ISM Podcast 12: The General Union of Palestinian Women
Hey, welcome to the International Solidarity Movement podcast.
يلا اهلاً وسهلاً بكم في حلقة حركة التضامن الدولية، فلسطين[This transcript has been edited for clarity]
Welcome to the ISM podcast. In this episode, we interview Nada Tweir from the General Union of Palestinian Women in the city of Tulkarem in the north of the West Bank. She’s been involved in women’s organising her entire life and gives us a deep insight into organised Palestinian women’s resistance.
The interview was carried out at the end of 2022, its part of a series of podcasts recorded by the International Solidarity Movement.
It is also worth mentioning that because of the length of the interview, this is only the English language version, as translated by our comrade, in her office. So unfortunately, we don’t really hear Nada’s voice in this edition. But keep an eye out for a future Arabic edition of this episode.
Q: Is it possible that you introduce yourself and also the organisations that you’re representing?
A: As she said, she’s Nada Tweir, she was born in 1961, from a family who are refugees from ‘48 and live in Tulkarem refugee camp … And the occupation comes in ’67, you know. And so the family is suffering a lot from the occupation in ’48, before ’48, and then, under [the occupation], living in refugee camps.
So the understanding, understanding the situation and the occupation situation and the experience comes very early, when the occupation started in ’67. She studied as a student graduate from the refugee camp in Tulkarem and studied at Birzeit University, involved with the students struggling movement at Birzeit. While she was a student at Birzeit she was arrested for two months, in Al Moscobiyya, which is Moscow compound or Russian compound in Jerusalem, and was suffering interrogation.
She was arrested because of her activity against the invasion of the Israelis when they occupied south Lebanon and East Beirut in the ’82 war.
Then after that she graduated from the university, she left, with the student struggle and she felt that she has to go up and involve more in women’s issues against the occupation, against also the social situation of women in the community, and she undertood more about, the national resistance and also women’s social activity in order to improve themselves.
She was married in ‘85 with a man who was also involved in resistance – he was a leader in the Democratic Front at that time, and he spent in total more than 10 years in the prison, in different prisons… eight years before the marriage and two years after he married – sometimes administrative detention sometimes [charged]. During the first intifada and the Second intifada, he was many times wanted, so he was not living at home sometimes and sometimes under home arrest, like in Tulkarem he was in home arrest, for years.
So she feels the suffering of the occupation from living under this kind of condition in general, and she feels how hard and difficult living under the occupation in this situation: in a prison, husband absent, she has one child only during their marriage, and her husband also, because of this suffering, died in 2004, from a heart attack. But also he was wanted in the Second Intifada, so he’s a martyr, from one of the martyr’s family’s. So you can feel how much she lived under this situation, besides the women’s oppression and how women live under this condition. So it is not only the husband, because her father also died while they were very, child…[Nada – ‘8 years old’] 8 years old. And the big brother of the family was arrested at that time in the 70s I think [Nada – ‘yes’]. So you can feel the situation of the family, before she was married and after being married, and how all this condition in general makes her involved more about resistance and the women’s issue and the occupation and everything. So it becomes like growing up, the feeling and understanding the solution.
And from the second on the West Bank, in the whole of Palestine, she got a great [inaudible] and she wanted to learn at Birzeit University. At that time Birzeit was the most famous university and it was containing females and males, and their big brother – her father died – and her big brother was in prison. The second brother, a little bit conservative at that time, so [he said] there is no women, learning in a joint college, you can learn in a college in which you have only females.
But she decides, and she feels, how is the situation, the community situation, besides the occupation. So this is how she feels about the rights of women at that time – also during the first Intifada, in ’87 when it started, of course, the occupation closed all the schools and the women and the activists and the teachers and the students, made like schools, like public education in the streets, and she was one of them encouraging the teachers, the female teachers, to learn in those schools. She is not wearing the hijab at that time, and she feel, when they were threatened from the occupation, not to make this decision. And they are threatened by some conservative men’s and community, and she faced throwing a stone to her from the community from the kids.
So from that time, she feel how it’s… our struggle is… complex between, against the occupation and against those who will become, at that time, it is the start of Hamas, before that it’s the Muslim Brotherhood but they are not involved in national struggle – they are involved in the press, in the community. So she’s beside that and also, she’s carrying her older son, who was two years old at that time, while she faced throwing of stones from conservative people. So for this she feels that for our future, those who become our community leaders, even after liberation or under the occupation, it would be for the oppressed in this community.
So she started understanding well and decided to lead this kind of women’s struggle against the occupation and against the conservative community who will make up, and then of course those conservative people who are throwing stones. She was involved in the political issues, especially in the women’s movement under the occupation at that time. In ‘78, they started to establish a Union of Work Committees in general, which is like the political women’s branch for the Democratic Front for Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), which is a leftist and communist political party within PLO. At that time, there is some… It is the first time and the first collection and union of women who are involved in politics, because before that there is a lot of women’s committees or associations, which were invested only in relief [aid and relief] – the women – but not involved in decision making or politics, so… This union started to be involved in politics and resistance and also women’s rights in general. And it collects, as a membership, many women leaders in Palestine in general, like Sama Awieda, Zahira Kamal, Rima Nazzal, Majida al-Masri, and other leaders who are now, some of them now – some of them passed away, like Nehaya Muhammad, Nehaya Yusuf, Hawai Batia – but some get a very good position in the women’s movements in those times.
Q: Can I ask a question on the national organising? So, at the beginning, like in 1978, and at the formation period [of the organisation] how did you get women involved? How did you bring women into the organisation? And also what was the initial vision for women organising in the DFLP and other organisations? Like what were your aims at the time?
About the principles of the [General Union of Palestinian Women], for a start it has national principles, that depend on the rights of Palestinians for freedom, justice, and an independent state with the capital in Jerusalem, according to PLO’s principles. And, on the other hand, it’s about the social principles: about women rights, and for justice and equality, and to be part of the community, and is making resources and also to improve the economic situation and the understanding of women, in order to fight for their rights.
So the Union opened its doors and membership for all Palestinian women who believe in that…, who is more than 18 years old to be involved in this, according to a solid programme about the rights of women, about how to struggle against the occupation, and how to get their rights. It’s like a long programme, and strategy, so all the members have the same rights.
The first, which attracts women to be involved in this kind of union, the programme of this union, and as it started, we said that this union was the first women’s committee, then the other political parties started to create their own women’s committees according to their principles. So, the national aims and principles and the programmes from this union … involved in political activity, like solidarity with the prisoners, solidarity with the martyrs, visiting the martyrs’ and prisoners’ families.
And then the most important thing at that time is that there were some Palestinian fighters, freedom fighters, coming from abroad. So if they are arrested they have no families here. So the families, the women’s union here adopted, from their members, those prisoners visiting them. And besides, by participating in, demonstrations against, or like activities against the occupation or house demolitions, all demonstrations, this attracted some of the females who see that they have a role in this struggle – it’s not just staying home and doing some social work or relief work for their men’s families. This was, at that time, the environment in the ’70s and ’80s, especially in the first Intifada, it affected women and they found that this body [General Union of Palestinian Women] is representing them, and all those kinds of bodies, of women.
On the other hand, also the Union was interested in doing some workshops, and doing some economic development for women in different places, and they started creating even some small factories, like in Tulkarem. Because it’s famous for fruits and oranges in particular, so [they made] a factory for natural juice, that women can defend and feel that they are doing something and producing something, producing by themselves, independently – to have an independent situation for a woman, not only just sitting at the house and depending on her husband or family, the men in the family. There’s the same in Hebron, a small factory making cartons, handmade cartons, and, in Bethlehem or Issawiyya, there is nahas, what is it… making shapes, puzzles, and jewels like this, from the front, and selling it, having small shops, cooperative shops.
Q: And is that present, or is that historic?
So there’s these kind of workshops, and also small projects for women to be able to use the model, and that they are, they are partially independent and they can do something for themselves.
Q: Is that an ongoing thing now, or was this in the past?
This is mostly in the ’80s, when there is some projects, most of the projects are attacked and damaged by the occupation, and nowadays we are more dependent on making workshops and the women themselves doing their own work at home or with a small community, just to give the women the skills of depending on themselves economically, more than making cooperative projects. Maybe these can be attacked or damaged [again] by the occupation.
At this time in the ’80s it was very active… but also they had some difficulties. Nowadays, in which the situation is different, we focus mostly on giving workshops and giving women skills, and helping women who created their own products to export them, to make [specialities] in different areas to sell their products. In this way the Union became an umbrella for exporting this kind of projects, and products for women cooperatives to the community.
Q: And in the entire confederation, roughly how many women are involved?
In general because every woman, to be a member, she should register, it’s not all women in general are a part. The General Union of Palestinian Women is about 65,000 members. In the specific ones, like the Democratic Workers Union or the Union for Works Committee, is about 5,000 – 6,000 out of that General Union.
Also the [General Union of Palestinian Women] created how to make, adopted and created many kindergartens for children in order to make the women who are workers, women workers, instead of suffering instead of having to care for their kids and leave their work, then they can work, knowing their children are in good condition because communally people are caring for their children. And the kindergartens are modern, so the families feel safe and very comfortable with leaving their children. This improves the work of women and their involvement in work more.
Besides all that, because it… It’s also struggling for the rights of women against the occupation, or against the Israeli violence or conditions, it needs to change the laws that work, that the women are placed under. Because the laws in the West Bank, for example, only the old Jordanian laws, which are from 76 here. In Gaza there is the Egyptian old laws from 56 still working and, in East Jerusalem only the security orders from the occupation. So these are not … fair for women’s issues. They are then struggling, in the PLO, or the BNC [Boycott National Committee] or Palestinian Authority (PA) to change those laws, to make it fair for women’s rights and making decisions. [Such as] protecting women from family violence, and the local divisions, [to ensure] it’s safe. And also against the occupation’s laws, to improve the laws in the Palestinian society, in order to follow the rights or to improve the decision-making and also in their lives.
Q: Is it possible to ask two broad questions, just so that people listening can get an overall picture? How has the occupation affected women specifically? And also, what is the situation of workers in Palestine? And you could talk about that now, but also how that’s changed in the last maybe, 10 or 20 years.
I will start from when the occupation and the settlement started, it started from before ‘48 when the Zionist movement started to establish their country to replace the Palestinian people and to force them to emigrate from here. At that time, as you may know, 532 villages were completely destroyed and most of the Palestinians emigrated, meaning, to camps, either in the West Bank and Gaza Strip or outside, like Lebanon, Syria, and other countries.
It was a miserable situation, especially in the refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria, and also here. And when it was completed by the occupation in 1967, it became obvious that this occupation is a kind of colonialism… replacing the nation [Nada – ‘settlement’] our nation, ethnic cleansing. This affects all the Palestinian nation, especially women, because the effect is they become the mothers and the sisters of martyrs. All of the miserable effects come on the head of the women especially. More even than men sometimes.
In general, also, this Zionist project continues, and even in ‘67 land, even after the Oslo agreement – up to now there are around 800,000 to 850,000 settlers [in the West Bank and East Jerusalem]. Actually, it is a state under a state, and they want to make their own settler state on the West Bank. Even under the unfair agreement, the Oslo agreement, which we’re supposed to have an independent [Palestinian] state, at least in the West Bank. The [deadline] was in 1999, but now from the Oslo Agreement to now it’s about 30 years without any achievement, there’s more confiscated land, more damaging the Palestinian community, especially in the Jordan Valley, where ethnic cleansing is going on by settlers, of course supported by the occupation forces and by the occupation regime in general. This is the situation in general.
Also the occupation in general, how it’s affected women, how it affects our community. So there’s the movement issues – that you cannot go to Jerusalem, only by their permission and with difficulties. It’s the same to go to ‘48, because half of our nation is there, you need permission to go or to work, and it will be difficult as you need permission from them [the occupation]. There are indirect and indirect effects of the occupation such as when they invade houses to arrest someone, they arrest women, arrest husbands. And it affects women more because of social issues created after arrests.
There’s also when they [Israeli occupation forces] invade the houses and with checkpoints when travelling – and the flying checkpoints, this indirectly affects society, as people are scared, because conservative communities sometimes are scared about… about girls and women, and they prevent them to travel. So it is an indirect effect from society besides and because of the occupation.
And this affects unemployment or poverty in our community, especially with families where the leaders are women, because either the man died or was arrested, so the leader becomes the woman. Now the percentage of poverty in the West Bank is more than 40%, in Gaza, it’s like 60, 70 sometimes 80% under the poverty line, especially for the families that are lead by women because the women are responsible for their family. This is in general how the occupation directly and indirectly affects women’s lives.
Economically also, when the PA came under the Oslo agreement and there is an agreement, what we call the Paris Agreement in Oslo about the economic situation, where there [Palestinian] economic projects are [restricted] in certain conditions, and the PA becomes a service agent for the community, and is forbidden to make or create factories or economic projects. So most of the factories, like soap factories, there used to be many in Nablus and Al-Khalil and many others, are completely either damaged [by the occupation] or just controlled [restricted], and most of the people become workers in Israel or in Al-Quds. And this kind of work is more difficult for many women to do – there is often a condition that women cannot go to work – according to family issues.
The women who work in the agricultural [sector], in the settlements or in ‘48, will face two oppressions. First, there’s low salaries for women. And also, they face risks, of different kinds of violence, maybe sexual violence, about pressure on women’s issue. And they have no rights, they are not registered [in Israel]. So there’s a double effect on womens’ shoulders in our community. Even there is double.
And half of the money, sometimes higher percentages, goes to what we call business agents [middlemen]. The agents steal, indirectly, most of the women’s money, the money of the women, besides the harassment they can face. There’s a lot of stories in Jordan Valley, in the settlements around there, about the cheating of women who work in agriculture and other sectors.
There’s the same issue about education. You know, the rate of education in Palestine is very high. Most of the people are educated, especially females, but this is not reflected in the workforce, because most of the ministers and the associations of the PA are [focused on] giving services, not [tackling] issues, they are not very productive, the budgets according to the Oslo Agreement. So this high rate of education is not reflected in work, especially for the community itself, because unemployment is very high in Palestine.
For unemployment, it affects women and girls, mostly, as they can’t find work or jobs in this time because they go mostly to men, because of the travelling, and the low salaries, so the unemployment of women is more than for men.
Q: She mentioned the issue of registering in the trade union in the previous question.
Yeah, we said that most of the women get less salaries because of the issue, because they’re unregistered with the trade union, especially with the Israeli Histradrut [union]. They are not officially registered as workers, so they can be cheated with less salaries, and have money stolen from the agents. And because she is a woman, and she needs that work, the pressure that you need [work, money], and you haven’t had official help, so you agreed to this salary.
Q: And because of the issue of women working in the settlements, it’s an absolute problem.
Yeah, for workers. There’s also a question about how the, not the occupation, the Palestinian men should affect the women.
Q: Actually, my next question was going to be about that. I had a question, because you spoke about this resistance, from the conservatism in the Palestinian community, especially from men. I was also wondering, do men support your work? Do men also support women’s organising? And also, how do you challenge their mindset?
In general, the men in the society, and the men in Palestine in general didn’t improve too much in supporting women. What happens is that women’s societies, the women’s unions and the women’s associations that are strong enough to fight for their rights, [it is them]who improve the situation. Not boys, not men. Men are not convinced… it doesn’t change a lot from the men’s side. But the women’s societies have become strong enough to fight for their rights so that the situation improves according to their struggle, not from understanding from men.
Our society is a man’s society, and men like to be the ones who control life here. What’s the point that the men in our society, in Palestinian society, have the privilege. Most of them, they don’t want to lose their privilege, that they are the ones who control, and who are the leaders of their family and of their community. The men are the ones who have the power, over their family, and who are working, who earning money, who are earning income for their families, so this gives them the power, and this makes them tied to their privilege. Besides the role that they have in the community, the traditional role they have, that gives men more rights, more power in the community. So it’s not easy for men to leave this kind of privilege, and its traditions, for example for women to have free movement, or for girls or women, to work, to be responsible for their own life or their children’s life – giving the nationality for example, being responsible for that.
Even in our, maybe I can add, in some national banks, they refuse to have the woman responsible about her son when signing at the bank. Also we have laws on who can work in our community. We said that we have laws from the previous regimes or even the Palestinian laws are not fair for women in general. They give men more rights, according to their life, money, or house. And even she’s responsible for when there’s a divorce, for example, all the house goes to the man. So on these different occasions, the laws are unfair until now. That’s why women in society are struggling and fighting to change these laws.
Indirectly and directly under the effect of the occupation, which makes the atmosphere risky – about the movement, about not developing the economic situation in Palestine, it affects the women, because… As much as the risk comes from the occupation, the community will put the pressure on women about their free movement or some work or other. So indirectly comes from the occupation itself.
In terms of resisting the occupation – men and women are resisting the occupation in order to get rid of the occupation, or facing the violence of the occupation, they share this together. But according to the social situation of women, only women who are struggling and fighting against the local traditional oppression here, not with men. Men need women to share in the struggle against the occupation, but they don’t want to share with [women in the struggle] for their rights.
As an example, we said we have the agreement, the PA signed the CEDAW Agreement. You know, CEDAW? The UN agreement for women’s rights, what is it in English? [CEDAW in English] Ah, CEDAW in English. An agreement for the women’s rights, and social rights, and it was attacked by the conservative Muslim liberation parties against women and they criminalised all women agreeing or asking to follow this agreement because it’s about the rights of families, women, and children, and other issues. The women’s societies and unions and associations found themselves fighting for this agreement by themselves, because the other men’s societies, or leaderships or something, are afraid to be accused of being against Islam or something, so they keep silent while only women and those conservative parties asked the PA to forbid women to enter some places, to be in the parliament… And women’s societies [are the] only [ones] are fighting for this, and they are attacked by conservatives, and the other associations are keeping silent because they don’t want to interfere in this in order not to be attacked.
So most of the political parties, even those who are convinced about rights for women, didn’t want to be involved or get involved, because if they adopt rights for women, from the occupation, they will lose in the elections. So they keep silent or [neutral] without interfering and so they are not so active in fighting for those rights.
And now, most of the women’s association, when they make workshops about developing the understanding of women’s rights, it’s targeting men, it should be targeting men, not only educating women about their rights, they should be targeting men to understand the rights of women. So they make workshops for men.
Q: How are those workshops going?
It hasn’t become a phenomenon [yet], but it is improving slowly. We make shared workshops for men and women. Some of the new men who are involved in this are maybe changing their understanding, but it is not quickly improving – it is going slowly. So you asked about the changes in the women’s situation in the last 10 years or 5 years…
In general there are some positive things happening, but very slowly. The best issue achieved by women is to have a quota or a percentage for their involvement or their presence in local elections. It takes more than 20 percent [of candidates] at least to be in the Village Council, Municipalities Council, and also in the PLO Executive Committee, not the Executive Committee, the Central PNA [Palestinian National Authority] Committee. So for example, in the local election in the municipality there has to be 24% women, according to this law. And the PNC [Palestinian National Council] they have 25% women. But when you go to the higher decision making, like the Executive Committee of the PLO, there is 17[% of women], and Ambassadors are 11% or less. When you go to the minister’s high level of decision making, it is a very low percentage [of women] now.
Even when the governor, or governors in the West Bank, we have 11 governors [mayors] in the West Bank, we have only one female governor, which is in Ramallah. The others are males.
Q: And just to clarify, when you were talking about the village municipality elections and there’s this 20 or 24 percent quota, this is still under PA, right? It’s still under the Palestinian Authority.
No, this is in elections. The local affairs elections. Of course… all the Palestinians are under the PLO, not the PA. Ok, so PLO. But it is an independent election, they run the election. So there is a law that every list of candidates, in every first five and second five, there should be a woman.
So there is, like in the village council in Tulkarem, they need at least three women. If more women can be elected it would be [allowed], but it has to be at least, not less than, three, out of fifty. Which is more than 20[%] sometimes. But when it comes to the, according to [Nada], when it comes to the higher level, these women would be, even if women reach this position in the ministry, there will also be obstacles for her to succeed, even if she was qualified. But there’s a lot of obstacles from the other men, obstructing her. Because of this quota, with the percentages of women, which got passed, women can reach some level in decision-making, and control in committees.
But for example, in 2006, when the national election happened, minister Nullah was a candidate and she’s well known as the head of the women’s union, and… she had good results in terms of points, but she didn’t win because there was no quota for women at that time. So even if she got a good percentage in terms of points, there was a difference between, because of other candidates, if there was a quota, she would [have been] the first of the women candidates at that time. But because now there’s a quota, from 6,000 compared to 15,000 from that time, the minimum is too much.
So there’s [been] some positive changes about the situation for women. like the minimum age of marriage. It was random at that time, now the minimum is 18, and the women’s societies, the women’s movement achieved that, and it becomes a law. Also to have her own passport, to have a passport, it was forbidden by law, and now a woman can apply for a passport and nationality papers and can get it.
In terms of other issues, for the first time women have the right, there is a [fund] of money controlled by the PA and it can force men who divorce women to care about, to provide relief to these women by this [fund]. Before it was random, it was kind of a traditional issue, but it didn’t work, the men just ignored it.
Yes, some slow achievement for rights of women achieved politically and in elections, but it is slowly developing. But in general, the improvement of women’s movement, women’s rights, cannot be split from the general condition, and without getting rid of the occupation and getting an independent state and freedom and a stable economic or improved economic situation, the situation of women [will not change], because it can be used as an excuse for oppression. For without changing the situation, the general situation, the occupation, the economic situation, the improvement of women’s societies or women’s rights will be slowly, not very active.
Q: The final thing that I wanted to ask really, which is what is the vision that you have for the future? You spoke about the difficulties, not just with the occupation but also the difficulties with PA and also within the community. Like, what is the mission for liberation for women as a whole in Palestine, and also beyond that, that you have as a person, but also as an organisation? And also, what do you think is needed to achieve that?
Yeah, in general, our vision and hopes for the future is to get rid of the occupation and develop an independent state with Jerusalem as a capital, and have a stable economic situation, not depending on conditional aids that put us under pressure, and cheat or whatever…
Just because most of this is aid, for the Palestinian, we don’t need to be a victim and receiving aid. And, stealing our [ability to make] decisions because of the conditional aid… I don’t know all the words… So, even for UNRWA, for the refugees, [the international community] cancelled or decreased the support to UNRWA, for relieving the refugees, because they want political [conditions], and we couldn’t do it. So, our vision is to improve our economic situation and liberation. This is in general.
Also, for our authority and the future state – we need a democratic state… not like a state of dictatorship, corruption and what was usually growing. And the division between the Gaza and West Bank and the two parties, and the fighting or the friction between Hamas and Fatah also put us in a very bad situation. And we need a state of laws, work rights, and a democratic state, not like what’s happening nowadays, and what’s happening as a result of our, of some in our country.
Of course, this cannot be happening or even begin to happen unless women take their, rise in decision making and rise in the movement and to be participating equally for developing this kind of state. Or without the rights of women, without her private hopes or vision,
In Palestinian situation, it’s difficult to divide between the general hopes and the individual hopes. So there are no boundaries, it can be merged together. So it is that their hopes, their vision as individuals’, is the same as the national visions.
We hope our grandson because she is a grandmother now – because her only son is, now she has a grand, how many? [Nada: ‘Eight. Seven girls and one boy.’] (To Nada)Oh. Wow! I thought that he has one or two maximum. [Nada: ‘No, no’] Because you have only one son and now you have eight grandchildren. [Nada: ‘Their decision, not my decision! to have a large family.’] She hopes that her grandsons and daughters live in a better condition in a free Palestine in a good situation.
According to her life in general, since she was a refugee or since living in the Tulkarem refugee camp, since she was there, all her life was struggling and fighting, so she hopes that her grandsons and granddaughters will live in another situation.