Ebba Augustin 1993, Palestinian Women, Zed Books, London ISBN 1-85649-234-6.
Hanan Ashwari Palestinian Politician,
A christian who has a MUslim husband

NOTE: This extract is included as an essential reading for transforming the world. You are requested to purchase the book yourself as it is, without question, essential reading material.

  1. Women on the Hilltop Hannan Mikha'il-Ashrawi
  2. Palestinian Women: Between Tradition and Revolution - Najah Manasra

Women on the Hilltop Hannan Mikha'il-Ashrawi

1: The Gold Snake

I pick up a stone. Clutching it tightly in my fist, I raise my arm. The impulse to hurl it with all my strength rises in my body, through my veins, like a viscous substance cold and deliberate. The mid-morning sun reflects the bracelet on my wrist and the blinding glare freezes all motion. A gold snake, its scales worn out by years of scrubbing and cleaning, of embracing and releasing, of dressing and undressing, stares at me blindly with two ruby eyes. I was only fourteen when the snake, with new scratchy scales, was wound around my wrist as part of my dowry the mahr in partial payment of the bride price. Along with it came a heavy halabi (from Aleppo) gold chain from which dangled an intricate lozeh, the filigreed almond which was even bigger than the one my mother wore hanging from her neck in between her wrinkled breasts. Both almonds were empty. On my other wrist, a thick coin bracelet with genuine Osmali and Inglizii coins completed my engagement gear. I felt rich and cherished then, entering the mysterious cult of womanhood fully adorned in the tradition of my sex and race. The coin bracelet was the first to go in that year of drought, when the olive harvest failed and our grapevines withered in early summer. Next the lozeh went to pay for Walid's schooling Walid, my only born, the joy of my life, the hope of my future while he lived. But the snake remained. I wore it on my wrist all those nineteen years until it wore me, winding itself around my thickening flesh, its tail meeting its head in a tightening double circle that refused to slacken. Not all the soap or oil greasing my hand could slip it off my wrist, until I stopped noticing its existence. We became one. Those same ruby eyes stared coldly at me on my wedding night, as I clutched the bedpost frantically praying for the pain to stop and bit my lips with a fierce determination not to scream, whilst the sheet turned ruby red with the blood of my twice torn body. It was my duty, my fate and pride as a virgin bride, I was told. But no one warned me or armed me against the pain. On that same bed Walid was born. At fifteen I watched my body being taken away from me again as the dayehl poked and prodded between my thighs and kneaded my swollen stomach like leavened dough with a calculated impersonality that was even more terrifying than my pain. For a whole day and night my body refused to give up its inhabitant, while I prayed and prayed for a boy in order to spare this unknown child a woman's fate. I cursed my husband then for his unbidden foray inside my body, and my mother for her forbidden secrets which she never divulged. 'You'll forget,' she had said. 'All women do, or the race will end.' I never forgot. And as the screams welled up from the depth of my stomach through my parched throat, I froze at the dispassionate glare of the ruby eyes, and in silence and blood gave birth to Walid. At fifteen I became Imm Walid, and Abu Walid strutted about with the pride of fatherhood, having sired a son, while I silently cursed my fertility and worshipped its fruit. That was eighteen years ago. Walid's eyes were open when I got to him. Staring blindly into an empty sky, they did not recognize me. With all my pent-up pain and the million silent screams I could not release, I pressed my palm to open the gash which the bullet had made in its passage through his head. Blood and brains mingled as I cradled his head on my lap and drenched my thawb with a warm thick liquid that seeped through to my breasts and thighs. I knew that the bracelet was uncomfortable in its cold hardness and I tried to remove it from beneath his head. But he felt nothing. I wrapped his tortured head with the hatta (scarf) he had worn around his neck ('It's our national symbol, Yamma') and cried searing hot tears, silently, gently singing a broken lullaby, 'Nam ya habibi nam'. Abu Walid, the waled, (the father) now stares into space; no longer a father, he fingers his beads and murmurs 'la illaha illa Allah'. I am the waledah; (the mother) having once given birth, I claim my right over life and death. The pain of the latter, I swear, is greater and more unforgivable. The soldiers appear, and the snake coiled around my wrist glitters wickedly like an obscene signal. With my free hand I pull at it, twist it back and forth, but it refuses to let go. I pick up a stone; resting my wrist on a rock, I strike at the snake with almost insane strength. My wrist is bloody, but I feel no pain. The snake breaks off. With my mangled hand I grasp the stone damp with blood and with all my strength hurl it at the pointing guns.

2: A Pair of Shoes

I cannot remember where I left my shoes. I remember taking them off spike heels, patent leather, Italian imports and carrying them in my hand as we climbed the hill through a cloud of tear gas. My stockinged feet are torn and bleeding, my sheer French hose are a mess, but never mind. Strange, this delicious sensation of freedom, to be able to wiggle my toes and feel the roughness of the earth, the sharpness of the stones through the soles of my bare feet. I pick up those same stones now, rough and heavy, and pile them up deliberately, with uneven thuds, onto the makeshift barrier. My soft hands are blistering, blessed beautiful bubbles that will turn into rough callouses. My husband had spared no expense to preserve the cool smoothness of my hands a dishwasher, a maid, expensive hand and body lotions. These hands now hauling rocks were trained to do nothing more arduous than arrange on a silver tray the appetizing kubbeh and delicate spinach fatayer that the guests at our bridge parties used to enjoy so much. Sami always made a point of complimenting me on the delicacy of my ringed hands as well as on my aesthetic abilities in the preparation of mezzeh trays. I always made a point of smiling back, dutifully, mechanically, like the cherished and pampered wife I was, basking in the glow of my husband's pride of possession. Our guests would smile back, looking knowingly at one another (how lucky Leila was), secretly envious of my (his) good fortune. A captive of this chain of painted smiles, as words floated like colourful balloons over the green baize-covered bridge table, I turned inwards and accused myself of an ungracious lack of gratitude. A strange and heavy sensation like a cumbersome rock settled on my chest until I could hardly breathe. Sisyphus rolled his rock uphill in an exercise in futility, while I harboured mine inside, an ever-increasing heaviness that only I could feel. I reach for a rock too heavy to lift. Najwa sees me and quickly comes to my side in her faded jeans and sensible shoes and helps me roll it, then pile it on the rising barricade. We exchange knowing, somewhat conspiratorial smiles, and I feel a lightness of spirit, a sensation of breathlessness like a delicate silk thread weaving a safe and warm cocoon of recognition to engulf us. How I used to envy her, with a sulky, sullen, deliberate silence as Sami and 'our friends' spitefully gossiped about her. She dared to live alone, openly flaunting her single state (bachelorhood, she called it), wearing unfashionable clothes (even trousers and jeans for work), unashamedly educated (A PhD scared potential suitors) and clearly oblivious to the dictates of social ritual and decorum (being conspicuously absent from weddings, funerals and bridge parties). I used to look down at the 'ruffled front of my silk shirt, ever on the lookout for that slovenly wrinkle or spot that might betray me, passionately resenting all the 'dry clean only' labels on the designer outfits with which my husband's exportimport (mainly import) business supplied me. Particularly her shoes: how I longed with the hidden desire of the physically deprived for the indulgence, the pleasure, of sensible shoes to walk in. Not the leather vice and stilts that my husband found 'so very sexy' but those soft, firm walking shoes that would enable a women to stride confidently and surely on her way to a specific destination. My shoes made me hesitant, tentative, and ever so feminine in my husband's eyes; and I never walked anywhere. Which is why he blamed me for Lina's beating. 'It's all your fault,'he said 'You should have taken her to school and back every day like I told you.' But how could I know that it would be that one fateful day, the one time I gave in to her constant entreaties to let her walk home from school with her friends, to release her from the mechanical prison which transported her from one confinement (at home) to another (in school) without the joy of sunshine and fresh air? I knew about the Intifada and the soldier's bonebreaking brutality, bullets and tear gas more than my husband ever dreamt I knew and yet I dared release my ten-year-old butterfly for a few minutes of freedom. I drove behind them, schoolgirls growing wings, and in that split second between seeing the raised truncheon in the soldier's hand and braking and opening the car door, I lived through an infinity of terror. I wobbled on my high heels and clutched her to my breast, blood and streaming hair, taking the blows on my arms and shoulders, shielding that precious, vulnerable head with an obstinate imperviousness to pain that can transform a mother into a rock.

For two days and one night I sat up by her hospital bed, holding her hand, staring at the closed eyes beneath the bandaged head, willing her with all my might to live. She lived, my Lina with the hair of brown silk; my Lina, who always used to start her drawings with a rainbow and a smiling sun, now draws a Palestinian flag, below which a young girl faces a gigantic figure in uniform brandishing a blood-stained club. Her laughter is not a giggle any more, but reverberates with a knowledge way beyond her years. It is this knowledge that I share with Najwa now. On top of the hill behind the barricades (Sami does not know where I am), I look down at the soldiers who look like the armed robots that Lina used to play with, and I laugh. I don't give a damn about my lost shoes.

Palestinian Women: Between Tradition and Revolution - Najah Manasra

The family is the basic unit of Palestinian society. In her family a Palestinian girl develops her social personality and gains consciousness about her gender. On marriage a woman moves from the sphere of control of her own family into that of her husband. The structure of the Palestinian family determines the role of the Palestinian woman. Three structurally different types of family are to be found in the Palestinian society of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Differences between families in camps and villages and those in towns reflect differences in the basis and nature of social organization. Whilst cities to a large extent are made up of a collection of individuals and families, camps and especially villages are in most cases highly cohesive structures where extended family units are still the basis of social life. The nuclear family consists of father, mother and her unmarried children. This family type is increasingly found in the towns of the West Bank, but rarely in the refugee camps of the Gaza Strip. The transitional family is a structural mixture of nuclear family and extended family. It consists of the nuclear family, uncles or unmarried aunts and one or two grandparents. This family type is found in the West Bank and the camps of the Gaza Strip. The extended family or hamula consists of all the sons descended from a common grandfather, regardless of where they live, and their wives and children; five generations are included. The members form an economically closed unit headed by the eldest male. The hamula is still one of the most common family structures in the Occupied Territories but its influence on its individual members is on the decline. The decline in family cohesion varies according to location: the social influence of the hamula is strongest in villages and less in camps and towns. A wealthy hamula exercises more power and has more control over its members than does a poor one. Relationships between families and between individual family members are dominated by religious and traditional norms and values passed on from generation to generation. Even if the shari'a laws are generally recognized in all Arab countries, their actual implementation is influenced by local tradition and differs from country to country. This is true for the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem as well. In some cases religious laws and traditional norms differ significantly. In these cases elders of the particular society decide according to the specific situation which one to give preference to. One such difficult area is the law of inheritance described below. On some matters, the patriarchal tradition of Palestine gives more rights to women than does the shari'a. The Koran demands that women cover their bodies. Only face, hands and feet may be exposed. Palestinian society on the other hand permits women to dress in Western fashion in trousers, teeshirts, blouses and skirts, and to wear makeup and jewellery. Below I take a closer look at the different stages in the life of a Palestinian woman and describe the role expectations connected with them.


During the nine months of pregnancy already the parents' expectations concerning their future male baby differ from their expectations for a baby girl. Palestinian parents in general wish for a baby boy, and the delivery of a boy is celebrated with greater joy than that of a girl, especially if the firstborn is a boy or the couple have daughters already. A boy carries the name of the family and secures its future existence. In the future he will inherit the family wealth, carry the hopes of his parents and take responsibility for their economic survival. Even though a daughter may take care of her parents and stand by their side, she is not expected to secure the family income. Families believe daughters to be a great burden on them. Girls need more parental responsibility than boys. When a girl leaves her home to play with her peers in the neighbourhood her parents experience constant worry. If she returns late, she is punished regardless of the cause of her lateness. The reason for this excessive care is the society's definition of honour. Male honour ('ird or sharaf) is not contingent on personal achievements, but depends on a man's ability to control the behaviour of his womenfolk. Men are responsible for the actions of women. When girls in their early childhood start to recognize their immediate environment, they are taught by their parents the rules of moral behaviour and shame. The female child is constantly observed and controlled: how she sits, walks, laughs, moves, dresses and plays with her friends and parents. Whilst a boy can afford not to follow the demands of his parents, a girl is expected to be obedient and 'female'.1 She must be 'sweet', her dresses clean and in order, her behaviour pleasant. But despite the constant parental worries and excessive care it is widely believed in Palestinian society that girls are easier to raise than boys.

Palestinian Women: between Tradition and Revolution 9

In my opinion this difference reflects the repression girls face from the moment of their birth. What girls are taught by their mothers is acceptance and endurance of their believed inferiority. One of my students, who got married recently, mentioned her fears of childbearing. 'I don't like girls. I don't wish my girl to lead the life I do.' If she delivers a baby girl, she will certainly pass her negative feelings towards female identity on to her daughter. Then the cycle of female inferiority will have turned full circle. The social and psychological pressure on girls to adapt to their traditional female role, which starts so very early, increases with their age and takes concrete shape when adolescent girls experience their first menstrual periods. Part of this pressure is the burden of responsibility that girls must carry from an early age. When a girl reaches the age of five she is expected to take over household responsibilities like cleaning, washing-up, the baking of bread, taking care of younger siblings, guarding the house while parents are away and caring for the babies in the family. In the refugee camps seven or eight-year-old girls take over very responsible tasks like taking the younger children to the UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency] clinics for vaccination or medical checkups. Only girls have household responsibilities at this age. Therefore their brothers quickly develop feelings of superiority, which are reinforced daily by the behaviour of their parents. Even in their free time girls must follow different rules to boys. Girls do not play the same games as boys of their age, like climbing up trees or walls, riding bicycles or playing sports in which they would be in danger of spreading their legs shamefully. (In the mid-1970s I was a student in the upper classes of the UNRWA school of Dheisheh camp. Again and again, worried parents filed complaints against the sports teachers and insisted that the head of the school should forbid rope-jumping for girls. The parents believed that their girls risked losing their virginity if they jumped. A ban on rope-jumping for boys was never discussed.) The fitting environment for females is believed to be their family home. Boys, regardless of their age, accompany their parents on visits while girls stay at home. Friends of mine have twins who are four years old. When their older brothers leave the house they usually take with them the male twin; their sister is left behind. When I asked the little one why she did not go with her brothers she replied, 'Because I am a girl.' This education of female children towards self-denial and self-sacrifice is successful. Women who are brought up to take responsibilities, to sacrifice themselves for others, accept their unjust treatment without complaints. Women, who in contrast to their brothers gain experience in all kinds of family-related matters, are denied the right of personal and social decision-making. The leading role in family and society is given to males who have never been given the chance to gain such experience.'


The degree of pressure on adolescent girls to adapt differs according to where they live. In rural areas it is higher than in towns. Adolescent girls in the cities have fewer difficulties in finishing secondary or even university education than do girls in villages or camps. The reason is not only that the latter generally have to travel further distances to reach their school or university; social fears too influence the decisions of parents. Their daughters might get to know boys, might start a relationship or, through gaining broader horizons, might no longer be willing to accept the traditional norms set by their parents and their immediate society. But gradually over the past ten years such attitudes have been changing. Inevitably, the modesty code has.been gradually modified to accommodate the growing desire of parents for educated daughters. While working in the refugee camps I learned that parents in them put a lot of emphasis on a good education, for both male and female children. This is particularly true in the camps in and around Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, where each year since the mid-1970s growing numbers of girls have not just finished secondary school but also earned a university degree as well. Traditional parents believe that educating girls is a waste of time because their future is determined by their role as wives and mothers.' Because a daughter is a burden of responsibility on the family she is married off as soon as possible, because with marriage the responsibility for her is taken over by her husband. When young girls are married off at sixteen or twenty, higher education is regarded as of minor importance. The development of alternatives to the traditional wife and mother role is perceived as a threat to society by a large section of the Palestinian population. The different attitudes of traditional Palestinian society towards educating mates and females is shown in the research of Ibrahim Ata on the Palestinian family. The mean marriage age for his male sample was 23.6 years, and the female average was 19.6 years.' Whilst the youngest male married at the age of fourteen, 16.7 per cent of the females married between the ages twelve and fifteen .6 At the beginning of the 1986/87 school year the girls school in Husan village had 25 pupils in the tenth grade and 30 in the ninth. When school started again in the next scholastic year, with the exception of two girls all the girls between the ages of fourteen and fifteen had been married and therefore taken out of school. Despite such negative examples there has been a gradual change in social attitudes towards the education of girls. This is partly a consequence of the foundation of the Palestinian universities in the 1970s and early 1980s, as well as of an increased demand for women on the labour market and of changes in the West Bank's economy. Their own economic interests influence the decision of many parents to seek a good education for their daughters. Educated women have increasingly better chances on the marriage market. If the appearance of a women does not conform to the traditional norm of beauty and her chances of getting married are slim, with a proper education she will at least have a chance to make her own living and even support her parents. Adolescence is an important phase in the life of a woman in which her adult personality is taking shape. Conflicts between parents and daughter about socially acceptable behaviour and about the mother's efforts to inculcate in her daughter an acceptance of male authority are a daily occurrence. In my experience these conflicts centre around very simple daily matters: for example, a song on the TV. If the song deals with love or sexual symbols, which is the case with most Western pop songs, the girl will not be allowed to listen to it. Films showing love or kissing scenes are taboo for adolescent girls. Because an adolescent girl is not supposed to have her own opinions, and her individual personality usually is not taken seriously, she fights not just against the norms of her patriarchal society but also against the loss of identity. More even than during their childhood, the behaviour of teenage girls is controlled by their parents. They are not supposed to show strong emotions, to laugh loudly or to dress immodestly. The shari'a demands that a woman show her beauty only to her husband or to family members she is not going to marry, that is, her siblings and parents. Adolescence is the time at which women are most pressured to follow religious dress regulations. Sexuality is more than anything else a taboo topic in traditional Palestinian society. Adolescent girls are not educated about their own feelings and about how to deal with the opposite sex. Young girls gain sexual information only by talking to girlfriends (who may know little more than they), or through the secret (because prohibited) reading of books and magazines. Even talking about sexual topics is a disgrace, and information about sexual matters which reaches the adolescent girl is therefore often distorted and loaded with fear. Control of the teenager's sexuality is obtained not by informed consent but by indirect or direct threats, intended to prevent her from having pre-marital sexual relationships. Most mothers tell horror stories to their daughters, which they hope will have lasting effect. The stories tell of girls who lost their virginity before marriage and were killed by their families to avenge the disgrace. Usually the killing procedure is described in great detail. Mothers view such shock therapy as their social or religious duty, necessary to save their daughters from losing their honour, and not at all as a burden for the adolescent's psyche. In reality, honour killings are very rare, even if some cases still occur.' The society has developed other methods of punishment. When a young woman loses the trust of her society she is made to feel the loss in many different ways.

12 Women in Palestinian Society and Politics

Society reacts with punishment not only in cases of pre-marital sexual relations but also, especially in rural areas, when adolescent girls develop close emotional relationships with boys. In extreme cases talking with boys in the street, going out for a walk or exchanging photos or letters are viewed as disgraceful behaviour.' Women found to be guilty are beaten, locked in their homes, prevented from studying, placed under the tight control of their family, gossiped about and married off as soon as possible. When such a young woman's former 'lover' is not available, she is married to the next suitor, often a man years if not decades older than she. Adolescent girls in Palestinian society are therefore left to face their psychological problems alone. There is no authority to which they can turn with their questions and problems because all their society demands is unquestioning adaptation. Though the Jordanian ministry of education includes sex education in the school curriculum, many difficulties surround its teaching. Pupils are either asked to go over the relevant chapters at home or the sex education programme is dropped altogether. A sixteen-year-old girl must transform herself on marriage into a sexually, socially and emotionally mature woman. Except for the burden of daily responsibilities she has had to carry since her early childhood, the girl is not at all prepared for this difficult task. The attitude of young girls towards their families and society is therefore often negative. They feel abandoned in one of the most important areas of their lives.


Marriage arrangements

Despite the remarkable stability of Palestinian customs generally, changes have occurred in marriage customs. Nowadays in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem one can distinguish two kinds of marriage arrangements. The first is the traditional marriage, which is still the norm. Here the parents and not the future groom select the bride from a circle of potential wives. By choosing their future daughter-in-law, the parents can reinforce traditional values of dependency and paternal authority. The ideal wife for a man is the daughter of his father's brother. This is expressed in the everyday saying,'Bint il amm Hammalit 11-Jafa, Amma ii Gharibe Bidda Tadlil', that is, the cousin can put up with austerity but a stranger needs looking after. (Despite a noticeable decrease in endogamous marriages over recent years, in a sample of 925 people questioned by lbrahim Ata, 390 (42 per cent) indicated a blood relationship with their spouse.') Only in a few cases is the son-in-law from outside the village or the surrounding area. A precondition for the marriage is that groom and bride see each other only on the wedding day. A future bride learns only from the descriptions of her mother what her

Palestinian Women: between Tradition and Revolution 13

future lifelong partner looks like, how he talks and behaves. (In the sample of Ibrahim Ata 58 per cent indicated that they had never spoken to their husband before marriage. 11) A bride is not supposed to refuse the match her parents have arranged for her. The strict rules of traditional marriage have been modified over the years, but without affecting the general structure of matchmaking. A young man interested in marrying inquires about a potential spouse. When he identifies one he asks a middleman or middlewoman to visit the family of the young woman and ask for her hand. Usually her parents take time to answer and consult their daughter. In villages and camps the potential groom and bride will have known each other since childhood. In the cities the woman's family will inquire about the social, religious, financial and educational background of the suitor. Boys and girls of the younger generation more and more meet privately and the future couple will have the chance to talk. Courtship takes place within the female's house, usually in the presence of other family members. In contrast to the past, a girl today has the right to refuse a suitor and her decision is accepted by her family. But if she makes use of this right more than once or twice, by the time she reaches the age of twenty-two she may be married off by her family without her agreement. Women over the age of twenty-five have fewer chances to marry and therefore are seen as a possible long-term burden. One of the major recent changes is that the engaged couple are able to meet each other and learn to know each other before the wedding day. Usually they meet in the company of siblings or relatives. This precaution is to prevent pre-marital sexual contact. Some parents even ask for a marriage contract at the engagement ceremony, so that they may leave their daughter alone with her future husband without worries. In the second kind of marriage arrangement practised in Palestinian society today, young people choose their marriage partner for themselves, but this method is still not the norm. These love marriages occur mostly in the cities and camps. Of the sample investigated in Ibrahim Ata's field study, 7 per cent of women and 56 per cent of men chose their spouses themselves. " Social and economic changes in West Bank society over the past twenty years, the increasing number of educated women, and their active participation in social and political movements have altered the status of women and made them visible in the public sphere. Women have entered traditional male domains, girls sit next to boys in classes, male and female students struggle side by side in the student movement and against the occupation authorities, and an increasing number of women work not only on the traditional female agricultural tasks but also in factories and agencies, as teachers or in academic professions. Men and women meet, work together and in some cases fall in love. Usually a budding relationship

14 Women in Palestinian Society and Politics

is kept secret until both decide to get married and the man visits the woman's family to ask for her hand. If her parents refuse, she has the right to marry her boyfriend against their wishes. But she must be able to resist the social and financial pressure her parents will put on her. Couples with different religious affiliations are confronted with three options: to separate, to break with their families or to start the long task of convincing their parents and gaining their support. Some parents are able to put such an amount of pressure on their daughter that she breaks with her boyfriend; she is usually then married off in the traditional way. In the last decade the incidence of love marriage has increased in the cities, but in the refugee camps of the Gaza Strip it is still hardly known. In my experience women in general are much more open towards this kind of marriage than even university-educated men. Even progressive men who work politically with women activists tend to marry young, inexperienced, uneducated traditional women with unquestioned social reputations. In my own experience too, even politically progressive men are often socially conservative and live their own double moral standard. While they themselves are very much interested in having pre-marital relationships, they believe that a woman who makes use of this right for herself exceeds the bounds of socially acceptable behaviour. The relationship between the sexes in Occupied Palestine is changing, but the men in this respect lag far behind. A politically active and well-educated male friend of mine not long ago married a fifteen-year-old girl. His argument was, 'I can educate and form her according to my ideas.' For him she was like a tabula rasa. According to his words she was without sin, because she did not know the double standard of society. He identified as sinful women who exercised the same right as men to have a pre-marital sexual relationship (he had had one of course). His is not at all an isolated case.


The legal background of marriage

... It is the family law that has always represented the very heart of the Shari'a ... it is precisely in regard to the law of marriage and divorce that the battle is joined today between the forces of conservatism and progress in the Muslim world.11

Contrary to the law in Tunisia, where polygamy is banned, under the Jordanian Family Status Law a Muslim woman is bound to monogamy, whilst a Muslim man may have as many as four wives. When a Muslim couple marries, a sheikh signs the marriage contract." Whilst the groom needs a guardian only if he is absent or a minor, a woman must be married in the presence of her guardian: either her father, or one of her brothers or uncles, or in absence of one of them the mukhtar. " The groom is responsible for the bride price, which is split in two parts. The first part of the mahr, or dowry, is paid during the wedding, the second in case of divorce. As soon as the first part of the mahr is paid by the groom according to article 37 of the Jordanian Family Status Law, the bride is obliged to obey her husband. If she does not accede to his demands, if she leaves their home without reason or does not fulfil her duties as wife, she loses her right to maintenance and can be punished. This right of the husband to punish physically his wife is today one of the most problematic 'rights'. It is the basis for the general acceptance within Palestinian society of wife-battering for as it were educational purposes. Even though the Koran strictly limits this right (it is prohibited to hit with one's fist, with hard materials or into the woman's face) reality is different. Because Palestinian society in general accepts that wives are beaten by their husbands, beatings are judged as matters of degree, not rejected on principle. Even modern couples seem to find it difficult to give up old customs and habits. Whilst during the Intifada, due to the declining economic situation of the people, the bride price was fixed at a very small symbolic sum, at the same time the mahr for women with foreign passports increased. Part of the mahr is the furniture of the newly-weds' flat. The marriage often burdens the young couple with heavy debts because their flat has to be furnished properly. Women in traditional marriages do not seem to feel responsible for the debts of their husbands and do not recognize that they have to carry this burden as well. Women in marriages that are oriented towards partnership are often employed and care together with their husbands for the household. They often take sides with their husbands against the extreme bride price demands of their families, in order to avoid burdening their marriage in advance with financial difficulties.


Women in marriage

When women marry they move from dependence on their family to dependence on their husband. Particularly in villages and camps where housing space is scarce, newly wedded couples often move into the husband's family home. Women are usually inadequately prepared to face all the sudden demands of married life. In the first years of their marriage they often suffer from a perceived discrepancy between their hopes and reality.

The prohibition against talking openly about sexuality has in my experience the worst consequences for married couples. It affects not only women but also men who are inexperienced in sexual matters and enter into married life without the necessary information. Women are ashamed to show initiative, they stay passive and expect their husband to satisfy their sexual needs. Women under these conditions are faced with almost unmanageable difficulties in becoming an active partner in their married sex life. Household work and child-rearing is in the hands of women but the authority to decide important family matters rests with the man." In a traditional marriage it is her husband who decides whom his wife contacts, how she dresses, which kind of food she prepares and how she educates the children." Their punishment is also the father's prerogative and women tend to lose authority over their children when they must threaten them with punishment through the father. Despite his dominant role it is usually the mother who is blamed when problems occur with the children. In Palestinian society housewives are responsible for work in the fields, caring for the animals and the baking of bread. Modernization of households has made this work much easier, but a growing number of women perform waged tabour on top of their household work. Working women carry the double burden of two full-time jobs: one as a wage-earner and one as a home-maker. A woman's entry into the tabour market is not matched by a corresponding entry of her husband into the sphere of housekeeping and childcare. I I Even in traditional marriages, where women internalize their female role, problems arise over the division of tabour in the household. Even socially progressive men are rarely willing to do an equal share in the household work. Mostly their help is of a symbolic nature. A key issue for the equality of women is the question of responsibility for household expenses. In my opinion, Palestinian society in this respect moves between two extremes. Traditional patriarchal men control the household finances tightly and their wives are not supposed to spend one dinar without their approval. Other men leave all household financial matters in the hands of their wives. Between these two extremes one can find all kinds of arrangements. But generally in the past ten years the pattern of the division of tabour in the household has changed towards giving more freedom of decision to women. The reasons for this include the rising educational standard of women and, particularly during the Intifada, the growing numbers of men who are absent, whether working abroad or in Israeli factories, detained or under arrest.


Divorce in tradition and in Shari'a law

In Islamic law, marriage is not considered to be a sacrament but instead rests on a contractual basis. Therefore divorce is possible and ruled by law. But this set of laws is probably, more than polygamy, the major cause of suffering to Muslim women. A married Muslim woman lives under the ever-present threat of being divorced by her husband, without herself having the right to divorce him. Only if her right of divorce is written down in her marriage contract (only very few women make use of their right to demand equality with their husband through formulating demands in the marriage contract), or if her husband fails to fulfil his marital duties towards her can she ask for a divorce. The Jordanian Family Status Law permits a woman to ask for a divorce in exchange for payment (al-mukhalaa), but she must still obtain her husband's consent to the divorce. If a wife asks for a divorce, according to the law (article 49) she loses her mahr, the second part of her bride price, which becomes payable if her husband seeks divorce. The right to keep her maiden name acts as a constant reminder that she lives in her husband's house only so long as she fulfils her duties and obeys him. A number of further factors pressure women under all circumstances to avoid divorce. Usually divorce is preceded by a tong period of problems in the marriage and family intervention to solve them. Before a divorce is agreed, family, friends and (since the beginning of the Intifada) the local committees try to mediate. But whilst a divorced man is in a socially accepted position and able to remarry, a woman is usually blamed for the termination of her marriage. She loses the privileges of a married woman, for example her freedom of movement, becomes a third-class person and finds it difficult to remarry. Palestinian society denies her the right to live by herself this is true for women from all social classes so she has no option but to go back to her original home. Even for a mature woman the only choice is between seeking refuge with her family or with her brothers, who are traditionally expected to integrate her into their households. Even though most women renounce their inheritance rights in favour of their brothers, (see below), this arrangement is still usually extremely difficult. Another reason why women try to avoid divorce for as long as possible is the question of the custody of the children. The Jordanian Family Status Law says that custody for her children should belong preferably to the biological mother (article 154). But this is so only if she is able to devote all her time to caring for her children and is able to educate them properly. Otherwise, her right to custody of her sons ends when they reach the age of nine and for girls at eleven years. Moreover, in many cases, a woman will come under pressure from her family to renounce her right of custody for her children and to leave them with her former husband, so that she will be able to remarry. The opportunities for women with children, especially daughters, to remarry are fewer even than those of childless divorced women. Another factor adds to the pressure on women. A lot of men are only willing to give their wife the divorce she has asked for if she gives up her legitimate second part of the dowry, her right to financial support and the custody of her children. Whilst a husband is able to force his wife back into their house even against her will, a wife is unable to prevent her husband

18 Women in Palestinian Society and Politics

from divorcing her.

The difficult position of divorced women forces many wives to stay in their marriages, even when their husbands beat them, or have love affairs, or fail to fulfil their duties towards the family. Palestinian women have sayings like 'the shadow of a husband is better than the shadow of a wall', or 'the hell of my husband is more pleasant than the heaven of my family'.

Women and inheritance

A woman's right of inheritance is guaranteed under Islamic law, although her entitlement is to only half that received by male relatives. This is seen as fair because a woman is at no time responsible for her own upkeep. But this legal right, limited as it is, conflicts with Palestinian tradition. Because women are at all times in the custody of their closest male relative, whether father, brother, husband or son, they are considered never to be autonomous. When a Palestinian women is about to marry she therefore renounces her inheritance rights in favour of her brothers. If a daughter insists on her inheritance rights and demands her money or land, she is accused of ruining her family in favour of herself. To avoid this stigma most Palestinian women behave according to tradition. One of my women friends lives with her husband and thirteen children in a small village. His salary is very small and her life is a constant struggle. If she were to demand her rightful inheritance to a portion of the olive groves of her family, their problems could be solved. But she refuses. 'I would be ashamed to demand my share. My father wants to keep our property together and not to split it up.' Brothers too are usually unwilling to give their sisters an equal share of the inheritance, because it would invariably lower their own social status. They send their sisters presents that do not at all alter their status. Owners of olive groves send olive oil, farmers present fruits and vegetables. City women increasingly demand their share of the family heritage, especially when it consists of cash or property. But so far this has not changed the negative attitude of society towards women who demand their rights.



The Intifada has changed the role and consciousness of many women. Very consciously, an increasing number of them are taking up the fight not just against the Israeli occupation but also against the restrictive norms of their own society. They fight against limiting forces outside as well as inside their own personalities, because growing up in a traditional society leaves its marks on everyone of them. We as Palestinian women experience a constant struggle between emancipated and conservative women, between traditional and progressive women, between housewives who have internalized their traditional role and believe in it and others who search for new roles and possibilities. Especially in the vanguard groups of the political women's organizations in the Occupied Territories, the Intifada has led to changes in women's roles. Whilst the political leadership of these organizations in the cities still mainly consists of unmarried and working women, more and more married housewives have made their way into the leadership. The Intifada has changed the roles of both men and women, but in my experience it has not yet altered the traditional norms and values. Changes are still superficial. An inner struggle between men and women is taking place, but where it will lead us is not yet clear, so contradictory are the current trends in our society. During the Intifada the pressures on Palestinian society have increased. For many people, one method of coping is to 'go back to the roots', to traditional culture, to return to old, familiar customs and rites. The victims of this trend are Palestinian women. When educational institutions are closed by military order, education for girls is not a 'right' any more but becomes a luxury. People say 'Why should girls learn if even the boys can't!' One solution to this problem is early marriage. Because schools and universities are closed, girls and boys have even fewer chances to meet openly than before. The priorities of the society are shifting and long-fought-for women's rights are denounced. This tendency endangers not just the position of Palestinian women and therefore social justice in the society in general, but the very ability to sustain the Intifada. The growing numbers of women who even in centres like Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah dress in the traditional Islamic dress (whether out of their own free will, because they are pressured and threatened by fundamentalist groups or by their families, or because they can move more freely this way), are a sign of this tendency. I hope it will be only a passing phenomenon.

Fundamentalist groups, which since 1982 have gained influence in Gaza, at the universities of Najah and Birzeit, are growing in strength. They

propagate traditional Islamic values and wish to resolve the present contradictions concerning the status of women in Palestinian society, by sending them back to the traditional female roles of wife and mother. The fundamentalists use the weakness of the active secular political organizations, which pay insufficient attention to growing social problems and the inner societal conflict over the role of women. To count the number of t women martyrs, and speak about their important role in the fighting, r without mentioning the negative developments is a dangerous policy. r The Palestinian people are more conscious about their rights than before.

20 Women in Palestinian Society and Politics

But so are Palestinian women more and more conscious about their rights as women. It is wrong to believe that the Intifada is able to liberate women. It is not a magic force which fights our fight for us. We need to see that many forces are at work attempting to curtail our existing rights, not to mention the rights we are fighting for. We need to develop creativity to show that women's liberation is invariably connected with national liberation and a free society. The secular political forces must give women's issues top priority next to national liberation. We need to fight for our own self-determination. Men still are the ones who decide for us.


1. All matters of personal status for Muslims and Christians fall within the jurisdiction of the shari'a and ecclesiastical courts respectively. In the West Bank the shari'a courts use the 1978 Jordanian Personal Status Law although it does not officially apply there.

2. 'Man was created virile, venturesome, strong, aggressive and loving. Woman is submissive, emotional, fair, tender and beloved.' (Lakha and Jaffer, Marriage, A Step Towards Fulfilment in Life, Harrow, Matrimonial Advisory Council of the World Federation of KSI Muslim Communities, 1984, p. 26.)

3. 'Men have authority over women on account of the qualities with which God has caused the one of them to excel the other for what they spent of their property, therefore the righteous women are obedient.' (4.34) (ibid., p. 15). 4. 'She [the daughter] has to grow up, first and foremost, as a true and ardent Muslim. And then she has to be educated, trained and groomed to become a sensible wife and loving, tending, and nursing mother. This is her sacred role, and her virtues are judged in this context' (ibid., p. 28). 5. Ibrahim W. Ata, The West Bank Family, London, KPI, 1986, p. 50. 6. lbid., p. 50. 7. See Rosemary Sayigh, Palestinians: from peasants to revolutionaries, London, 1979, p. 25f.; Laila Nazzal, 'The Role of Shame in Societal Transformation among Palestinian Women in the West Bank', unpublished PhD thesis, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1986, p. 201. 8. According to research by D. Barakat and H. P. Daw (Al-Nazihun Iqtila'wa Nafi, Beirut, 1968, p. 46), of those leaving the West Bank in 1967, 30 per cent gave as their main reason fear of having their womenfolk assaulted by Israeli forces (quoted in Yvonne Haddad,'Palestinian Women: patterns of legitimation and domination', in: Nakhleh and Zureik (eds.), The Sociology of the Palestinians, New 'York, 1980, pp. 147-75. 9. Ata, Table 1, p. 62. 10. Ata, Table VII, p. 72. 1 1. Ata, Table IV, p. 66. 12. J. N. D. Anderson, 'The Islamic Law of Marriage and Divorce', in A. M. Lutf iya and C. W. Churchill (eds.), Readings in Arab Middle Eastern Society and Cultures, The Hague and Paris, Mouton, 1970, p. 493.