Za'atara village council member Um Ra'fat: 10 years of collaboration with MIFTAH
The ongoing relationship with MIFTAH, which has lasted for over 10 years has shaped much of Maryam Abu Rabda’s (Um Ra’fat) experience as a community activist. She says this relationship has strengthened her approach and attitude towards the role and ability of women to be on equal ground with men in all areas of responsibility and in being successful.
Almost everyone in her Bethlehem-area village of Za’atara knows her and her contributions to the community. Um Ra’fat heads the women’s club in Za’atara, part of the Association for Rural Women’s Development. She then decided to run in her village’s local council elections, which took place in May, 2017, winning a seat on the council along with another woman member.
Three months into her local council win, Um Ra’fat now heads the purchases and women and child committees in the council. She speaks about her beginnings with MIFTAH 10 years ago and the impact this relationship had on her character. She said it made her feel capable of doing anything she set her mind to. She took what she learned from MIFTAH and taught it to the other women and youth in her village, who then strongly supported her in the elections, even pressing her to run. Um Ra’fat says she has already achieved one of her aspirations, which is to be a woman in Za’atarah who has reached a decision-making position; someone who addresses the needs of the village and takes their demands to the executive parties.
The first MIFTAH meeting, in which Um Ra’fat participated brought together 10 women with the then-head of the journalists’ guild, Abdel Nasser Najjar. The women listened to presentations on women’s rights, gender-based violence and the role of the media. She says this was an important and informative meeting and was a major factor as to why she continued her journey with MIFTAH through its Bethlehem coordinator, Rasha Mousa. After that, she participated in all the town hall meetings and training workshops MIFTAH offered.
Um Ra’fat recollects: “It was this beginning that deepened my understanding of many things and armed me with information, making me stronger,” even though she says she had already been involved with her community in her capacity as a women’s activist in the village. “My progress was later reflected in how involved sectors became, especially women, “ she said. “They started to know their rights and duties and that a woman’s role is not only limited to the home and to raising children. This clearly shows today – how much women understand and demand their rights.”
The elections experience
Um Ra’fat says that everything she learned from MIFTAH’s training and town hall meetings had an impact on her character and the development of her capabilities and skills, all of which were an important reason why she ran in local elections. She said her decision received wide support, not only from the villagers, but from the list she joined. She says because of MIFTAH’s training, she had already been introduced to its rules and women’s rights in the elections before she ran. “My victory in the elections was one outcome of my relationship with MIFTAH,” Um Ra’fat maintains. “That is why I wanted to share my knowledge with the other women in the village and be supportive of my fellow female member of council.” She explains that this experience and knowledge was no longer hers alone, but that it was conveyed to many women in Za’atara. “Today, their voices are being heard. Everyone now believes in our women’s ability to give and to contribute to building our village, which takes the efforts of all of us, men and women alike.”
A noticeable presence
Um Ra’fat is a noticeable presence in the Za’atarah village council, largely because she has not missed one session. She points out that her presence is not only to ‘complete the attendance at the table” but that she discusses and intervenes in every decision. “No decision is approved without me giving my opinion on it,” she stresses. “True, the meetings take place after sunset, but still I never miss one so that the men never have the chance to say I have fallen short in my duties.”
She continues that while she has the support of all of her fellow members and her community, she feels her number one priority as council member is to work on behalf of the women of Za’atara. “We have a huge need for small projects for women; unemployment is rampant. There are too many men and women without jobs,” she says, also pointing out that there are divorced and widowed women who need help in providing for their families.
Responding to the challenges
Um R’afat knows the challenges are many and difficult. One of her recommendations is to turn to MIFTAH for more support, whether through offering awareness-raising workshops or town hall meetings or even though facilitating small income-generating projects. Um Ra’fat maintains that from her position as council member, she is working on resolving the problems of the sewage system and water cuts along with other council members.
As one of MIFTAH’s success stories, Um Ra’fat says she would like to continue her relationship with the organization. This has been a long journey over the past 10 years but it could continue for many years to come, she says, hoping to have an even more tangible impact on her community and village. Like the saying goes, Um Ra’fat quips: “The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.”