] the whole family, they are the ones that [are in charge of] the children, and the house and so on.

We found that they are suffering from being marginalized. They spend their whole time at home. When they do something, it’s not visible, nobody knows that they are doing anything.

Also they have a very good role in the Palestinian struggle and supporting their families, and…in agricultural farming, and so on, so they had a very good role. But nobody highlighted it.
So we said that we can form clubs for women where they can spend some time out of the home, to develop themselves and find themselves. To receive some projects, training, participate in some activities. And then to be empowered, so they can have a good and positive role in their communities.

Now our women’s clubs they have a very good role and impact in the local council. They have an opinion, and they support, participate in planning and so on. This was our objective.

R.M: Before the clubs were formed, did you not see women getting involved in local politics?

R.K: At the beginning no. At the beginning people were very against us, they used to throw stones sometimes because we would come and [start to] talk to their wives, and they did not want us to interfere with their lives. They wanted their wives to be at home and not go to the clubs. But after that the family found how their wives and women developed. They became better in educating their children, even in knowing nutrition facts about their food, and many things, even in farming. They did some economic projects where they contributed to the economic situation of the family. So it was a very positive impact. Now we don’t have any objections [to] women being in the women’s clubs. On the contrary, now they support us.

R.M: So forming the clubs is a way to empower women. What other steps does your organization take to empower women?

R.K: We work on political empowerment, economical empowerment, through grants and income generation projects. Vocational training and so on. Through cultural activities, something about health, about social activities and so on. So this way women can go out of their homes, get some information, participate in some activities so that they have better knowledge and better contribution in their families and they will have better decision making in their families and after that in their local councils.

Now we 26 local council members from our women clubs. And this is a very good sign that they are very well empowered, they were able to go and be in a decision making position in their communities and villages.

R.M: How does the situation for women living in rural Palestine differ from women living in urban areas?

R.K: Actually in our women clubs we try to target marginalized areas, where women never get any services. In the cities there are a lot of services, women can reach a lot of services and many activities they can join. On the contrary in the rural areas, they don’t have anything. So that’s why there was the idea to target rural areas.

About the difference, we found from our experience that rural women are really strong. Because in the cities sometimes they are a little bit, how to say, controlled maybe. They don’t have this leading role in their families like the rural women. Because in the rural areas, all the family has a role in the house, in all the activites. In the cities you find that the man [is leading], the man has more control than in the rural areas.

R.M: So in the rural areas the man is not as controlling?

R.K: He is but since it’s a rural area they depend on agriculture. If you go to the farm you find the father, mother and children working. So they all contribute in income generation. But if you go to the city, you will find that the man is going to his work, coming back finding everything done by his wife at home. So the [responsibility] inside the home is only for the woman, and the responsibility for income generation is only for men.

R.M: Do women take part in the agricultural activities in the village?

R.K: Yeah, women participate in all agricultural activities: cropping, harvesting, and all things. But the problem is that we don’t have any formal statistics about women’s contribution in agricultural activities. Because when you [ask], “who [works] the land?” the man or the head of the family says, “yes it’s me” while all the effort of the woman is not documented.

R.M: Does education in Palestinian schools play a role in creating gender stereotypes?

R.K: Yes in a way we have it. Maybe recently you can see an improvement in the curricula at school. But you still find it in the houses. Like the boy when he is 4 years, he’s (considered) a man, he should play different games than his sister. When they are 10 years, the sister has to wash up and clean the house and he’s not responsible because he’s the man. She has to bring him water when he wants because he’s the man and so on. This is house education, and [this leads to] a separation of roles.

R.M: How do you change these social norms?

R.K: We believe that this can be changed through economical empowerment. Because if you have the economy you have power. So when a woman has an income generation project and she’s generating money for the family, all the family has to help her so she has a good position. All has to have a role, okay so they will all work on the project and they will all work at home because they have to have the work all done.

And it starts with the husband because many of the men here in Palestine are unemployed so when their wife has a project they work with her in order to help the family. So [the children] find that their father is working just like their mother, so you can melt all the role separation in a way. But I don’t want to tell you its 100%, it’s not easy. I don’t want to tell you that when a woman has a project she’s the boss at home, no. Or she stops washing the dishes, no, it’s not this way.

Even in the cities, for me I work and I still clean [the] home. My husband, he helps me but it’s not his duty, he’s like an assistant.

R.M: Statistics show that a high percentage of married women suffer from psychological, physical and sexual violence. What is your organization doing to tackle this problem?

R.K: We are tackling it in different ways, we are having workshops in our women’s clubs in order to increase their awareness about that in order to get them protection techniques, repairing system, how to go to the specialized centers, legal, social when they feel abused.

We are working also with men. We have already targeted local council members, which are men and decision makers in their communities and we increased awareness about violence against women and domestic violence. We were really surprised by some of the results because in many workshops men admitted it was the first time they know that many of the actions they do daily are harmful for women, and are considered as violence and that they harm others when they do it. They said it’s good to know, maybe we don’t understand the [others perspectives], we are educated in a way.

We produced many leaflets and caricatures about violence against women, about some actions in our daily lives and in society. Also we produced a very good theatre performance, it was 25 minutes, it was very good it had a lot of success. It talked about the whole family, and how [violence] happens and how at the end the wife was very abused and she called a center in order to help her get rid of her problems at home.

R.M: What are the factors that lead to violence against women?

R.K: All bad conditions lead to violence. Occupation leads to violence, because you receive violence and you want to transfer this violence from yourself to others. When you are at a checkpoint and a soldier [mistreats you] you find that you are abused and you want to transfer this, you want to feel like a man again. So you give all this violence to your wife, family or children.

The unemployment leads to violence, bad economic situation leads to violence, land confiscation leads to violence. Many conditions. And in the Palestinian society we are really suffering from this. Political instability [causes] violence. And maybe the education, the home education. When you see your father abusing your mother then you will abuse your wife, you will learn it.

Second interview: Hitam Saafin (UPWC)

Ramona M: What does International Women’s Day mean for Palestinian women?

Hitam Saafin: International Women’s Day for Palestinian women this year means a lot of struggle, a lot of power that must be gained for Palestinian women because we are facing, as Palestinian women, two kinds of oppression.

First due to the occupation and its strategy and policies which affect all of our people in Palestine and in the diaspora, and in the second line we are facing the social oppression due [to] our traditional society.

Palestinian women [have] to struggle [against] two lines while most women around the world are struggling in their societies while they have their independent states.

R.M: What are the causes of Palestinian women’s oppression?

H.S: For us, as the UPWC, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, we believe that the main reason for the oppression against woman in the internal society is due [to] the traditional system in the Palestinian society and due to the financial situation that is based on the kind of capitalism which doesn’t give poor people, and the marginalized classes in the society, the same opportunity [as] the capitalists in the society.

When we are talking about the Palestinian population we are talking about many kinds of oppression that may raise in some areas, but not other areas due to the differences in the financial and social societies that the Palestinians live in.

For example, [we] see that some problems occur in Gaza, they are weaker in the West Bank and some problems may occur in the refugee camps that we don’t have in the villages, but in general the traditional society gives the woman the [secondary role] in the society, [so] she must follow the males mainly in the society.

In this item, we try to raise our power within our population and to be active in the whole of our population so we can gain power through our struggle for the general. In the second step, we are asking for our equality within every area [of] our population for free laws for women, for equal chances for women, and for laws that prevent any kind of oppression or discrimination against us as women.

R.M: Are there currently any Palestinian laws that protect women from discrimination?

H.S: For the Palestinian society we have the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) and the Palestinian Authority. In the PLO there was no discussion for the social items. It is related to the national struggle, which is right, as the PLO is a liberation movement. [Secondly], we are talking about the situation of women in the PA. We tried to make certain changes in some laws but [currently] the legislative council is not working due to the internal division and due to the occupation itself.

We are preparing [laws] and we are participating with other branches of women’s movements in preparing proposals for [changing laws] and mostly we are waiting for an active legislative council.

We are talking about the family law, the punishment law, and labor law. In the family law, we are talking about the rights of women to be equal in many decisions. For example, the divorce right is mainly for the male. The multi-marriage for the men, the polygamy, we are trying to make it more hard for men. We are trying to raise the age of marriage because it is, in the West Bank, 15 years [old], and in the Gaza Strip it is under 15. We are trying [to make] the age of marriage 18 [years old].

We are talking about the right of women to marry themselves, because in the Palestinian law the woman must have the decision [made by] a male in her family. Her father, her brother, or [an] uncle, if they are not there. These are the main [changes] in the family law that we are asking for.

For the punishment law, we have a very big problem [with regards to] the honour killings, which gives [a] small sentence [to] the male who kills the female under the honor excuse. That makes many crimes against women go on through the society under the honor killing excuse.

R.M: Are there any laws on the books at the moment that protect women from discrimination?

H.S: No, until now no because we don’t have an active legislative council to discuss these issues. And you know the percentage of Hamas in the last legislative council was very high, so from the beginning they claim that they are not talking about extreme civil laws, they are trying to make it only sharia laws.

Because of that we are looking for new elections in the Palestinian population that give us more opportunity to make anti-discrimination laws.

R.M: Since Hamas was elected in Gaza, has the situation for women deteriorated?

H.S: Yes, what they are practicing on the ground they are making more and more problems for the women in their daily lives and they are working through the community itself to make the woman not able to work in some jobs, to be free to chose [what to wear] and many things like that.

R.S: Does religion play a role in oppressing women?

H.S: We are not against religion but [at] the same time we are talking about religion and individual choice and [religion] mustn’t be the only base of laws for the Palestinian society. We are looking for a secular community.

R.M: Besides implementing new laws that protect women what is your organization doing to improve women’s situation in Palestine?

H.S: We believe in collective empowerment, through working in committees, etc. We believe that women can support each other in their groups. They can work as groups more than individual work. You know, [the] movement for change needs individual work. The empowerment for women is through participating in collective work that they can plan, evaluate and achieve their goals.

R.M: Statistics show that violence against married Palestinian women is quite prevalent. 61.7% report that they experience psychological violence from their husband, while 23.3% report physical violence and 10.9% experience sexual violence. What is your organization doing to counteract this problem?

H.S: We are, of course, aware about these high percentages and we are following up, and we are cooperating with specialized centers and organizations for this. We are working [at] the mass based level. And we are tackling this item by many things.

First how to work to [raise] polices and to avoid these problems and to reduce the percentage of violence against women, and that means lobbying and media activities.

The second thing is how to [put] pressure on the decision makers to change the system which deals with these problems because we have another problematic issue in the law that in some cases the woman can’t go to the police [herself] and claim against the violence especially if it is within the family and this is a very big problem for us.

[With] certain problems we face daily we may deal with it if the woman has this problem or the family or turn it to a more specialized institute to deal with it in the real way.

R.M: How has the role of Palestinian women changed since the founding of UPWC?

H.S: In the Palestinian society there were some changes in the interests of women. For example some jobs they were prevented for women but now they are working [in them]. The percentage of women who are educated are now more than the beginning of our organization. [It is more acceptable] that a woman is a leader, or a parliament member, or a legislative council member. So there are some changes towards the interests of women but they aren’t enough. And we have to make these changes permanent.

R.M: Does education in Palestinian schools play a role in enforcing gender stereotypes and if so what is your organization doing to change the situation?

H.S: Our educational awareness work [is] targeting the whole society especially the young ages and especially we are trying to make a kind of democratic learning besides the official education in Palestine, and you know the official education in Palestine first was under the military occupation and now under the Oslo Agreement conditions. And that raises many problems especially in the national situation. In our public educational work programs we try to make a kind of learning outside of the schools about the reality of Palestinian history and the reality of women’s rights. And that makes us, working as a movement, change the stereotypes [about] Palestinian women.