Palestine: Women united by courage

The Independent
Palestinian women seize opportunity to assert their rights.
Consider two Palestinian women: the first is Ibt-i-sam Al Za'aneen, 45, who became one of only two female councillors in the conflict-ravaged northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun this year.
She stood as an independent. Fatah and Hamas, whose strongholds are in Gaza, had tried to woo her because of the popularity of her no-nonsense campaign for women. But, she says: "I don't want this faction or that to tell me what to do. I feel very strong. I don't need them."

The second woman is Umm Ahmed, 29, who has six children. She can still remember the shock of being beaten for the first time by her husband eight days after she married him when she was 15. "He beat me for sitting on the front step," she says. "Then he beat me because of my cooking."

Her husband took a second wife, refusing Umm Ahmed a separation, let alone a divorce, and he has never stopped beating her. Her cheeks bear the scars of cigarette burns he inflicted. Umm Ahmed is, obviously, not her real name.

There seems little in common. Yet both are women of courage, with a strong sense of duty. Both live in a culture in which women are often subordinate. And both, in different ways, are at the cutting edge of the work done by one of the most impressive of all Palestinian NGOs, the Gaza Women's Affairs Centre, (GWAC) supported since 1993 by Education Action International, one of the three charities backed in the Independent Christmas Appeal. Ibt-i-sam has even browbeaten Beit Hanoun's mayor, despite the strong opposition of his horrified Hamas colleagues, into allowing a woman's unit in the municipality, now giving badly needed advice to 80 women a week. She says: "He told me, 'God help with you with those sheikhs in the mosque, but go for it'."

She was able to beat intimidation largely because of her training in a GWAC programme, supported by Education Action, to increase women's participation in the male-dominated world of Palestinian politics. Its success is proved by the number of women standing in this month's Palestinian Legislative Council elections.

The GWAC led a campaign with other Palestinian women's organisations which ensured a fifth of the nationally elected PLC seats will go to women.

The GWAC, under the courageous and inspiring leadership of Naila Eyash, its director, has run 25 public workshops to persuade women to register to vote. And the GWAC magazine, Al Ghaida'a - the only one in Gaza serving women - has exhorted readers to think for themselves. Andaleeb Adwan, the programme officer trained in advocacy and other skills by Education Action, says: "We say the woman should vote as she believes, not just as her husband or her father or the mukhtar [the village elder] says."

The activists have also begun a programme at Gaza's Islamic University to introduce women students to human rights, the law, job possibilities and the political process.

Another of the centre's activists, Zeinab Al Ghoneime, will be fighting alone against 39 men for one of seven Gaza City district PLC seats, also as an independent and on a platform of women's issues. She wants laws to allow divorced women custody of their children until they are at least 15. And she wants severe penalties for wife-beating and "honour killing". At present, Ms Eyash says, disputes over violence against women are often informally settled between male family members or through a mukhtar, also a man. The result is often bad for the women. If police are contacted, she says, they do not "always exercise their responsibility well".

The activists also want a women's refuge in Gaza, fiercely opposed by Hamas and many religious leaders who say it would encourage women to leave their husbands. That is where Umm Ahmed - the wife and mother whose husband has been beating her for 14 years - comes in. Her case was among many uncovered by a GWAC research project which found domestic violence affects one in five of Gaza's women.

This has been exacerbated in the years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 2000. Unemployment, and the consequent humiliation for men, triggered by Gaza's devastated economy, is a major factor. Israel's policy of preventing 10,000 students a year travelling from Gaza to West Bank universities, and many more workers from seeking jobs in Israel itself, only adds to this. So, too, does the custom that widows of conflict victims are often forced to marry one of their husband's brothers - even if he has a wife - or leave home without the children.

Sulieman Mleahat, Education Action's Middle East programme manager, says: "National struggles in Palestine have taken precedence over women's liberation. Now these women have realised the two go hand in hand. For Palestinian society to genuinely develop, its women must be supported to assume their rightful place in society."

The result will benefit all of Palestinian society. The GWAC campaign poster urges women: "Share in the election to complete the picture." Ms Eyash adds: "Without this participation, what kind of democracy will we have?"

By Donald Macintyre in Gaza
Published: 05 January 2006