Women in the PLO: rifles, fatigues, but no veils

The commandos' heavy boots pounded the parched earth at the women's training camp in war-ravaged West Beirut. Dark eyes flashed and gleaming hair tossed beneath the soldiers' drab green caps.

On command, these yound members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) stiffly marched across the field.

In the Arab world where women are often shrouded in black veils, women in the military create a stark contrast. Nevertheless, changes in the role of Palestinian women have not been very radical.

In Beirut, where revolutionary fervor is endemic, many women say changes in traditional roles are prompted more by the desire for national liberation than by the desire for women's liberation. In fact, supporting the Palestinian cause generally means supporting the men who fight for it. Although many women now don combat fatigues, few ever join in fighting.

At the training camp, inside PLO-controlled West Beirut, a stocky, balding political officer smiled benignly at the young women as they noisily cleared the field for a demolition exercise.

"Unfortunately, women don't make as good soldiers as the men. They don't have the same discipline," he said patronizingly. "Our society just doesn't approve of women warriors. Of course, there have been exceptions -- some women have fought courageously alongside the commandos."

He mentioned one Palestinian woman who was second in command of the March 1978 "coastal road massacre" in Israel, and the well-known Palestinian airplane hijacker, Leila Khaled.

Despite these exceptions, most commandos themselves agree that women make better housewives than soldiers. One swarthy member of Al-Fatah, the PLO's largest commando group, stated matter-of-factly: "Women mainly learn self-defense at the camps. Now that a gun in the house is as common as a knife in the kitchen, women must know how to use them!"

It is during the three-week summer camps that women voluntarily learn to handle light weapons and explosives. Girls as young as 10- years-old smile precociously as they shoulder their AK-47 rifles. When they are not in the field, however, they are in the classroom receiving political instruction. The political officer explained that women are taught about different revolutionary movements.

"Then," he said, "they learn about our own special situation -- they learn our enemies are Israel and American imperialism -- they learn our main goal is to build a Palestinian nonsectarian state with Christians, Jews, and Muslims."

Although many commandos doubt that the camps can or should mold women into soldiers, they do believe that the instruction instills a strong sense of Palestinian nationalism. Yet many women assert that their commitment comes not from a classroom, but from personal involvement.

"Even though women don't face the front lines," a maternal woman said defensively, "there is hardly a woman who hasn't lost a family member in fighting," Sixteen-year-old Fatmah, for example, saw six brothers and a pregnant sister gunned down at Tel Zaatar camp in 1976.

After a long siege the Christian Phalangists had swept down on the East Beirut refugee camp and massacred hundreds. Now this somber-eyed teen-ager's dream for the future is "to take revenge against our enemies -- the Phalangists and Israel!"

Palestinian women may share men's patriotic fervor, but the majority express it in the home, not on the battlefield or in the political bureaucracy.

The PLO headquarters is virtually a man's world. It is located in a crowded, run-down section of West Beirut, surrounded by armed checkpoints. Down its festering streets, lean, restless commandos guard the PLO buildings. Inside, the officers are well-stocked with out-of-service commandos.

If women are present, they are likely to be secretaries, and their job consists mainly of serving endless cups of coffee and tea. There is little work. Smalll talk and the radio lull them into a lethargic routine.

Women represent only a small minority of the PLO rank and file and leadership. There are currently 14 women on the 350-seat Palestinian National Council (PNC), and 11 women out of 531 delegates attended the June 1980 congress in Damascus.

According to May Sayegh, the head of the Palestinian Women's Union and a member of the PNC, "The participation of women in the PLO is very low. In 1964, the first Palestinian National Congress resolved to include women in all parts of our struggle. It said women should be equal in rights and duties. Since then, however, these resolutions haven't been put into effect!"

The implacable Mrs. Sayegh is also adamant about her political views. "We will never recognize Israel!" she expounds. "I assure you there won't be a Palestinian baby born three centuries from now that will forget to struggle for Palestine!"

Some Palestinians plainly look askance at outspoken women like Mrs. Sayegh. Walking down a gloomy, narrow street, away from the Palestinian Women's Union, a young commando winced when Mrs. Sayegh was mentioned. "She shouts too much," he said curtly.

Just such radical Palestinian women captured international attention last summer at the UN Women's conference in Copenhagen. During the 14-day conference the Palestinian contingent repeatedly seized the microphones and staged walkouts.

Leila Khaled caused more consternation when she refused to talk to Israeli delegates, saying, "Israel is our enemy. To them we only talk with weapons!"

Delegates from other countries complained that the Palestinians acted as if only their women suffer. In the end, the Palestinians won approval for a special UN fund for Palestinian women.

Most of the women represented by the Palestinian delegates are not concerned about the status of women. They accept the norms of a traditionally patriarchal society -- where polygamy still exists. They are tied to their family and home, and when they are outside their realm, they often walk with eyes down- cast, wearing long dresses and covering their heads with scarves.

In many ways Souad exemplifies the changes in the new generation of Palestinian women. Dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt, she placed cushions on the floor around a traditional dinner she had prepared for her family and guests.

Souad helps her disabled mother at home and is also a secretary at one of the PLO offices. Her fiance is studying engineering in Europe. "I would like to study medicine," she sighed, "but may boyfriend says no. When he finishes university we'll get married." Most of Souad's friends are already married, living in burgeoning Shatila camp.

Although more Palestinian women are going on to college, the majority opt for marriage and a family.

Yet according to Dr. Fathi Arafat, brother of Yasser Arafat and head of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, women's role is already recognized and appreciated. With a glint in his eyes he boasted, "Our women have a very important job in the Palestinian struggle -- they are commando producers!"

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