The role of women’s organizations and other NGOs in highlighting citizenship’s and women’s rights in Palestine

Women’s organization in relation to Palestinian history have played two very important roles, on one side struggling for the rights of the Palestinian people on the national scene and one the other side advocating for women’s rights on the social arena, especially since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority with the Oslo agreement. Both struggles in the Palestinian case are cross cutting and connected in many ways, even though the occupation of the Israeli forces of the Palestinian territories are not recognized as an important factor in the ongoing existence of patriarchy in the Palestinian society, as well as inequalities suffered by women. This element is a key factor to understand the activism of women’s movement, for example as pointed out by Hanadi Loubani a founding member of Women for Palestine when a Palestinian woman is detained or harassed by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint, she is not only victimized by the occupation soldiers, but she also risks to get into trouble with her family for arriving home late (Occupation, Patriarchy, and the Palestinian Women’s Movement. An interview with Hanadi Loubani by Jennifer Plyler. Association for Women’s Rights in Development, 2003). The interconnection between occupation and patriarchy is explicit in this case and felt daily by Palestinian women. Samia Bamieh, a member of the Palestinian National Council and of the Women Palestinian Union, shares this analysis in saying that the violence of the occupation is reflected in all the sectors of the society, even in the violence of men against women (En Palestine, le double combat, 8 mars 2010, Pierre Barbancey et Charlotte Bozonnet l’Humanité). Occupation also prevents an effective rule of law; the areas under the Palestinian Authority are actually not contiguous, but they are separated by numerous checkpoints, roadblocks, and other physical and administrative barriers erected by the Israeli authorities. This situation affects heavily the way the Palestinian Authority conducts its policy, the daily lives of Palestinian and the personal security of all Palestinians, and especially women.
This link between occupation and women’s rights is however denied by many among the International Community and this latter usually tend to separate the feminist and the nationalist struggle. International donors therefore encourage a form of depoliticization of Women Palestinian NGOs by donating only to movement that focuses essentially on women’s rights and gender equality issue without any acknowledgement of the connection between occupation and patriarchy. The International NGO industry, largely dominated by Western countries and the liberal paradigm, do not include the national liberation of the Palestinian people as a priority. NGOs in this perspective are only focus on a Humanitarian help, without taking in account, which is quite important, that the Palestinians are occupied and that the absence of a State is the consequence of Israel occupation. NGOs actions have thus not sought to address the cause, but only the symptoms. This donation policy had as a negative consequence to diminish women political participation in Palestine.
This situation has nevertheless not prevented Women organizations activism on many issues. On the domestic front, Palestinian women are actually subjected to different forms of discriminations and violence. Personal status laws are restrictive for women, retaining discriminatory provisions related to marriage, divorce, and child custody. Domestic abuse remains a significant problem, and violence against women has increased in recent years. Discriminatory laws and traditions also affect women’s inheritance, alimony, and employment opportunities, thereby reducing their economic autonomy and making them more vulnerable to poverty than men.
Palestinian women’s rights activists and movement have been actively pursuing dialogue with the Palestinian Liberation Council, in the framework of reforming Palestinian discriminatory laws. They notably worked in erasing discriminatory provisions related to labor rights, the civil service and higher education (Freedom House Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa 2010 – Palestine). Women’s organization such as the Women’s Affairs Technical Committee (WATC) an ardent advocate for the equal rights of women and the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling (WCLAC), have for example expressed their opinions about women’s women’s autonomy and security and the difficulties women face because of Palestine’s discriminatory laws . However, only few of these initiatives were successful in improving the status of women the past five years.
Many women movements in the occupied territories offer a wide range of services from lobbying and advocacy work to training and psychological counseling. The WCLAC has notably established a Media Forum, which trains male and female journalists on issues such as violence against women, gender and the media, and gender and law, in order to raise their consciousness regarding women’s rights and present a more constructive discourse on women’s issues. Many Women’s organizations also posses their own communication tools, WATC disposes actually of a newspaper, Sawt al-Nissa’ (The Voice of Women) published in Ramallah and broadcasts a weekly radio program, Did al-Samt (Against Silence), on the official Palestinian radio channel, while the Palestinian Working Woman Society for Development (PWWSD) runs a newspaper called Yanabee and a radio program entitled Through the Eyes of Women, as do youth organizations like Taawon and Sharek (Freedom House Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa 2010 – Palestine). The Women’s Affairs Center in Gaza publishes the newspaper Al-Ghaida’ (Beautiful Woman). It is interesting to note also in relation to media that a number of women occupy senior positions. The editors in chief of Birzeit University’s progressive newspaper, Al-Hal, and the newspaper Al-Bayader al-Siyasi are women, as is the deputy director of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation.
Women organizations have also been very active on the issue of women representation in politics, demanding a quota setting aside 30% of the seat for women. Women’s rights organizations, with the support of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, have moreover successfully lobbied to include a limited party list quota in the 2005 election law to include a minimum of female candidates in each political party. The WATC and the organization Miftah, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, actively trained candidates and drafted elections guides for women at this period, as well as in assisting female candidates organize events in cities and villages to meet with potential voters (Freedom House Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa 2010 – Palestine). Around twelve women’s movements were deeply involved in increasing women’s representation. The WATC and Miftah are besides continually providing training for female candidates and young leaders on advocacy, communication skills, working with the media, preparation of a campaign, and presenting an argument to voters.
Violence against women is also a theme taken care by women organization. Violence is in many aspects the reflection of the broader violence and lack of rule of law in the Palestinian territories, and it has become more common over the last five years. “Honor” killings is part of this problem and in response to this rising phenomenon, seven women’s rights and human rights organizations submitted a memorandum to President Abbas, urging the issuance of a presidential decree treating honor killings as murders. Numerous women organizations have published report to denounce this phenomenon of “honor” killings to raise awareness among the Palestinian society such as Al-Muntada, a coalition of women’s organizations which have found 32 cases of honor killings in Palestine between 2004 and 2006 or the Birzeit University newspaper Al-Hal in a front-page article, reported that 19 more women had been killed in 2008. However, no decree condemning “honor” killings has been issued until nowadays.
We can observe that Palestinian women’s movements are very active and that has been the case all along the history of Palestine. Women organizations have usually been based in grassroots needs and used their creativity to serve their double struggle: the resistance to occupation and women’s rights. Palestinian women’s must continue to resist depoliticization of their movement, wanted mainly by the International community, to continue to show the reality under which women in Palestine live: a combination of patriarchy and occupation which strengthen each other. In order to erase discriminations against women and aim for gender equality, the priority of a Palestinian State should not be put aside.

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