The West Bank, and Palestine as a whole, faces a broken political system, rife with problems of representation and corruption. The aftershock of the latter part of the Oslo Accords as well as years of occupation has left the political system stifled but inward-looking, if not creating then certainly aiding an environment where nepotism and favouritism are often its primary drivers.
In this context, it’s easy to see female political representation as an issue best left for “later.” But as all-female groups are showing, addressing the issue of women in politics has the potential to revolutionize the way that politics are conducted overall.
“Women of the Town” is a list of female candidates running in the Palestinian municipal elections on the 20th of October. Lists include five candidates, either from a loose group or a pre-existing political party, vying for nine places on a municipal council.
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Local elections in any other place in the world may seem like the domain of petty politicians, but they hold enormous significance on the West Bank, with 62 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli military and administrative control, according to the 1993 Oslo Accords. “The council does everything for the village,” says Ilham Sami, the outspoken leader of Women of the Town, a roster of candidates running in the sleepy village of Saffa, close to Ramallah. “It’s our government. It works on health issues, on education, on buildings, on the infrastructure of the local administration, on roads, agriculture, the environment. It really is a small government.”
The women of Saffa’s aim is to move beyond a passive system in which women elect only men to positions of power. Though there is a 20-percent quota for female participation, Sami describes the women involved as “decoration,” compliant voices to fill the spot. “Half of the women’s jobs on the local council were bringing food and clearing up after meetings,” Sami says. She wonders why, if the women were not skilled enough to do the legitimate work, the men did not train them to do it.
Women of the Town emerged from an all-female collective called Adala, which means “justice” in Arabic. The group, which has been involved in social projects in the village for more than five years, helps women to develop political awareness. “It’s all about a participatory approach,” Sami says. “We don’t want to take things without participating. To give and take, to do and to learn.”
“The idea for the list came up during a meeting for women in Saffa, to educate them about how to vote,” Sami continues
This was more than two years ago. There were many women there who were active, educated, passionate, and able to discuss the election in depth. But the focus [of the meeting] was on the basics: how to put a cross on the ballot paper, how to put the ballot in the box! During the discussion afterwards, I asked the women, ‘Which of you is participating?’ They all said no. They asked me, too. I said no. The women at this meeting were the socially active women, but these women are ignored by the political parties. They want the silent women. So I asked them, ‘Why aren’t you running?’ They said no one asked us. That meeting was like a conversation, an extremely productive conversation.
Giving With One Hand, Taking With the Other
The women have encountered a problem, no doubt shared by women in other countries: the prevailing attitude that to allow broader representation will somehow silence those who already have a voice. The Women of the Town list has also been criticized because it is presumed to be a rebuke of the traditional political parties’ candidates. Sami laughs as she recounts the story of going to the Ramallah court in 2010 to get official recognition of the group’s candidacy: “A man came and said to me, ‘Ha! You are a list of women. Everything you take comes from us. You even take our trousers!’ I told him, ‘We wear our own trousers, not yours.’” Sami says that the scare tactics used on a local level revolve around jokes, often about how the roster is a symptom of how power-hungry she is or how she “wants it to be an all-women local council.” (This is impossible, according to electoral law.) She laughs this off and continues undeterred: “Some men in Saffa told me that when we put up our election posters, they will scratch the eyes. I told them, “You can draw a tail on us, I don’t care.’”
Women throughout the West Bank may be inspired by the female candidates of Saffa and by those in Hebron who founded a list called “By Participating We Can.” But some fear that empowering women implicitly disempowers others. This fear runs deeper than gendered suspicions. It rends the very fabric of Palestinian society. It’s difficult to overstate the extent to which family is everything in Palestine. Politics are conventionally conducted through a traditional system that has evolved through the relations among the large families that make up the community, often comprising a group of at least 50 people. To create a list of women is therefore to tear up the rule book that dictates the traditional ascendancy of power and influence. Families will either align with a longstanding political party or embody a list of candidates in and of themselves.
Sami says that the reactions to women’s lists have been mixed: “When we announced the list in 2010, the first phone call I received was from a man. He told me, ‘We are very proud of your list. You will have the support of 30 more people because of this.’ Another man called me and offered me 70 more voices of support later on.” Support, she says, comes in bundles. Those who wish to get on board with an idea bring a cache of voters with them.
But the sailing was far from smooth. “Of course there have been some negative reactions,” Sami says. “One of the main obstacles we faced came from the families. When we started to talk about the list, many women agree to participate. The problem they faced was that their families refused this. One of their husbands called me at 3 a.m. and told me, “Ilham, I’m very sorry, but our extended family only just left my house. They told us that if she runs on this list, that they will cut all relations with us.”
Keeping Tradition Alive
The idea of women participating in the political arena runs counter to many of the traditional assumptions about women’s role in society. “Everything here is all about tradition,” says Shams Karajah, a young resident of Saffa who is helping Women of the Town with its campaign. “The role of women here is to get married, have kids, and take care of their house. It’s only relatively recently that parents have been sending their kids to school as a blanket policy. Even so, things are improving. Most young women and girls go and study. Women’s roles are improving here. Twenty years from now our roles will be different. I’m sure of it.”
Palestinian society is one of the most highly educated in the world, with approximately 50.2 percent gross enrolment in universities in the West Bank and Gaza in 2010. But while more people are attending universities, sexism persists. “Women don’t have a role in village life as their opinions aren’t taken seriously,” says Suhair Saleh, another candidate from Women of the Town. “There is a lack of culture to receive women’s ideas and see their education as a thing of value.”
Sami says that a division of roles at an early age sets a precedent: “If a family have a girl and a boy, they encourage her to study subjects related to a traditional role, like a teacher. But for the man it’s as a doctor or an engineer, and so they’re willing to pay for it. I know many girls who wanted to study medicine, but they switched to a more ‘suitable’ and cheaper course after the first year, as their families were unwilling to pay for a girl to study medicine, when making the same investment on a boy seems like a better long-term option to them. The families will say they never told her, but all indications show that social pressure pushed her into that choice. All the time the women pay the price, even without being asked. We are always expected to look outwards, to care for others and negate our own needs.”
As a result of these strict social pressures, the Adala collective launched a program in 2007 that created a fund, allowing girls to get a loan to pay for their education, to be paid back in small increments of 100 Jordanian dinars. This kind of bottom-up thinking addresses the needs of the village, especially those involving social issues that have long been ignored because they are perceived as not part of the public sphere.
The Personal Is Political
Saleh emphasizes the need for greater female representation at a municipal level to target problems that exclusively affect women: “There are certain medical issues not seen as important as they are ‘women’s issues,’” she says. “But the highest rates of breast cancer in the Ramallah area are in this village.” Traditional marriage practices often result in intermarriage among the 3,500 residents, creating chronic health problems.
“The idea is not just to better represent women, it’s to be in a position that will allow other women to better implement their own needs,” says Karajah. Sami says that women are frequently dis-empowered in village life because intense social pressures demand that they not claim any inheritance, even if they’re entitled to it. She recounts a story told to her by one of Saffa’s residents: “When they went to the court, they picked her up with a car. After she signed the papers that would allow the division of the assets to her brother, they drove off and left her at the court house.” Sami says that genuine female representation at a municipal level would allow women to push for regulations that would require a fairer division of assets among male and female siblings, paving the way for women’s economic and social empowerment.
Adala is addressing how the large number of physically and mentally disabled people in the village are treated. “If they’re male, they can be outside and go to school,” says Sami. “But for the women and girls it’s taboo for them to be outside.” Adala established classes for mentally disabled girls, to allow them to socialize and to lead more enriching lives. The funding and venue for the course was recently revoked. “If you saw the reality of their lives, it’s miserable,” Sami says, recounting examples of girls confined to a single room or drugged so that they won’t be awake during the day. A goal of the Women of the Town list is representation of anyone considered marginalised by the current power structure. “We represent all the women, all the youth, all the handicapped in the village,” Sami says.
Occupied With Gender
The Women of the Town, eager to see all-female lists in other areas for future elections, have been touring the West Bank to promote the concept. Currently, three other small villages, Kufur Nama, Salfit, and Kufur Haris, have bought into the idea. Sami hopes that by the time the next election rolls around several years from now, “It will be 50-50, male to female, on every list.”
There’s a contingency plan if things don’t turn out as hoped on Election Day. “We will create a shadow ‘observation’ council just for women, designed to lobby the local council for our needs,” says Sami, “and we will invite any of the women who were on the other lists to be part of it if they wish.”
What about the bigger picture for women in the West Bank? Saffa’s proximity to the Separation Wall, erected by Israel in 2002, makes it difficult to forget that whatever advances are made within its boundaries, they will be confined to a very small area. “Let’s not forget, we are occupied here,” Sami says. “But of course having more women in politics would help on both sides—having more women in politics in Palestine and in Israel—I think the women can present a new way to solve the problems. I believe in the power of women.”