|Women and war - The story so far in Palestine 2|
In such a situation, who has to try to hold things together? Who has to conjure up appetising meals even when there is no money? Who has to give comfort and succour, even when they are terrified themselves? Who takes the brunt of all the pent-up anger and frustration that cannot be expressed against those in authority? Who has to try to keep the children from playing or fighting (and of course, violence among children has increased too) during the curfew so that their fathers or uncles are not disturbed? Who also now has to go out and be the one to move when the curfew is lifted, or even be the one who goes to work, because Palestinian men tend to get harassed more than women, and are less likely to make it past the Israeli roadblocks? The women. The women who are incredibly able to keep going, to cope, or at least to appear to cope, and who are an amazing example of resilience.
Sometimes now, even when there is curfew and the Israeli jeeps and tanks are roaming the streets blaring out over loudspeakers that anyone who moves will be shot, more and more women openly defy the threat — not to attack the Israeli occupation forces, but simply to go about their daily lives, so that their children can live. For instance, they could just be taking their young children to visit their grandmother.
The Israeli occupation has slowly but steadily broken up the Palestinian population into different units — the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jerusalem and territories within Israel — unable to contact each other except by telephone or email. For those few who are allowed to travel and can afford it, it is easier to meet outside the country, but for most this is impossible. Women send photographs of their newborn babies to their friends and families in the neighbouring towns, by email if they get the chance.
Hajje Zahira lives on the outskirts of Jerusalem. She is forty years old, has lost most of her teeth and would pass for sixty in a more prosperous country. But she is tough; she gets up at five in the morning so that she can be sure of reaching Jerusalem by nine o’clock, even if there is a curfew or if the Israeli checkpoints are very strict. One half of her village is within the boundaries of Jerusalem, so it is easy for her cousins to come and go to the city; the half she lives in is in the West Bank and therefore she is a security risk and requires a permit from the Israeli military to go anywhere outside her immediate place of residence. Since there is no chance she would be issued such a permit, and since both her brothers have been out of work because they can no longer work for the Israelis in the construction sector, she takes risks every day to make her way into the city to clean homes and offices. Her family is poor. Her cousin died of tonsillitis because she could not afford a doctor. Her sister-in-law died young, leaving four young children for Zahira to bring up once her brother had taken a new wife and started a new family. The eldest child has screaming fits and cannot sleep, so sometimes Zahira takes her to a children’s clinic in Jerusalem when the roads seem safe. Zahira herself never married because she has a hearing disability (very common among Palestinians, where the still-thriving tradition of marriage between first cousins increases the incidence of this disorder) so she is the mainstay of the family. Nevertheless, she would die of shame if anyone from her village were to find out that she goes out to work.
On the whole, this is a patriarchal, traditional society where the men are the ‘breadwinners’ and have all the economic control. Girls are often married at the age of fourteen or fifteen, and often still via arranged marriages, preferably to a first cousin. If money is short, a boy is educated in preference to his sisters. And an increasing number of girls cover their heads and are under the domination of the men of the family — fathers, husbands, brothers or sons. The women therefore tend to define their own problems in terms of those of others, especially of their children. If a ten-year-old boy is so frightened passing by an Israeli ‘settlement’ every day on the way to school that he is unable to learn the alphabet, his mother sees it as her problem.
The backlash against the emerging empowerment of women in the uprising of 1987 and the strengthening of the Islamic fundamentalist factions have pushed women back into their homes. Women tend to be exploited more than ever, and progress on gender issues has been subordinated to the immediate situation and the national agenda. How can anyone work on the luxury issue of women’s rights when children are going hungry?
The current conflict is in stark contrast to the one before — after the first month or two it has had no popular base. It is being carried on by small groups of armed men, who shoot or throw stones at Israelis, and by a handful of desperate individuals who want to tell the world about their misery and make their enemies suffer by blowing themselves up and taking some Israelis with them.
Even before the intifada, studies had shown that one in every two Palestinian women in the Bethlehem area (which is more open or advanced on gender sensitivities) was clinically depressed. Recent studies show that the mental health of those who do not take part in confrontations with the Israeli soldiers is much worse than that of those who do; and that depression and feelings of being incapacitated are extremely high among women. Women are therefore extremely depressed and yet, somehow, they hang in there.
The women bear the brunt of the men’s anger, of the men’s poverty, of the men’s unemployment, of the men’s humiliation by the Israeli soldiers (and this takes many forms) of the men’s powerlessness in the face of overwhelming brute force, of the men’s fears for the present and for the future, of the pain of the injured, of the appalling absence of hope and of any way out, of a change for the better, that pervades Palestinian life. The women bear the brunt of their children’s fears, of their children’s inability to concentrate, of their lack of opportunities, of their lack of childhood and play, their lack of any love of life, their lack of a future. The women also bear the brunt of the grief of violent death in the family. And women also get killed themselves.
Lucy Nusseibeh is Director of Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy (MEND), which works with people
and societies affected by conflict. She lives in Palestine