by Jonas Weber
18 February 2012 | International Solidarity Movement, West Bank
“We rented this house since a year back,” says Randa Bashir as she looked around in the brightly lit meeting room at the Women Studies Centre in Nablus. Like most Palestinian houses it is designed to keep cool during the warmer time of the year rather than keeping warm during the winter and we keep our jackets on throughout the meeting.
Bashir, with a background as social worker and speech therapist, is the director of the Nablus branch of the Women Studies Centre. She has been active in the Palestinian womens movement since the 70’s and in 1977 she was sentenced to eight years in prison for her activism.
The Womens Studies Centre was founded by the organization Union of Women Action in 1978 with a branch in Jerusalem that to this day is the headquarter of the Centre with 10 employees. Except for the branches in Jerusalem and Nablus there is also a centre in Al Khalil (Hebron) with 2 employees. The activity is growing as Bashir stated:
Soon we will have a women’s library here. Many say that the national struggle most come first and that women’s struggle comes second. Here believe that the relation is more dialectic, that the struggles most be fought together. We have been an avante-garde for women’s rights in Palestine since the 70’s, many of our programs have eventually been implemented in broader society. At the same time we haven’t recieved any financial support from governments or institutions, except for the Swedish organization Woman to Woman.
“We are trying to build a female leadership within the Palestinian resistance movement.” said Randa Bashir as she went on to explain the four main programmes of the Women’s Studies Centre.
Through the programmes of the centre runs a thread of self organization and grass roots thinking. The people receiving help from
the centre often go on to help other people, and all programs are focused on empowering the ones in the most need of empowerment.
Through volontary work the centre funds the marginalized and poor students to empower children and adolescents on how
to protect themselves against sexual assault.
“We believe that young people play an important part in the process of achieving democracy. In Egypt and Tunisia the young took to the streets,” she said
Living under occupation means that the women of Palestine are subject o a combined opression, both as women and as Palestinians. To deal with this the centre offer trauma support for women who have been detained or who have lost loved ones to the Israeli occupation. The women who partake in these programs then go on to lead their own therapy groups.
The centre has also produced a series of books for children where classical gender roles are challenged. It can be something as simple as a coloring book with motives where girls are playing basketball or a scene where a father is cooking while his wife is reading a book. In a western society this might not seem very radical, but in a society were girls and boys go to separate schools the impact is obvious.
“Going to a mixed school made me a stronger woman,” said Bashir. “I learned not to be afraid of the boys and that they weren’t worth any more than me. In the Middle East we still have a lot of separation and discrimination between the sexes.”
When we asked about how it works to do this kind of radical work in such a conservative society Bashir lowered her voice and leaned forward.
“People are getting much more conservative since the first Intifada. They are afraid for the sake of their children and turn to religion
for answers. “
Before the first Intifada it was much more rare to see women wearing the hijab in Palestine then it is today, Randa explained. Even though the womens movement keeps gaining ground for their issues the movement has been taken in a religious context. Bashir went onto explain the cultural context of the hijab versus a religious one, promoting the ideal that women in the end, should always make their own choices without pressure.
Meanwhile many victories are being won by the Palestinian women’s movement. Over the years the taboo on speaking up about sexual assault has been lifted, and today it’s becoming more common to bring cases of rape and sexual violence to court. But there are no statistics as to how common these crimes are, and women face legal difficulty in seeking equality to men. For many years it has been less punishable to take the life of a cheating wife than a cheating man.
Randa Bashir proudly shows us the coloring books the centre has produced over the years. She seems incapable of ceasing to smile while she talks about her work. To keep up a never ending optimism through over 60 years of occupation is something that seems common for the people of Palestine. Laughter and smiles are never far away, even if repression is tightening or the tear gas canisters are hailing from the sky. Laughter kills the fear and in Randa Bashir I see a fearless and relentless human rights activist.
Jonas Wber is a volunteer with International Solidarity Movement (name has been changed).