Dutch reflections on International Women’s Day in Palestine

Posted on March 9, 2012


Having grown up in a liberal family in the Netherlands I don’t know what it is like to struggle for my rights. I don’t know what it feels like to not be free simply because I am a woman, and I certainly don’t know what it is like to be a woman living under occupation.

Yesterday we, women, were celebrated around the world. Our rights, strength, uniqueness, and vital importance in our societies. In the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank demonstrations were held in support of Hana’ Shalabi, a woman only several years older than me, held somewhere in an Israeli prison under so-called ‘administrative detention’. She does not know the reason for her detention and has not been (and will most likely not be) charged. In short: the Israeli occupation authorities found a loophole in international law – the same one (ab)used by the U.S. in Guantanamo – under which they can detain Palestinians indefinitely based on secret evidence, without charging them, as long as they claim to consider it “necessary, for imperative reasons of security”.[1]Shalabi, who whose brother was killed by the Israeli occupation army when it raided her village (Burqin, close to Jenin), had previously been kept in administrative detention for 25 months until her release in October 2011, being one of the prisoners who was exchanged for soldier Gilad Shalit. Hana’ spent less than 4 months with family and friends before being violently arrested from her village again. She was assaulted and strip searched during her arrest on 16 February. Protesting her detention and defending her dignity, she has not eaten since that day.

In the protest tent, set up in front of the headquarter of the ICRC in Gaza, a notebook was passed around in which people were asked to write a message for Hana’ Shalabi, who is being held in solitary confinement. To such a courageous woman one can only write words of respect, awe, and support. With all my heart, I hope she will sit in her home one day soon, reading through the pages people wrote to her.

After leaving the protest tent, I joined my female colleagues in a celebration of International Women’s Day. Towards the end of the relaxing afternoon a heated discussion erupted between them, about how (un)free women in the Gaza Strip are. Some of them said they cannot freely choose when to go out of the house, where to go, or even how to sit in a chair, without them and their families becoming the target of the community’s condemnation and gossip. Others -those living in the relatively wealthy and liberal Remal quarter in Gaza City- said it really wasn’t all that bad. ‘Not all of the Gaza Strip is like Remal!’was the logic response to that. Several of my colleagues, who do feel oppressed in their society in certain ways released their anger and frustration over restrictions and paternalizing patterns that are forced upon them. When talking about others’ interference with and control over their lives, one of the examples that came up was not being able to leave your house in the evening without your husband or a male relative. “I don’t have a brother or father, so what shoud I do then?” asked my colleague and friend in all her frustration. “Why would you need to go out late at night anyway?’ was someone’s reply. It became clear; what some experience as a form of oppression, is adopted by others as part of a perfectly normal life.

The same became obvious in the discussion following the screening of ‘Les ouvrières du monde’ in the French Cultural Centre. The documentary showed women in Belgium, Indonesia and Turkey, working under exploitative conditions in Levi’s factories. After that the rights of working women and women in general in Palestinian society were discussed. “Everything is in the interest of the woman”, was one of the first comments made, by one of the men attending. I guess this relates to the (prescribed) men’s responsibility in providing for the family income and ensure the wellbeing of his wife and children. Someone else added: “Several decades ago the women were worse off. A couple of decades ago the women couldn’t leave the house alone. Before that they weren’t even allowed to open the front door. Now that is different and rules are necessary. All girls have mobile phones nowadays; that creates risks.” When a colleague and friend of mine asked about a 14-year old girl’s capability to give consent to a marriage (sharia’ law sets 14 years as the age limit) the only Palestinian woman in the audience answered her. “I don’t know if such a young girl can give full consent but I at least we have a better system than societies where there are so many single mothers who have to take care of their children alone. After I worked in a pharmacy for 7 years –which I found hard work- my husband married me and now he is taking care of me. He knows the work was tiring me and now I don’t have to work. I am happy as a woman.”

I know women in Gaza who have to struggle for their right to work; they want to do something in society but face obstacles as most people expect them to get married and stay at home to take care of the children and household. Again, what one woman might experience as paternalizing and oppressive, is a caring and loving relationship for someone else.

All cultural, traditional, religious and personal views aside, one thing holds true: there are no excuses for women’s rights violations, but there is no doubt that occupation is an incredibly destructive power affecting every singly fibre of a society; from family life to food security, and from mental health to women’s rights. It is no rocket science: oppression becomes internalized and stress and insecurity creates domestic violence. For the Palestinian society and Palestinian women to really flourish, the decades of dispossession, displacement, colonization, and army violence must end, for an occupied mind is never really free.

[1] Article 78 Fourth Geneva Convention.

Posted in: Gaza Diary, Palestine