Israeli occupation speeds 'liberation' of Arab women

Palestinian women in the West Bank and Gaza say that, ironically, the Israeli occupation has helped them -- by pushing tradition-bound women into political activism.

But the focus on politics often relegates traditional women's issues to the background.

"Of course, the occupation benefited women," says a Palestinian woman journalist, "because they had to become politically active to fight it and this affects their role in Arab society."

The situation of Palestinian women in the occupied territories has been the focus of debate at the United Nations World Conference on Women in Copenhagen. Questions of women's rights and roles have been subordinated to political debate. When asked if she resented this, leading West Bank women's rights advocate Sahar Khalifa said, "No, it has to be this way for our struggle."

The Israeli government points out that Israeli rule has brought civic, educational, and health gains for Palestinian women. It notes that West Bank women were given the vote in 1976 (Jordan, the West Bank's former ruler, is just granting its women this right), infant mortality has dropped to the lowest in the Middle East next to Israel, and the number of Palestinian girls in school has nearly doubled since 1967 while their percentage in the total West Bank Gaza school population has risen by five points to over 43 percent.

But Palestinian women argue that with normal progress and an infusion of oil money such standards are rising all over the Middle East. They are willing to credit the Israelis only with pushing them to the barricades -- and thus to greater self-awareness.

"Every woman is touched by the occupation," says Raymonda Tawil, a well-known writer from Ramallah. "Either they have a son in jail, or one who has been questioned, or one who can't come back to the West Bank for political reasons. The same middle-class woman in Amman would be thinking of cars and trips to Paris," she says waving a newspaper photo of well-to-do women demonstrating this week in sympathy with hunger-striking Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails.

Palestinian women disagree among themselves as to how much this political involvement has helped them to gain more freedom in their own traditional society. The situation of West Bank women ranges from relative social freedom for educated girls in east Jerusalem or the mostly Christian town of Ramallah nearby to arranged marriages and close family supervision in the villages in which 70 percent of the West Bankers live.

Although working women are accepted in the town and in many villages, jobs are limited inside the territories due to lack of industry or government infrastructure. A mild Islamic resurgence here, moreover, has sent some women including college students back to head scarves and long, enveloping dresses.

"Women demonstrated before under Jordanian rule, but they were neat and well-mannered," says Sahar Khalifa, a young West Bank novelist and campaigner for women's rights. "But now schoolgirls and mothers participate in violent demonstrations, and this has changed their character and perceptions. I think the occupation has speeded up changes for women because of this involvement."

"But how much does the 'demonstration mentality' last after the girls leave school?" queries a woman professor at the West bank's Bir Zeit University. "I think women would have changed more quickly if there had been no occupation because the whole atmosphere here is focused on nationalist and not on women's issues."

Hyam Abu Ghazaleh, director of an adult literacy program that trains teachers for 100 centers across the West Bank and Gaza, says the occupation gives illiterate village women and girls an incentive to attend classes.

Ms. Abu Ghazaleh adds, however, that many women become literate to read the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

It is hard to measure the impact of Westernized Israeli society -- with which Palestinian women have minimal contact -- on liberalizing traditional Palestinian attitudes toward women.

Palestinian women say, in fact, that immediately after the occupation they lost ground. "In Nablus we wore short- sleeved blouses before 1967," says Raymonda Tawil, "but after the occupation society frowned on women doing anything which seemed to be imitating the enemy. Only now are things beginning to liberalize."

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