Gender equality in the Palestinian territories: a sine qua non condition to peace



“We stress the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peacebuilding. We reaffirm our commitment to the full and effective implementation of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) of 31 October 2000 on women, peace, and security.  We also underline the importance of integrating a gender perspective and of women having the opportunity for equal participation and full involvement in all efforts to maintain and promote peace and security, as well as the need to increase their role in decision-making at all levels. We strongly condemn all violations of the human rights of women and girls in situations of armed conflict and the use of sexual exploitation, violence and abuse, and we commit ourselves to elaborating and implementing strategies to report on, prevent and punish gender-based violence.”



2005 World Summit Outcome, § 116[i].



The mobilization of women played an essential role in the fall of dictators Ben Ali and Mubarak. The victory of Islamic parties in the elections that followed the Arab revolutions has nevertheless embodied the worst fears of democracies throughout the world. In Tunisia, the Salafists take daily actions to impose the veil and suppress mixed gender schools and universities. In Egypt, the amount of violence inflicted on women has increased since the fall of the regime, including in the protests in Tahrir Square.  More and more observers fear today that an “Islamic Winter” will succeed the “Arab Spring”, a winter where the women will be the principal victims.



In this context, it seems important to us to focus on the evolution of the female condition in the Palestinian territories.  In spite of the constant engagement of the UN, the European Union, the World Bank, and innumerable international and local NGOs active on the ground, Palestinian women suffer considerably from the economic crisis and the futility of the Oslo Accords.  Furthermore, for five years the women of Gaza have been subject to the misogyny put in place by Hamas, whose position is reinforced by the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.



West Bank: Display of good will against the realities on the ground



The improvement of the female condition is a constant focus of international organizations present in the Palestinian territories.  Since the ‘90s, many NGOs and centers of study have emerged to combat domestic violence and provide scientific data on the status of women.  In January 2011, the “Minister of Women’s Affairs” of the Palestinian Authority adopted a “Strategic Plan for Combating Violence against Women[ii]” with the enthusiastic support of the UN.  The plan aims to provide better protection to the victims of violence, to coordinate the work of local authorities, the NGOs and UN agencies, and to raise awareness across Palestinian society through 2019.



Notable progress has been made these last few years on the level of representation of women in institutions and the access to the education or rewarding professions.  Fundamental Palestinian law did not officially recognize the difference between men and women before.  However, the announcements of the PA cannot mask the persistence of the profound inequalities at the heart of the society.  The status of people is still regulated by obsolete and overtly discriminatory legislation. The laws left over from the Ottomans authorized polygamy and accorded women inferior rights in terms of marriage, divorce and inheritance.  Finally, despite good access to education, the number of employed women in Palestine is still one of the weakest in the world.



In May 2011, Mahmoud Abbas was ordered to amend the 1960 law on honor crimes, which provided men found guilty of crimes that “defended the honor of their family” light sentences or exemptions from prosecution.  Yet again, this desire to end old legislation ran into problems on the ground.  The few statistics published since 2005 show a worrying increase in psychological and physical violence inflicted on women, essentially within the familial setting.  The Israeli press has also drawn attention to many honor crimes recently committed in the West Bank and in Gaza, where no credible statistics have been available since Hamas’ rise to power.



Gaza: Stuck in between the Islamist grip and the economic crisis



Opposite to the volunteerism displayed in the West Bank by President Abbas, the Hamas government of Ismail Haniyeh has attempted to impose a series of misogynistic measures since its rise to power in Gaza in 2007. Among these is the prohibition on women having their hair cut by men; the obligation for lawyers to wear veils in court; the replacement of the school uniform by long tunics; the prohibition against women smoking in public; etc. The majority of these initiatives have made no difference, with the female population refusing to renounce habits so trivial as frequenting the hair salon. Several measures have also been killed at the request of international organizations, on who the survival of the Palestinian territory demands.



The ideological penetration of Hamas in Gaza is nevertheless exercised in a more pernicious manner. Paradoxically, it is partly due to the votes of women that the group won the legislative election of 2006. This mobilization of Hamas fighters revealed the existence of a real aspiration, on the part of the female population, to return to the patriarchal society defended by the Islamists. The social pressure, the fear of consequences within the nuclear family, or the ignorance of the rules currently in force leads thousands of Gazaouites every year to voluntarily renounce their acquired rights – for example in the matter of inheritance – for the benefit of their husbands’ family.



Numerous women in Gaza are only involved with their household following the death or the arrest of their husbands by the Israeli authorities (notably since Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009). The drying up of job offers once reserved for Palestinians in Israel and the economic consequences of the Israeli-Egyptian embargo also profoundly undermined the social fabric, modifying the traditional division of the roles between the sexes.  Entire families have become dependent on the revenues of women, who are often under-employed, denied work by the men recruited in the mosques of Hamas. A number of them today characterize a weariness to this new social role, little valued, and creator of familial conflicts and domestic violence.



Equality: an essential condition of peace



The difficulties on the ground in the West Bank and the incessant attacks of the Islamists in Gaza must not make us lose sight of a fundamental reality: the amelioration of the status of Palestinian women and the pursuit of their fight for equality remains an essential condition to the conclusion of a lasting peace in the Middle East.  It is necessary that we stay realistic; the recent evolution of the female condition in the Palestinian provides little reason for optimism, despite certain progress at the top and the multiplication of declarations of good will, somewhat exclusively in international institutions.



Nevertheless, the role assumed by Palestinian women in the preservation of the social fabric permits a certain sense of hope, despite this growing weakness that we have exposed. In a message addressed on March 8 for the International Women’s Day, U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon praised the “landmark resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which highlights the importance of involving women in all aspects of building and keeping peace[iii].” He repeatedly stated in the past: the role of women in the matter of peace and security must not be seen simply as one of victims, but as one of “agents of change.” This conclusion is more valid now than ever in the Middle East; and the future of peace depends without a doubt, largely on the capacity of the Palestinian society to achieve it.

[i] United Nations, Resolution adopted by the General Assembly, 60/1.  2005 World Summit Outcome

[ii] Ministry of Women’s Affair, National Committee to Combat Violence against Women, Strategic Plan for Combating Violence against Women (VAW) 2011 - 2019.

[iii] International Women’s Day, Message from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

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