Ramallah - As the world honours International Women’s Day on March 8, a conference held in Ramallah a day before celebrated Palestinian women's contribution to their communities. The event brought together women from all walks of life as representatives of various organisations took to the stage and recounted their success stories. The conference was organised by the Palestinian Medical Relief Society (PMRS) as part of the organisation's gender strategy.
Palestinian women have come a long way in the resistance against the Israeli military occupation. As a staff member from PMRS said via Skype from Gaza: "I'm nothing but a Palestinian woman who knows how to sacrifice, a hard working woman, who has the honour to carry the Palestinian burden on her chest."
Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, co-founder of PMRS and secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative, also highlighted this important facet of Palestinian women's life as they are very often subjected to both physical and psychological pain while living under Israeli occupation. His speech opened by paying tribute to women who have been victims of imprisonment, injury and even death.
Moreover, some of them have to endure the anguish of being the mothers of “martyrs” or widows.
“Palestinian women are pillars of resistance,” said Palestine's Minister of Women's Affairs Haifa Al-Agha.
Dr Khadija Jarrar, director of the Women’s Health programme, gave the conference's opening speech, followed by Ms Ann-Sofie Nilsson, Consul General of Sweden, who emphasised the importance of gender equality. She highlighted how it can be achieved through the 3 'R’s – rights, resources and representation.
The fruits of PMRS' labour were recounted by various representatives from different villages in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A woman from Jeeb Aldeeb outlined the achievements in her village, citing a solar panel project, school buses for children and a stationery shop as examples of progress. She also acknowledged the personal achievements of some residents, including a hairstylist who was able to train abroad, and a DJ.
Sanaa from Rummaneh, a Palestinian village located near Jenin in Northern West Bank, lamented how difficult it is to build homes and cultivate land in her village, which lies in Area C. Plagued by frequent military drills and shootings by Israeli forces, Sanaa related how hard it was for women to go out before the opening of a women’s club there.
“I see men as companions because they're also pushing for women’s rights,” added Sanaa. “My husband plays a great role in sending me outside so that I can be trained."
Asmahan from the village of Barta’a, located in the “seam zone” created by the apartheid wall and straddling both sides of the Green Line, described the daily suffering of its 5,000 inhabitants.
"At the gate [of the checkpoint] we pass in and out every day, there are portals emitting laser and this is forbidden, even in airports it's not allowed. Here it causes great problems for pregnant women. Some had to get abortions. 20% of our dead are from cancer,” Asmahan said.
A male speaker, Malek Bashir, a paramedic from Al Ram, hinted at how deeply entrenched cultural norms can be an impediment to realising gender equality in Palestinian society.
"I'm going to be honest. 3 years ago, I could not talk to women because our culture prevents us from talking to women, we were afraid. So with PMRS we decided to break this barrier,” Malek said.
Malek spoke of the reactions of Al Ram residents when they first saw a boy and a girl, each with a brush in their hands, fixing and painting the sidewalk.
“They first looked at us like we're crazy. After they saw the results on the sidewalk, they thanked us. From there, we keep our motto: equality, equality, equality! Now we have 90 volunteers and we are stronger than ever."
In fact the role of men cannot be under-estimated in the quest to attain gender equality. The story of Dana Abu Jarar from An Nabi in Tulkarem Governorate, was to many an inspiration. Bound to a wheelchair, she's been paralysed since the age of two. She's now the head of a rehabilitation programme. Through her mother's dedication, she managed to attend school, work and even learn to drive.
"I bought a car because my job made me financially independent. I'm married and I have four children. I thank my husband for supporting me. I travelled to be trained in Lebanon, Egypt... I even ran as a political candidate once! And today I give all the trainings I can," Dana said.
The conference concluded with a feisty Dabkeh dance which enthralled the audience as the spirit of Palestine filled the air.