The double oppression of Palestinian women
The progress, however, was never linear. The societal collapse that followed the 1948 Nakba saw women’s political engagement change from visible activism, to the role of mainly preserving collective memory and national identity, often through the maintenance of cultural artefacts and oral history.
With the coming of age of the post-Nakba generation and the establishment of the PLO in the 1960s, the Palestinian national movement was rejuvenated, and so was much of women’s activism. The period saw the emergence of the PLO’s General Union of Palestinian Women, whose feminist revolutionary approach soon became part of the operational and ideological framework of many Palestinian political factions, especially on the left.
''Efforts to increase women’s representation have been either superficial or aesthetic. Very little thought was given to the fact that meaningful progress is contingent upon dismantling the deeply rooted patriarchal attitude.''
The formation of the Palestinian Authority following the 1994 Oslo agreement with Israel prompted the building of civil society institutions, leading, among other things, to further recognition of women’s rights and increased female political participation.
In the language of statistics, Palestinian women have indeed come a long way, but on the ground, this is yet to translate to actual gender equality, or at least a semblance of equal partnership in decision-making.
According to UN figures, women represent only 8% of the PLO’s National Council, they hold 3 out of 24 ministerial positions in the West Bank, and only 1 in Gaza. The electoral quota for women, although increased from 20% to 24% in 2021, still does not meet the minimum requirement of 30% requested by women activists. In higher education institutions, 60% of students are women, yet they represent only 26% of the members of university student councils.
As such, efforts to increase women’s representation have been either superficial or aesthetic. Very little thought was given to the fact that meaningful progress is contingent upon dismantling the deeply rooted patriarchal attitude.
Palestine is a patriarchal society - much like the neighbouring Arab societies, sometimes more so. But the dynamics sustaining the traditionalist patriarchy are more convoluted than simply an entrenched social order. They are entwined with the political complexities that, among other things, continue to grant primacy to an overhyped form of masculinity.
Palestinian men, as their peers in most societies, are expected to align with gendered norms of hegemonic masculinity, one conceivably dominated by practical expectations such as provision and protection.
But, unlike most societies, the performance of these three quintessentially masculine acts is regularly undermined by the superior power of Israel’s military occupation. Men are often the main targets of questioning, imprisonment, and abuse by the IDF. Their overall context of masculinity, therefore, is one of political subjugation and coercion. This effectively erodes some of the socially approved components which they believe make them men, not least is their ability to act as the protectors and providers.
نظم اتحاد لجان المرأة الفلسطينية ورشة عمل حول "نظام الاستجابة والكشف عن العنف المبني على النوع الاجتماعي وفق الأنظمة الوطنية"— Union of Palestinian Women's Committees (@of_committees) February 24, 2022
Union of Palestinian Women's Committees organized a workshop about the national refferal system for women suffering from gender based violence.#UPWC pic.twitter.com/19fHcCPPld
This dynamic has led to the overcompensation of masculinity, one directed either inwardly and manifested as domestic abuse and/or curbing women’s independence, or in most cases, outwardly at Israel through muqawama (resistance).
Either way, this is a defence mechanism; and for many Palestinian men, it is their way of restoring the social role that they have lost to the occupation. And, since nationalism and masculinity are closely entwined, masculinity is viewed as a form of national survival.
But that comes at a high price.
The need to constantly reassert this type of masculinity has sustained the patriarchal order and limited women’s liberation as well as political participation.
Most recently, clan leaders in the occupied West Bank called for the Palestinian Authority to withdraw from the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). They went as far as calling for a ban on all feminist organisations. The justifications for this were weak and included citing traditions, presenting a narrow interpretation of Islam, and framing the treaty as a Western conspiracy to corrupt Muslim women.
On the other side of the issue is the occupation, which is a comprehensive form of oppression, applied to all Palestinian regardless of gender. But, because women are already in a vulnerable societal position, certain Israeli practices are doubly oppressive to them. The closures and restrictions on the freedom of movement, all render Palestinian women incapable of taking part in national or international activities, through which they would otherwise get more politically involved. These restrictions also hinder women's associations and trade unions from developing a strategy to promote women in the decision-making positions.
Palestinian women detainees in Israel are particularly vulnerable to systematic violations. They are routinely physically searched and roughened up by Israeli male guards; as such, their basic human rights are violated and they are stuck with the weight of social stigmas surrounding notions of honour and dignity.
Pressed between the patriarchal hammer and the occupation’s anvil, many women have grown to believe that they are less able to play a meaningful part in the decision-making process, much less make a tangible change. Others have internalised the belief that political involvement cancels their feminine identity.
Palestinian women are glorified for being mothers and wives and told that these roles are as important as male militancy and political dominance. They are propped up as the genesis of the revolution and the biological weapon against Israel for rearing children who will one day march towards liberation.
This has also resulted in women voting for male candidates who they believe are more capable of political action and bearing responsibility than women candidates.
Society remains somewhat blind to the prospect of women’s equal integration into the political system, and the fact that this would actually aid state-building and, eventually, national liberation.
Meanwhile, the system continues to limp on one leg, the male leg, thinking it is all there is to reach the finish line.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.