For Palestinian Women, Arafat's Pals-Only Rule Won't Do
GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP
PALESTINIAN women who threw stones beside their fathers and sons to create a state for their people are now hurling barbed criticisms at the very authority they helped create.Skip to next paragraph
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Just five years ago, women took to the streets here daily, confronting armed Israeli soldiers with only rocks at the peak of the intifadah -- the uprising against Israel that began in 1987.
Today many of these women are questioning PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and his self-appointed Palestinian Authority -- set up in July to govern the self-rule areas in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho.
These women are challenging an overwhelmingly male leadership, not only to push women's interests but a number of social issues. ''There is a real fear that the building of a new society will happen at the expense of women,'' says woman activist Islah Jad. ''We want to be part of the process.''
Arab states are watching closely the emergence of a Palestinian women's movement, aware that conflicts over women's roles are rising between Islamic conservatives and a new class of restive, educated Arab women.
The issue of gender burst into the open in 1992, with the onset of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, when the PLO established a network of advisory committees that excluded women.
Women responded by setting up an advisory committee of their own. After strong protests, three women were appointed to the negotiating team, including Hanan Ashrawi as spokeswoman.
Though the PLO positioned itself as a kind of government-in-exile for decades, critics say that when the PLO took charge of the self-rule areas, it had no clear plan for public health and education, no strategy for economic development, and no mechanisms for involving workers, women, or other social groups.
Many women say they still are marginalized in the peace process. ''Almost all the appointments made since then were men. Women were only used as figureheads,'' says Rita Giacaman, sociologist at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
Ms. Ashrawi was later invited to hold a position on the PA, but she declined. She said she could do more for Palestinians by continuing her human rights work and making sure the self-rule process functioned justly.
But two other women participate on the mostly-male PA. Intisar al-Wazzir is minister of social affairs, and Souad Ameri is a deputy minister of culture.
After the Israeli-PLO accords were signed in 1993, Arafat asked a small group of male lawyers to come up with a ''basic law'' to serve as a temporary constitution. An early draft made no mention of women's rights. A later draft guaranteed women equal rights in ''public life,'' implicitly ceding the sphere of ''private life'' to the strictures of sharia, or Islamic holy law.
But Palestinian women are fighting the new Palestinian regime and the main nationalist political parties.
''We don't think the clock can be turned back on Palestinian women, because we are much more powerful now,'' Ms. Giacaman says. ''We have built ... women's organizations here during the struggles of the 1980s that can't be dismantled.''