Recently, the murder of Israa Ghrayeb, a 21-year-old Palestinian girl from Bethlehem turned the spotlight on the situation of Palestinian women, the spatial isolation of them in the West Bank and the phenomena standing behind it.
Generally, with regards to the situation of the Palestinian women there are two determining arguments. Some people might say that the main force restricting the freedom of Palestinian women is the Israeli military occupation. Others would argue that while the conflict obviously causes some problems in the Palestinian society, the fundamental barrier for gender equality is the patriarchal nature of the Arab culture.
In my opinion, one argument does not exclude the other. We should not concentrate separately on either side because we would lose focus. The military oppression and the patriarchal society both are responsible for the gloomy situation of women and girls in the Palestinian society.
The patriarchal, conservative voices of the Palestinian society use the restrictions in movement such as checkpoints, and closures as excuse for legitimizing the reduction of the freedom of movement of women within their community. With this method, these forces are putting Palestinian women in the cage of their own houses.
Women and children are the most vulnerable parts of the society in the cases of human rights’ violations. This is true in the case of Palestine as well. According to data provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territory there are 705 different physical road barriers in the West Bank from which 140 are manned checkpoint or partial checkpoint. As the reports of B’Tselem and Machsom Watch present, every checkpoint could create the possibility of a dangerous friction between the Palestinian population and the Israeli Army. All hard facts are showing us a reality of restrictive measures that have an important, negative effect on the human rights’ situation of the West Bank. Unfortunately, in Palestine this context realizes a two-fold negative effect on women.
During this summer, I spent a lot of time in the Northern West Bank where I spoke with Palestinian women and men from peripheral cities, villages and refugee camps. As a young Palestinian-Hungarian woman who grew up in Europe and is doing her researches on Palestinian nationalism, I was curious about how the above-mentioned restrictions influence the society in daily habits. These discussions created a feeling inside me that the context of the occupation is also serving as a tool for strengthening the patriarchal oppression of Palestinian women. During these interviews I heard several times the same mantra “in Palestine, it is not safe for a woman to leave her house.” or “anything could happen with a woman at a checkpoint”. Of course, first, we could understand or even sympathize with these concerns. But behind this solid-sounding position a disappointing symptom is hiding.
According to UNESCO, the gross enrollment ratio to higher education is 54.6% of women and 34.5% of men, but many times, Palestinian women are facing with a social pressure to not leave their homes because the occupation creates a dangerous environment. To avoid any risk, they would rather not take the bus, visit the neighboring city or go to the streets. In the cases of my subjects, this isolative environment started after finishing school or getting married. Until they had a valid reason to go out the dangers were present but were not emphasized by the men of the family. All these examples could make us skeptic, if this honest worry is really about the women themselves or it is the same social process that isolates females all over the Arab world with different explanations.
If we are traveling around cities in the West Bank, we would rarely see any girls alone without their families over their thirties. Young guys, older men are dominating the street. Of course, we could say that this is the very nature of Arab societies, but according to my research the situation was better a couple of decades ago. Also, in other more secular but security-wise less safe places such as Ramallah or the Bethlehem area the female presence is more visible on the streets. As one of my subjects asked, “why is it not safe? Because of the occupation, young boys are still running and playing around the streets?”.
In the case of Palestinian women, I believe their oppression is caused by both the occupation and the patriarchal nature. The first phenomenon strengthens the second. Instead of social solidarity, women are experiencing further oppression. It is true that the occupation and the conflict create a dangerous environment but it should never excuse the isolation of women. So, it is time to realize this and that women start occupying public spaces in Palestine.
*This Op-Ed was written as part of the 2019 YaLa Alumni Opinion Writing Course