Palestinian Women and the Struggle for Real Peace
|Fatima speaks at a demonstration against the wall in Rafat, West Bank in 2005. Photo: Anna Baltzer|
Before each of my trips to the Middle East, friends back home are always concerned for my safety and comfort as a woman. When I answer that my greatest threat comes from Israeli soldiers and settlers, people are often taken aback—what they are really wondering is what life is like for women living in a predominantly Muslim community. As an outsider, however, that is not a question I can answer. I can never know what my female Palestinian neighbors experience because foreign women have a sort of special status in Palestine: we enjoy many of the privileges of being female without the same restrictions imposed on local women. What I can say, however, is that some of the most inspiring and independent women I’ve ever met have been Palestinian. Each one has a story of struggle—as a woman and as a Palestinian—and also of survival. Take, for example, my friend Fatima.
The daughter of refugees from Ager village (in present-day Israel), Fatima Khaldi spent her early years in Rafah camp in the Gaza Strip until her family moved to Saudi Arabia in search of a better life. An outsider in both places, Fatima’s already difficult life became even harder when she was once beaten with a metal skewer in the left leg, which permanently stunted its growth. After Fatima’s father died, the family was left without a breadwinner and returned to Gaza. When it came time for college, Fatima was instead sent to work in a sewing factory to support her younger siblings. But she had bigger dreams.
Determined, Fatima took two jobs to put herself through school, studying during the day and splitting her free time between caring for orphans and caring for the elderly. She founded the first campus group at Jerusalem Open University, a club for female social work students like herself. After graduation, she worked as everything from a political organizer to a nurse for drug addicts. While taking care of disabled people, she met the man she would later marry, a blind musician, and, when the young couple moved to his village of Qarawat Bani Hassan near Haris, Fatima started the village’s first kindergarten. Meanwhile, she began working at the Working Women’s Society in Nablus, raising awareness among women about human, social, and worker’s rights.
Life in Qarawat was never easy. Fatima’s husband was controlling, unsupportive, and physically and emotionally abusive. Then, after the Second Intifada began, checkpoints consistently disrupted Fatima’s commute to work, and she was forced to leave her job in Nablus. Shortly thereafter, her husband left her for another woman. Alone with five small children in conservative Qarawat, Fatima longed for the support of her own family, whom she hadn’t seen in over a decade. But because Israel does not allow free travel between the West Bank and Gaza, Fatima knew that if she left the West Bank—even just for a visit—she might never be allowed to return to her children.
Always a survivor, Fatima overcame her daunting obstacles with strength and perseverance, and that same year joined with two other women from the village of Salfit to form Women for Life (WFL), an organization dedicated to empowering local women in their struggle “to live in a free, just, and democratic society.” I met Fatima the year after WFL began, and she has since become one of my closest friends here. I’ve watched her organization grow from three to more than 200 members, meeting regularly to participate in, among other things, legal and leadership workshops, job training, domestic violence awareness, and creative nonviolent resistance to the Occupation.
Over the years, I have come to see Fatima’s life as a microcosm of the story of Palestinian women today: fighting a battle on multiple fronts. Fatima’s leg is the least of her handicaps; she is also a woman living in a traditional, patriarchial society, and a Palestinian living under a brutal military occupation. But in spite of the obstacles, women have long been prominent in the Palestinian struggle for peace—real peace, not simply the absence of war.
Women from areas of conflict have found the conventional description of peace—the opposite of violent military force—insufficient. According to PeaceWomen Across the Globe:
Peace is best understood in terms of “Human security,” [which is] the combination of:
Economic security, Food security, Health security, Environmental security, Personal security, Community security and Political security.
Each component of human security is threatened in Palestine, but groups like Women for Life address these issues along with the injustice of the Occupation. Palestinian women have been crucial in the struggle to overcome the devastation that remains even throughout ceasefires and peace talks: the emotional trauma, the destruction of culture, domestic violence, economic hardship, disease, and other issues rarely addressed by heads of state at the bargaining table.
The prominence of Palestinian women outside of the traditional role of homemaking is also growing. The percentage of Palestinian parliamentary seats held by women is quickly approaching that of Israel and the United States (although still far from Europe and various African countries), in part due to successful lobbying for election quotas by Palestinian women’s organizations. With 40% of adult Palestinian men in the Occupied Territories having spent some time in Israeli prisons or detention centers, women have often had to become the primary breadwinners for their families. They are also more able to move around to work than their husbands, since screenings of women at checkpoints tend to be less thorough. The transition from homemaking to the labor force by Palestinian women is made easier by their traditionally high levels of education. Palestinian society was the first in the Arab world to offer female students equal education opportunities and women are now in the majority at Palestinian universities.
Many other women working against injustice in Israel/Palestine are located west of the Green Line. Israel-based groups like New Profile, Machsom Watch, and ASWAT (a Palestinian lesbian group based in Haifa) work tirelessly alongside women in the Occupied Territories in the struggle for real peace and human security for all people in the region: women and men, Palestinians and Jewish Israelis.