Risky use of democratic rights

Palestinian editor Nibal Thawabteh does not shy away from controversy.

condi with arab woman224 (photo credit: Courtesy of the US State Department )
condi with arab woman224
(photo credit: Courtesy of the US State Department )
When Nibal Thawabteh was searching for a cover subject for the debut issue of her newspaper, she hit on an idea that hardly seems novel, let alone contentious: the Palestinian Authority's First Lady, the wife of Mahmoud Abbas. But Thawabteh knew that publishing her photo would cause a firestorm. According to Thawabteh, Abbas's wife had never been shown in public before - and hasn't since. When friends and associates heard of her plan, they urged her not to go ahead, warning her that she could be endangering herself by taking an unpopular step. But she was not cowed. "I believe it's important to do this," she told them. Publishing the photograph indeed triggered a furious response. Thawabteh came under heavy criticism and received threatening phone calls. PA officials even contacted her to register their dissatisfaction. But to the feisty editor, short story writer and local politician, it was worth it, as it has been for the four years she has unmasked important issues - and been condemned for it - in her monthly publication Al Hal ,("The Situation"). While one might think that Thawabteh's desire to kick off Al Hal by featuring the PA's first lady came from her desire to empower other women, the single 34-year-old says that wasn't her main motivation. Instead, she explains, it stemmed "from our rights as Palestinians to see her." Asserting rights, particularly free speech and democratic principles, has been a major preoccupation for Thawabteh. Before founding the newspaper, which routinely covers controversial topics such as honor killings and polygamy, she became the first woman to serve on the conservative Beit Fajjar Village Council. After being elected, she helped train and organize other women. For these actions, Thawabteh was honored in Washington this month by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who named her one of just eight International Women of Courage in an annual award given in honor of International Women's Day. "This is an opportunity to pay tribute to women from around the world, who courageously champion equal rights in their communities, and whose personal sacrifice is an inspiration to all who seek peaceful change," Rice said in honoring the recipients. "They represent not just women and their courage, but all people who seek equal justice, equal rights and the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity. And they are an inspiration to me." How does it feel to be recognized by the United States secretary of state for the work that you've done? When they called me and told me I won at the Palestinian level, I said, "Okay, thank you." But three months ago, when they called me and told me I'm a winner and I should come to Washington to receive the award, I felt confused, because I believe all Palestinian women are courageous, all the women in the world are really courageous, and every one deserved this award. I don't consider this award a personal award. It is not Nibal Thawabteh who is taking this award. This is for all the courageous Palestinian women. How does the work you do connect to the message of this award? For me, I'm working as the editor-in-chief of a monthly newspaper which is different from the newspapers of Palestine, because it's critical, it's courageous. It's not with anybody, it's not against anybody. It's not emotional journalism. It just focuses on facts. We [cover] sensitive and taboo issues. Nobody in Palestine has been courageous enough to even talk about them. Every issue I cover a sensitive topic, which may create huge problems for me. Every month I know that this is sensitive, that this is dangerous. One time we wrote about lesbian women in Palestine, and it was the first and the last time any Palestinian media [outlet] talked about this issue. When we published this investigative report, it was really dangerous. Everybody working with me thought that there would be conflict. The next day I received messages from all different angles. Some people wanted to know more about this. Some people said, "You are not polite, you are rude because you are publishing this rubbish." And some people said, "Really? We have something like this in Palestine? Is this happening here in Palestine?"… This kind of journalism, it can make change. It can help people. Have you ever been in danger? Yes. I'm often in dangerous situations. I was alone in my apartment one day when I opened the door and there was blood on the ground. It was a message to beware. I've received many calls telling me to take care of my skin, to take care of my face, that we can hurt you. But I'm not alone. Many people support Al Hal. Many people support me. And it's okay. Are you scared? What can I do? I'm a courageous women. Sometimes I feel scared. But when I've published something [controversial], I've had this kind of energy telling me it will be okay. Nobody will come to cut my throat. Even if something bad happens to me, I will not be sorry. I will not feel guilty. Because I believe in this. And this is the price if you want to do something you believe in. Why did you decide to start doing something so potentially dangerous? When I was a child, I had a dream that I wanted to do something for my country, and I'm still searching to find a way that will help me to do something that says I belong to this place, I belong to this area in the world, I belong to this people. I founded Al Hal because this is our way to deliver our message, to try to raise the freedom of speech in Palestine. This is me. This is my character. This is my direction. I am also a writer. All of my stories talk about censorship and issues of courage. What do you write about Israel? Everything. When you want to talk about the situation in Palestine, you can't divide it; you talk about what happens there, and what happens with us. One time, we published an article by an Israeli journalist, Amira Hass [of Ha'aretz]. She's famous and she likes Al Hal, and when I asked her to write an article she said okay, I wouldn't mind being in Al Hal. And once Gideon Levy also [of Ha'aretz] contributed. So we don't have any problem talking about this. What's your own political orientation? I'm independent. What about when it comes to Israel, and what should happen between Israel and the Palestinians? I'm a Palestinian, and I'm a good one, and I love my country. One day we will hopefully finish this conflict, because we've paid a lot. We've paid a lot in blood and tears. We've lost good people. Good leaders. We've lost all these things. So you support the two-state solution? Two states - and good neighbors. You're my neighbor and I want good relations with you. I don't want to fight you all the time. We are neighbors, and you will stay here and I will stay here.