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The following interview is with Hitam Saafin, the Chair of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (UPWC), which was founded in 1980. UPWC’s aim is to empower Palestinian women, while contributing to the Palestinian national struggle against the Israeli occupation. According to its mission statement, UPWC ‘strives to build a civil democratic progressive community free of all forms of discrimination and respects women rights as part of human rights in general’. UPWC goal is to eradicate all forms of inequities including those between Palestinian women and men as well as those within social classes. For more information, visit UPWC’s website: http://www.upwc.org.ps/
The following interview was conducted by Ramona M. and produced by Circarre Parrhesia.
Hitam Saafin: International Women’s Day for Palestinian women this year means a lot of struggle, a lot of power that must be gained for Palestinian women because we are facing, as Palestinian women, two kinds of oppression.
First due to the occupation and its strategy and policies which affect all of our people in Palestine and in the diaspora, and in the second line we are facing the social oppression due [to] our traditional society.
Palestinian women [have] to struggle [against] two lines while most women around the world are struggling in their societies while they have their independent states.
R.M: What are the causes of Palestinian women’s oppression?
H.S: For us, as the UPWC, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, we believe that the main reason for the oppression against woman in the internal society is due [to] the traditional system in the Palestinian society and due to the financial situation that is based on the kind of capitalism which doesn’t give poor people, and the marginalized classes in the society, the same opportunity [as] the capitalists in the society.
When we are talking about the Palestinian population we are talking about many kinds of oppression that may raise in some areas, but not other areas due to the differences in the financial and social societies that the Palestinians live in.
For example, [we] see that some problems occur in Gaza, they are weaker in the West Bank and some problems may occur in the refugee camps that we don’t have in the villages, but in general the traditional society gives the woman the [secondary role] in the society, [so] she must follow the males mainly in the society.
In this item, we try to raise our power within our population and to be active in the whole of our population so we can gain power through our struggle for the general. In the second step, we are asking for our equality within every area [of] our population for free laws for women, for equal chances for women, and for laws that prevent any kind of oppression or discrimination against us as women.
R.M: Are there currently any Palestinian laws that protect women from discrimination?
H.S: For the Palestinian society we have the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) and the Palestinian Authority. In the PLO there was no discussion for the social items. It is related to the national struggle, which is right, as the PLO is a liberation movement. [Secondly], we are talking about the situation of women in the PA. We tried to make certain changes in some laws but [currently] the legislative council is not working due to the internal division and due to the occupation itself.
We are preparing [laws] and we are participating with other branches of women’s movements in preparing proposals for [changing laws] and mostly we are waiting for an active legislative council.
We are talking about the family law, the punishment law, and labor law. In the family law, we are talking about the rights of women to be equal in many decisions. For example, the divorce right is mainly for the male. The multi-marriage for the men, the polygamy, we are trying to make it more hard for men. We are trying to raise the age of marriage because it is, in the West Bank, 15 years [old], and in the Gaza Strip it is under 15. We are trying [to make] the age of marriage 18 [years old].
We are talking about the right of women to marry themselves, because in the Palestinian law the woman must have the decision [made by] a male in her family. Her father, her brother, or [an] uncle, if they are not there. These are the main [changes] in the family law that we are asking for.
For the punishment law, we have a very big problem [with regards to] the honour killings, which gives [a] small sentence [to] the male who kills the female under the honor excuse. That makes many crimes against women go on through the society under the honor killing excuse.
R.M: Are there any laws on the books at the moment that protect women from discrimination?
H.S: No, until now no because we don’t have an active legislative council to discuss these issues. And you know the percentage of Hamas in the last legislative council was very high, so from the beginning they claim that they are not talking about extreme civil laws, they are trying to make it only sharia laws.
Because of that we are looking for new elections in the Palestinian population that give us more opportunity to make anti-discrimination laws.
R.M: Since Hamas was elected in Gaza, has the situation for women deteriorated?
H.S: Yes, what they are practicing on the ground they are making more and more problems for the women in their daily lives and they are working through the community itself to make the woman not able to work in some jobs, to be free to chose [what to wear] and many things like that.
R.S: Does religion play a role in oppressing women?
H.S: We are not against religion but [at] the same time we are talking about religion and individual choice and [religion] mustn’t be the only base of laws for the Palestinian society. We are looking for a secular community.
R.M: Besides implementing new laws that protect women what is your organization doing to improve women’s situation in Palestine?
H.S: We believe in collective empowerment, through working in committees, etc. We believe that women can support each other in their groups. They can work as groups more than individual work. You know, [the] movement for change needs individual work. The empowerment for women is through participating in collective work that they can plan, evaluate and achieve their goals.
R.M: Statistics show that violence against married Palestinian women is quite prevalent. 61.7% report that they experience psychological violence from their husband, while 23.3% report physical violence and 10.9% experience sexual violence. What is your organization doing to counteract this problem?
H.S: We are, of course, aware about these high percentages and we are following up, and we are cooperating with specialized centers and organizations for this. We are working [at] the mass based level. And we are tackling this item by many things.
First how to work to [raise] polices and to avoid these problems and to reduce the percentage of violence against women, and that means lobbying and media activities.
The second thing is how to [put] pressure on the decision makers to change the system which deals with these problems because we have another problematic issue in the law that in some cases the woman can’t go to the police [herself] and claim against the violence especially if it is within the family and this is a very big problem for us.
[With] certain problems we face daily we may deal with it if the woman has this problem or the family or turn it to a more specialized institute to deal with it in the real way.
R.M: How has the role of Palestinian women changed since the founding of UPWC?
H.S: In the Palestinian society there were some changes in the interests of women. For example some jobs they were prevented for women but now they are working [in them]. The percentage of women who are educated are now more than the beginning of our organization. [It is more acceptable] that a woman is a leader, or a parliament member, or a legislative council member. So there are some changes towards the interests of women but they aren’t enough. And we have to make these changes permanent.
R.M: Does education in Palestinian schools play a role in enforcing gender stereotypes and if so what is your organization doing to change the situation?
H.S: Our educational awareness work [is] targeting the whole society especially the young ages and especially we are trying to make a kind of democratic learning besides the official education in Palestine, and you know the official education in Palestine first was under the military occupation and now under the Oslo Agreement conditions. And that raises many problems especially in the national situation. In our public educational work programs we try to make a kind of learning outside of the schools about the reality of Palestinian history and the reality of women’s rights. And that makes us, working as a movement, change the stereotypes [about] Palestinian women.