For Palestinian Women, Arafat's Pals-Only Rule Won't Do

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.''

More than a half dozen independent research and training centers, such as the Center for Women's Legal Rights and Counseling in East Jerusalem, have sprung up to focus public attention on such things as women's legal rights and the growing problem of domestic violence.

RECENT conferences on women's rights have drawn hundreds of participants from all walks of life, and a women's studies program (only the second of its kind in the Arab world) that opened last fall at Bir Zeit University is drawing overflow enrollments.

And grass-roots women's committees originally launched by the four leading nationalist political parties are demanding organizational autonomy, while for the first time building coalitions with each other. A broad-based women's alliance is gathering signatures and endorsements for a sweeping charter of women's rights to present to the PA.

Many activists say they are becoming impatient with infighting among competing parties, which they blame for their inability to build a broad-based constituency for women's issues.

''All the parties treat women as objects to be used when they need them, but none of them until now has any social program to address women's issues,'' says Working Women's Society head Amal Khreishe in Ramallah. ''What is important now is for women to come together as women, no matter what party we belong to.''

A key moment for Palestinian women came in the late 1980s, at the peak of the uprising, when the parties moved to take charge of the largely nonviolent, grass-roots protest movement against Israeli occupation. Mr. Arafat's mainstream Fatah group then mobilized bands of militant young men and boys to carry out daily confrontations with Israeli forces, pushing women to the sidelines.

At almost the same time, Islamic groups outside the PLO launched a drive to force women to wear a head scarf, the hijab, in public. Those who would not were harassed or even stoned by vigilante groups. When some sought help from the secular parties, they were told to go along with the campaign -- there were ''more important'' issues to deal with.

A coalition of women's groups is trying to include a Palestine women's charter, which they produced with great fanfare last August, in a future Palestine constitution. The document, also dubbed the ''women's bill of rights,'' demands the abolition of all forms of gender discrimination in public and private life, an affirmation of women's right to vote and hold public office, and a commitment to equal pay.

A September conference on women and the law, sponsored by West-Bank based human rights organization al-Haq, went even further, calling for a ban on child marriages, protection for battered women, and free public education for women up to age 18.

When a delegation of women met Mr. Arafat last fall to question him about his commitment to women's rights, however, he cautioned them that he could not take on the Islamic conservatives, and he urged them to be patient.

''This showed us that women are only decoration in the PLO,'' says Ms. Khreishe, who led the delegation. ''We have a big challenge now, and we will have to strengthen ourselves to deal with it.''

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