A memorable Palestinian Women's Day

Hamas's victory has energized the women's movement.

palestinian women 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
palestinian women 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
While Palestinians have regularly celebrated International Women's Day, the March 8th celebrations this year had a different atmosphere. The victory of the conservative Islamic movement Hamas has reinvigorated Palestinian civil society in general and the women's movement in particular. This year's pro-women march in Ramallah, which ended with a successful meeting with president Mahmoud Abbas, was well attended with nearly a thousand women (interestingly, including many wearing head scarfs). As if to reflect where the coming battle ground will be, the women were unable to gain a similar positive response from the legislative council which was in session that day. A long discussion ensued inside the Palestinian parliament about what to do about the protesting women. Finally a decision was taken to send a delegation to join the Women's Day celebrations, but it took more time to agree on how long the session should be suspended until the PLC representatives returned from participating in the event. The request for a two-hour break was cut in half and a parliamentary delegation made up of some of the key women representatives left to attend. But the plan didn't succeed as the mostly Islamic delegates (those who remained after the Fatah MPs had earlier walked out of the parliament for a different reason) quickly returned in protest. Samira Haliqa, a Hamas representative from the Hebron area, informed her colleagues that the delegation decided to boycott the Women's Day march because some of the protesters had raised signs calling for the abolition of polygamy, a practice which, she claimed, is permitted according to Islamic law. Palestinian women were also blocked from reaching the legislative council's offices in Gaza, where representatives participate in the Ramallah-based session via video conferencing. After persistent attempts, the closed parliament's doors were opened when a number of independent women representatives intervened. The protesting women were allowed in but they were not given an audience with their elected representatives. The following day, however, Hamas prime minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh was quoted as supporting women's rights. Press reports have also indicated that two respected women will be part of the first Hamas-led government. Khaleda Jarrar, a secular woman and a stubborn defender of women's rights representing the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is said to be slated for the Women's Ministry, while Bir Zeit University professor Khaula Shakshir is being considered for the Ministry of Education. THE ROLE of women in the upcoming Hamas era will be very interesting. The number of women representatives in the Palestinian Legislative Council has jumped from five to 17 thanks to the current election law that forced parties to list at least one woman in the first three spots and in every following five spots. The 17 women representatives reflect Palestine more than any previous council, with six from Hamas, eight from Fatah (they went beyond the quota), a PFLP representative, as well as independents. Representatives also span the spectrum in education, socioeconomic status, and religious affiliations. The council includes women with their heads uncovered as well as women with different degrees of head covering. They include a number of women with PhDs, a medical doctor as well as working mothers and political activists. The women include wives, sisters and mothers of prisoners and individuals killed in the conflict with Israel. Some are dressed with in bland, dark conservative dress, others wear the latest styles. Some have no make up on, while others (including some who wear Islamic head cover) are well made up. Style and dress aside, Palestinian women have their work cut out for them. On political issues there is no disagreement about the overriding Palestinian desire of both genders to be free of occupation and land theft. In this respect, the Palestinian Ministry of Women issued a statement saying that all of the 117 women currently held in Israeli jails were arrested since the beginning of Al Aksa Intifada. Among them 60 have been sentenced, 51 are awaiting trial and six are held administratively without trial or charge. Five of the detained women are under the age of 18. Personal and social status issues will be the real challenge to Palestinian women, especially those in the legislative council. Salwa Hdeeb, a women's activist and deputy minister in the outgoing Qurei government, addressed Hamas representatives during the women's rally by calling on them to preserve the accomplishments already made. Palestinian women activists and NGOs will no doubt be active participants in the hot debate that will certainly ensue in the coming years. Already people are waiting to see where we will be on the next International Women's Day.