March 8 is International Women’s Day, a global event celebrating women’s rights and honoring women’s achievements throughout history. Palestine observes the occasion every year, marking it with marches, activities and events that focus on the Palestinian woman as an integral part of her own society and of the global village.
Like in other parts of the world, Palestinian women face a multitude of challenges, not solely related to their identities as women. In Palestine, Israel’s military occupation oppresses everyone, male and female. However, the trials and tribulations of women in Palestine are unique in their struggle against this occupation, in their endurance against its brutality and in their struggle to retain a unique identity as women in a predominantly male society.
Women everywhere often possess the quality of recreating themselves according to circumstances. Palestine, where hurdles are sometimes even higher than in other places, is no different. Take for example, Um Adam. Her son Osama was killed by the Israeli army on the second day of the Aqsa Intifada, September 29, 2000. Her grief, like any mother, was bottomless. However, in a final attempt to pull herself up from the abyss of eternal mourning, she made her spiritual journey to Mecca to perform the Hajj for herself and her dead son, went back to college to get a teaching degree, began teaching kindergarten and is now the principal of the very same school at which she began her humble career.
Throughout the struggle of Palestinians against Israel’s occupation, its women were always at the forefront. According to Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, approximately 10,000 Palestinian women have been detained in Israeli jails since Israel’s occupation in 1967. Today, 36 Palestinian women political prisoners still remain behind bars.
It is not just in the realm of Israel’s occupation that Palestinian women struggle and prevail. Aside from actively partaking in the resistance –” which has also contributed to their independence –” Palestinian women have taken flight on the path to their own independence. In a predominantly male-run society, women here have had to fight uphill battles to achieve what other women take for granted. Especially in the remote areas of Palestine – in Gaza and in the northern West Bank – women are constantly relegated to a subordinate position in society, second to the father/husband. In a place where men are usually the breadwinners, women have fought over the years to find their place in the workforce, to achieve financial independence and to thus have a say in the decisions made about their own future and family.
Raised in a West Bank village southeast of Ramallah, Tamara was married at 17, a year shy of graduating from high school. While she maintains that it was her choice to marry so young, the coercion and pressure from family sometimes deludes these girls into thinking they made the decision on their own. After 19 years of marriage, three children and a life of submission to her businessman husband, Tamara decided to take the high school equivalency exam, go to a community college and work towards a university degree. Her husband, not thrilled with the new changes in his wife, resisted; but Tamara was unrelenting. The changes took a toll on her marriage but Tamara was clear to her husband that she only wanted a life and an identity for herself separate from him.
These two examples are just a drop in the sea of change that has taken place among Palestine’s women. Today, Palestinian women head companies and NGOs, are in government and lead Palestinian political factions. In addition, they are mothers, teachers, revolutionaries and ambassadors. More and more Palestinian families are sending their daughters to university because more Palestinian girls are demanding an education.
We still have a long way to go, though. Social change is always slow but once the ball is rolling there is no stopping it. Here in Palestine, we still battle sexism, prejudices against women and female-related issues such as early marriage and female school dropout. But the change is happening and we Palestinian women who know what independence looks like in a society that does not always celebrate it will surely pass that down to our daughters and to our sons so they honor and respect the women in their lives. It is only logical that a strong society needs strong men and women as its driving force. Palestine surely has both.