Mar 10 2006

Women’s Day in Palestine

Published by at 6:15 am under Blogs,Palestinian politics

By Daoud Kuttab


While Palestinians have regularly celebrated the International Women’s Day on March 8, celebrations this year had a different taste. The victory of the conservative Islamic movement Hamas has reinvigorated Palestinian civil society in general and the women’s movement in particular. This year’s pro-women march in Ramallah, which ended with a meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas, was well attended, by nearly a thousand women, interestingly many of them with headscarves.

As if to reflect where the coming battleground will be, the women were unable to gain a similar positive response from the legislative council which was in session that day. A long discussion ensued inside the Palestinian parliament about what to do with the demonstrating women. Finally a decision was taken to send a delegation to join the celebrations on women’s day, but it took some more time to agree on how long the session should be suspended for the parliament’s representatives to participate in the event and return. The request for a two-hour break was cut in half and a parliamentary delegation made up of some of the key women representatives left to attend. But the plan didn’t succeed, as the mostly Islamic delegates (since the Fateh MPs had earlier walked out of the parliament for a different reason) quickly returned in protest. Samira Haliqa, a Hamas representative from the Hebron area, informed her colleagues that the delegation decided to boycott the women’s day march because some of the protesters had raised placards calling for legislation that will abolition polygamy, which is permitted according to Sharia as Haliqa said.

Palestinian women trying to reach the legislative council’s offices in Gaza (where representatives were participating in the Ramallah-based session via videoconferencing) were also blocked. After persistent attempts, the parliament’s closed doors were opened when a number of independent women representatives intervened. The protesting women were allowed in, but they were not given an audience with their elected representatives. The following day, the Hamas prime minister-designate, Ismael Haniyeh, was quoted in the press as being in support of women’s rights.

Press leaks have also indicated that two women will be part of the first Hamas-led government: Khaleda Jarrar, a secular, stubborn defender of women’s rights elected on the platform of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is said to be slated for the Women’s Ministry, while Bir Zeit University Professor Khaula Shakshir is being considered for the important ministry of education.

The statute and role of women in the upcoming Hamas era will be very interesting. The number of women representatives in the Palestinian Legislative Council has jumped from 5 to 17 thanks to the current election law that forced parties to list at least one woman in the first three spots and in every following five spots. The 17 women representatives reflect Palestine more than any previous council, with six from Hamas, eight from Fateh (they went beyond the quota), a PFLP representative, as well as independents. Representatives also span the spectrum in education, socio-economic statute and religious affiliation.

The council includes women with their heads uncovered as well as women with different degrees of head covering. It includes a number of women with PhDs, a medical doctor, as well as working mothers and political activists. The women MPs include wives, sisters and mothers of prisoners and individuals killed in the conflict with the Israelis. Style and dress aside, Palestinian women have their work cut out for them.

Politically, there is no disagreement about the overriding desire of Palestinians of both genders to be free of occupation and land theft. In this respect, the Palestinian Ministry for Women issued a statement saying that 117 women are currently held in Israeli jails, all arrested since the beginning of Al Aqsa Intifada. Among them, 60 have been sentenced, 51 are awaiting trial and six are held administratively without trial or charge. Five of the detained women are under the age of 18.

Personal and social status issue will be the real challenge to Palestinian women, especially those in the legislative council. Salwa Hdeeb, a woman activist and deputy minister in the outgoing Qureia government, addressed Hamas representatives during the women’s rally by calling on them to preserve the accomplishments already made and not to be an instrument to destroy or diminish these successes.

Palestinian women activists and NGOs will no doubt be active participants in the hot debate that will certainly ensue in the coming months and years. Already people are waiting to see where we will be come next March 8.


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