Some thoughts from Palestine on International Women's Day
By Margo Sabella
March 08, 2006

Every year on 8 March, Palestinian women commemorate International Women's Day, despite the fact that life for women within Palestinian society is wrought with many challenges and is far from ideal. Commemoration is not celebration; Palestinian women have a long way to go before gaining full rights in their own society.

Palestinian civil society, in particular the Palestinian women's movement, is in constant battle against women discrimination in Palestine, and has tried to tackle these issues by lobbying politicians and decision makers, and even by conducting media campaigns to raise the awareness of such issues among women themselves. Despite the long and tireless work aimed at institutionalizing women's rights in legislation and in practice, the Palestinian women's movement has been unsuccessful in rallying the masses, so to speak, in order to spur women into action to demand their full rights in Palestinian society. This has become apparent in the wake of the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January.

The Palestinian women's movement has arguably failed to become an instrument of effective change within Palestinian society. This will require much reflection and in-depth analysis in the coming months, and possibly years; on the surface, it is clear that women wanted to be empowered, but the Palestinian women's movement was lacking the necessary vision, and had become too elitist and disjointed in the past few years to address Palestinian women's needs on the grassroots level. This may account for some of the reasons why most Palestinian women, who are dually oppressed by both a conservative patriarchal society as well as by Israel's military occupation, had turned to political groups like Hamas, who bombarded them with a clear and consistent message, unlike mainstream civil society institutions and women's movements who were somewhat vague and unsure of even their own political agendas and messages.

Theoretically, Palestinian Basic Law (the constitution) gives equal rights and equal opportunities to women and men, but in practice there are clear violations of women's rights in the workplace, at home, and in the public. Furthermore, as the new Palestinian Legislative Council convenes, there are concerns among the general public that even these personal freedoms and other basic rights will be reformulated in such a manner that will make life too regimented, including the imposition of strict penalties against "non-abidance" with traditional religious practices and values.

The situation of women in Palestine cannot be dealt with in isolation of the remainder of the population. Certainly, there are specificities to women's struggle for rights and freedoms here, but the fact that Palestine is still under a brutal military occupation has been a hindering factor in the advancement of women's rights, as well as human rights altogether. The occupation has also often been used by the Palestinian political establishment as an excuse for not dealing with internal issues, and has even been used at times as a justification for the further subjugation of women.

On the eve of International Women's Day, and in a clear expression of their perseverance to ultimately realize their full rights, women in Ramallah marched from Al Manara (the city centre) to the Palestinian Presidential compound (Al Muqata'a). The march was challenged by a counter demonstration by Hamas supporters, who wanted to annul Women's Day, under the pretext that it is a Western phenomenon, and therefore alien to Palestinian culture and traditions. True, International Women's Day may have originated in the West, but the Palestinian women's movement can be traced back at least to the early 20th Century, and is unquestionably part of the universal women's movement which must be empowered and encouraged in order for humanity to truly achieve justice, liberty, freedom, and equality for all.

Margo Sabella is Special Assistant to MIFTAH's Secretary General.