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Biannual Newsletter - Fifth Edition
Fifth Edition
UN Resolution 1325
UN Resolution 1325
A Vision for Palestinian Womens Rights Organizations based on the Global Study on the Implementation of UNSCR 1325
(Ten strategies for tackling issues pertaining to Women, Peace and Security)
Date posted: March 04, 2005
By Ken Ellingwood

Beit Rima, West Bank - Bashful and soft-spoken, Fatheyeh Rimawi concedes that she knows little about how the government works. The 30-year-old former teacher surprised many in January by being elected mayor of Beit Rima and a neighboring village, the first Palestinian woman to win such a post, during ongoing municipal balloting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Rimawi is perhaps the most striking example of what was unthinkable just a few years ago:

Once rarely seen in public office, Palestinian women are jumping headlong into electoral politics.

Although a few women, such as Hanan Ashrawi, a legislator and frequent Palestinian spokeswoman, have become well-known political figures - and some have thrown themselves into the violent struggle against Israel - Palestinian women have been largely absent from grass-roots electioneering.

Many residents in Beit Rima say they are proud to have a female mayor, but others shake their heads in disbelief, comparing the outcome of the election to a bad joke played by changing times. All agree, though, that a new era has come to these bony hills of the northern West Bank and possibly to Palestinian society as a whole.

"We are under the microscope," Rimawi said during an interview in her City Hall office.

"Everybody's looking at us now."

The women are taking advantage of the opening provided by local elections being held in about 300 communities and by separate balloting for the Palestinian parliament in July. Both votes, along with the presidential election won by Mahmoud Abbas in January, follow nine years without Palestinian elections.

If any demographic group stands to benefit from this flurry of democracy, it is women, say analysts and advocates for women's rights.

An estimated 500 to 700 women are expected to attain office in the municipal elections, the first since the 1970s. So far, more than 70 women - teachers, homemakers, government workers and activists - have won spots on local councils during the first two rounds of voting in 36 communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Parliamentary elections also seem certain to raise the number of female lawmakers from the current five.

The local votes have cleared a path for Palestinian women to join politics at the sidewalk level, where they have not typically been included in decisions on schools, jobs and day care.

"On the men's councils, they don't think about women and children. It's not on their agenda," said Fayza Barmil, 45, a medical technician and one of four women elected in December to the 13-member council in Doha, near Bethlehem.

Barmil said she and her colleagues had already scored a tiny victory, moving council meetings from evening to late afternoon to make it easier for women to attend and care for their children.

"It's a silent revolution," said Eileen Kuttab, director of the Institute of Women's Studies at Birzeit University near Ramallah. Women "have been running families and making decisions.

The problem is they have not been public decisions."

To help women navigate the unfamiliar terrain of electioneering, nonprofit groups held training sessions, offering help on how to prepare a campaign platform, speak publicly and make use of a network of women's groups. Mindful of the real world, classes also offer tips on appealing to male voters.

It hasn't been an easy trail to blaze. Some women have reported being pressured by relatives to stay out of politics. Others have been greeted with skepticism, or outright scorn, while trolling for votes. Palestinian women have long enjoyed more rights and political prominence than their counterparts in most of the Arab world. The quest for a Palestinian state has helped further politicize women and given them opportunities to express themselves.

During the first uprising, or intifada, of the late 1980s and early 1990s, women took to the streets alongside men in sometimes-violent showdowns with Israeli soldiers. Their participation contributed to a more prominent role for women, and a few gained high-profile spots in the Palestinian Authority when it was formed in 1994.

Still, the male-dominated Palestinian tradition has generally left public life to men and household responsibilities to women. Although nearly half of Palestinian university students are women, they hold only one in seven jobs.

To boost the role of women in politics, the Palestinian parliament approved a quota law last year that guaranteed two women on each town council if at least that many run.

Experts and officials say the law - which rankled conservatives who were reluctant to bring many women into public office and some feminists who found it condescending - lured dozens of women into running. After the quota measure was approved, the number of female candidates jumped from 48 to 138, said Zahera Kamal, women's affairs minister for the Palestinian Authority.

Another reason for the influx, analysts say, is the effect of the recent 4 1/2 -year conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which, unlike the uprising a decade earlier, mainly relegated women to the sidelines. The emphasis on armed operations left little for women to do other than trying to keep families afloat in the face of economic crisis and with male relatives dead, wounded or locked in Israeli prisons. There's pent-up desire to get involved.

Rimawi, a political independent, required no arm-twisting. The middle school Arabic teacher saw the council elections as a chance to move women into socially prominent roles.

"Women did not play a role before. This was an opportunity to prove herself and prove herself through elections," she said.

Rimawi said her husband, a leftist activist jailed on the charge that he took part in the 2001 slaying of Israel's tourism minister, heartily endorsed her candidacy.

Rimawi said her only goal was a place on the 13-seat council - not to be mayor, a post filled from within the group. But the two main blocs, representing the mainstream Fatah party and an Islamist slate backed by the militant organization Hamas, tied at five seats.

In the end, Rimawi was the only member capable of forging a majority, thanks to backing from the Islamists, who respected her religious devotion. She became mayor of Beit Rima and neighboring Deir Ghassaneh, a combined municipality of about 6,000 people, where the Rimawi clan is one of the biggest.

In her first weeks in the mayor's chair, Rimawi concentrated more on mastering the nuts and bolts of running the town than contemplating reforms. She had municipal engineers teach her about the town's ailing water system and delved into the causes of the municipality's debts of about $340,000.

Advocates for women in Palestinian politics say there may be a day when they do not need a quota to ensure representation in government. Most of the women who have prevailed in the municipal elections, including Rimawi, did so by piling up votes, not because of the quota.

The quota is being debated anew in preparation for the parliamentary elections. Activists want at least one-fifth of the seats set aside for women.

Barmil, the new council member in Doha, said the hometown councils were merely a starting point for women.

Some people say it may not be far-fetched to imagine a female Palestinian president a decade from now.

"The local council is the beginning. I tell you, after the council elections, many women are encouraged now to run for the legislative council," Barmil said. "This will keep unfolding."

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Source: Los Angeles Times
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