Saturday, October 24, 2020

Gender, occupation and advocacy: Palestinian women claiming their voices.

By Patty Diphusa - July 02, 2019
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [women‘s rights]

Today, women’s rights and those of gender and sexually diverse (queer) people are under the spotlight in mainstream media. With movements like the #metoo campaign and highly covered “Pride” events such as those of New York, Madrid or Tel Aviv, these issues are taking centre-stage in a global context.

However, experiences of women and queer individuals are not universal. In Palestine, they not only face patriarchal and hetero-normative structures, but they also must contend with the illegal Israeli occupation of their territories. 

The Palestinian Working Woman Society for Development (PWWSD) has been working in the field of women’s rights in Palestine since 1981. In conversation with Sandie Hanna, the officer for Advocacy at PWWSD, the complexities of gender in the Palestinian context were addressed. 

“There are always people who think that women rights are a privilege," Hanna told Palestine Monitor. 

Discussing how often Western media depicts Arab, and mainly Palestinian women as victims to be saved, Hanna stated that “we never advocate for women as victims, women have agency and we are not in a position to wait until we are given a voice”. 

“We go ahead, we claim it and we do participate, although it's a long process,” Hanna continued.

However, Hanna explained the work the organisation carries out faces multiple layers that need to be addressed which makes it a complex task, especially in the context of Palestine as an occupied state.  

“It is challenging because the scope is huge: the occupation, the patriarchal structures,” Hanna stated, emphasising that “the occupation is patriarchal”. 

These multiple layers operate at three main levels: the occupation itself, domestic Palestinian politics and the international context.

Although occupation affects all Palestinians, women too often face extra consequences because of structural inequalities.

When discussing some examples, Hanna explained: “the force that is used [in occupation] is illegal, lethal, excessive and is indifferent against civilians.” 

“Women are affected disproportionately because they carry a double burden, not only are they affected directly but they also have the social burden of being the wife or daughter of the martyr. They loose sons, they are affected economically, they are excluded in different levels”. She moved on to say that as not all Palestine is the same, “Hebron is probably the most affected Governorate in the West Bank”.

Another area in which occupation affects specifically women (and children) is that of gender-based and domestic violence. Occupation and militarisation naturalise violence, which is then continued in the home space.

In this sense, Hanna explained, if men are “constantly exposed to violence at checkpoints, for instance, the kind of violence and humiliation they are exposed to on a daily basis makes them aggressive and channel this negative energy through their families”. 

Because of the dire economic situation and high unemployment rates in the West Bank, many Palestinian men work inside Israel and must cross multiple checkpoints daily.

Moreover, “men in our culture are not supposed to express themselves with ease as there are specific mindsets to masculinities”. PWWSD works on this issue providing Psico-social counselling for women and children specifically, but also for men.

Regarding domestic Palestinian politics, although Palestine is State member of 'The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women’ (CEDAW) since 2014, Hanna stated that “legislation does not comply with the international level and we feel intended procrastination about putting forward any laws that protect women”.

Explaining that PWWSD was able to support 75 women win seats in municipality elections, she commented that this is “sometimes a mere formality as women are manipulated to have their names on the slides but are excluded”. She moved on saying that sometimes “they [male politicians] schedule meetings at 23:00 pm so that women cannot be there”.

The international level also places a series of challenges to Palestinian women. Hanna mentioned, “the cut of US funds to The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has affected more and foremost women”. 

Asked on what the international community should do, Hanna said people need to put more pressure on the government. “We need people at the grassroots level to pressure into more concrete actions and to make sure that resolutions, conventions and treaties are being implemented”.

Hanna summed up by saying the next generation will be the ones to spearhead further change. “The younger generations, with an enlightened vision of how they collectively need to move forward against both patriarchal and occupation violence, will have some kind of innovative insides and inputs”.

Queerness and women: intersecting vulnerabilities

Living as a Queer woman in Palestine presents a set of particular elements that although might overlap with other women's’ narratives, constitute at the same time a different struggle and existence. 

When asked about what the media should do when addressing the issue of gender and queerness in Palestine, Rima, a 25-year-old Palestinian lesbian activist whose name was changed for security reasons, said the “media should listen before they speak for the Palestinian women”. 

Although the focus is usually set on the taboos surrounding queerness in Palestine, Rima mentioned that daily life has its nuances based on perceptions of gender relations. 

Rima stated; “I would like the readers to know it is not easy being a queer woman whatsoever, but it is also somehow convenient here for me as a lesbian woman to have a girlfriend because we can live in the same room and nobody would question it.” However, she said, “at the same time, you get a lot of pressure from family and expectations of society”.

Occupation affects the life of Palestinians in numerous aspects. Regarding queerness, 26-year-old Palestinian lesbian activist, Noor (name also changed), referred to the stance of Israel on diversity in the aftermath of the Tel Aviv “pride”. In this sense, she stated that “[the Israelis] are telling the world they are open-minded and it's like its all unicorns and rainbows while it’s not”. 

Noor referred to what many people label as "pinkwashing," a propaganda tactic used by Israel to falsely portray the country as progressive in terms of gender and sexuality while disguising its systematic human rights abuses and presenting Palestinian, Arab and Muslim societies as inherently backwards and intolerant.

She continued by saying, “I think they are only doing that just to cover their crimes. If it was right that what they are doing is for the [queer] community, then why am I as a Palestinian woman not allowed to go 'inside’ and participate in that pride?” Noor said, referring to how Palestinians can only enter Israel if they obtain the correct documents. Noor summarised by insisting, “it is all bullshit, that is what I am saying”.

Although agreeing that occupation is an enormous challenge and it needs to stop, Noor and Rima refused to blame all queer issue on it. In this sense, Rima stated that “[the occupation] is only one of our problems here, but not the only one as a society”. Noor explained the “male-dominated society does not have to do with the occupation. If you look at other Arab communities, we are oppressed everywhere in the Middle East as queer people”.

Discussing how this issue of occupation and the goal of achieving a future and inclusive independent state, Rima declared that “rights cannot be separated”. She suggested that the peace process needs to be gendered and queered. 

She explained that “matters of sexual diversity and equality should be brought to the table of discussion as they are just as important as the rest of the topics,” referring to the right of return for Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and border control. She continued by affirming that “in order to be independent we have to take all these issues into consideration”. 

However complex their situation as lesbian women in Palestine, it is not all negative and some things are moving forward impacting in their livelihoods. Both Rima and Noor have been involved in a local NGO working with sexual and gender diversity, actively contributing to building a collectiveness around queer Palestinian individuals. 

The matters of such collectiveness in their advocacy, the sense of community, arise as essential to their experiences. In this sense, Noor said that “for me, what helped was seeing other people who were like me”. Rima ended the conversation affirming that since her involvement in the process of building a queer community, “I didn’t feel alone any more”.


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