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The following interview is with Rania Khayyat, the head of public relations for the Rural Women’s Development Society (RWDS). RWDS, which was formed in 1987, aims at empowering Palestinian women in rural areas by supporting and creating local women’s clubs. The club’s purpose is to give women space to develop themselves in order to attain more representation in all aspects of Palestinian society, including social, political and economic spheres. According to RWDS, the clubs ‘are committeed to the principles of equality, equity and civil society values.’ RWDS has established 65 womenâ€™s clubs, with more than 4,300 members. For more information, visit the RWDS website: http://www.rwds.ps/
The following interview was conducted by Ramona M. and produced by Circarre Parrhesia.
Ramona M.: Why was it necessary to create separate clubs for women?
Rania Khayyat: Actually women have a special situation because they are responsible for the family. They are the ones that [connect] the whole family, they are the ones that [are in charge of] the children, and the house and so on.
We found that they are suffering from being marginalized. They spend their whole time at home. When they do something, it’s not visible, nobody knows that they are doing anything.
Also they have a very good role in the Palestinian struggle and supporting their families, andâ€¦in agricultural farming, and so on, so they had a very good role. But nobody highlighted it.
So we said that we can form clubs for women where they can spend some time out of the home, to develop themselves and find themselves. To receive some projects, training, participate in some activities. And then to be empowered, so they can have a good and positive role in their communities.
Now our women’s clubs they have a very good role and impact in the local council. They have an opinion, and they support, participate in planning and so on. This was our objective.
R.M: Before the clubs were formed, did you not see women getting involved in local politics?
R.K: At the beginning no. At the beginning people were very against us, they used to throw stones sometimes because we would come and [start to] talk to their wives, and they did not want us to interfere with their lives. They wanted their wives to be at home and not go to the clubs. But after that the family found how their wives and women developed. They became better in educating their children, even in knowing nutrition facts about their food, and many things, even in farming. They did some economic projects where they contributed to the economic situation of the family. So it was a very positive impact. Now we don’t have any objections [to] women being in the women’s clubs. On the contrary, now they support us.
R.M: So forming the clubs is a way to empower women. What other steps does your organization take to empower women?
R.K: We work on political empowerment, economical empowerment, through grants and income generation projects. Vocational training and so on. Through cultural activities, something about health, about social activities and so on. So this way women can go out of their homes, get some information, participate in some activities so that they have better knowledge and better contribution in their families and they will have better decision making in their families and after that in their local councils.
Now we 26 local council members from our women clubs. And this is a very good sign that they are very well empowered, they were able to go and be in a decision making position in their communities and villages.
R.M: How does the situation for women living in rural Palestine differ from women living in urban areas?
R.K: Actually in our women clubs we try to target marginalized areas, where women never get any services. In the cities there are a lot of services, women can reach a lot of services and many activities they can join. On the contrary in the rural areas, they don’t have anything. So that’s why there was the idea to target rural areas.
About the difference, we found from our experience that rural women are really strong. Because in the cities sometimes they are a little bit, how to say, controlled maybe. They donâ€™t have this leading role in their families like the rural women. Because in the rural areas, all the family has a role in the house, in all the activites. In the cities you find that the man [is leading], the man has more control than in the rural areas.
R.M: So in the rural areas the man is not as controlling?
R.K: He is but since it’s a rural area they depend on agriculture. If you go to the farm you find the father, mother and children working. So they all contribute in income generation. But if you go to the city, you will find that the man is going to his work, coming back finding everything done by his wife at home. So the [responsibility] inside the home is only for the woman, and the responsibility for income generation is only for men.
R.M: Do women take part in the agricultural activities in the village?
R.K: Yeah, women participate in all agricultural activities: cropping, harvesting, and all things. But the problem is that we donâ€™t have any formal statistics about women’s contribution in agricultural activities. Because when you [ask], ‘who [works] the land?’ the man or the head of the family says, ‘yes it’s me’ while all the effort of the woman is not documented.
R.M: Does education in Palestinian schools play a role in creating gender stereotypes?
R.K: Yes in a way we have it. Maybe recently you can see an improvement in the curricula at school. But you still find it in the houses. Like the boy when he is 4 years, he’s (considered) a man, he should play different games than his sister. When they are 10 years, the sister has to wash up and clean the house and he’s not responsible because he’s the man. She has to bring him water when he wants because he’s the man and so on. This is house education, and [this leads to] a separation of roles.
R.M: How do you change these social norms?
R.K: We believe that this can be changed through economical empowerment. Because if you have the economy you have power. So when a woman has an income generation project and she’s generating money for the family, all the family has to help her so she has a good position. All has to have a role, okay so they will all work on the project and they will all work at home because they have to have the work all done.
And it starts with the husband because many of the men here in Palestine are unemployed so when their wife has a project they work with her in order to help the family. So [the children] find that their father is working just like their mother, so you can melt all the role separation in a way. But I don’t want to tell you its 100%, itâ€™s not easy. I donâ€™t want to tell you that when a woman has a project she’s the boss at home, no. Or she stops washing the dishes, no, it’s not this way.
Even in the cities, for me I work and I still clean [the] home. My husband, he helps me but it’s not his duty, he’s like an assistant.
R.M: Statistics show that a high percentage of married women suffer from psychological, physical and sexual violence. What is your organization doing to tackle this problem?
R.K: We are tackling it in different ways, we are having workshops in our women’s clubs in order to increase their awareness about that in order to get them protection techniques, repairing system, how to go to the specialized centers, legal, social when they feel abused.
We are working also with men. We have already targeted local council members, which are men and decision makers in their communities and we increased awareness about violence against women and domestic violence. We were really surprised by some of the results because in many workshops men admitted it was the first time they know that many of the actions they do daily are harmful for women, and are considered as violence and that they harm others when they do it. They said it’s good to know, maybe we don’t understand the [others perspectives], we are educated in a way.
We produced many leaflets and caricatures about violence against women, about some actions in our daily lives and in society. Also we produced a very good theatre performance, it was 25 minutes, it was very good it had a lot of success. It talked about the whole family, and how [violence] happens and how at the end the wife was very abused and she called a center in order to help her get rid of her problems at home.
R.M: What are the factors that lead to violence against women?
R.K: All bad conditions lead to violence. Occupation leads to violence, because you receive violence and you want to transfer this violence from yourself to others. When you are at a checkpoint and a soldier [mistreats you] you find that you are abused and you want to transfer this, you want to feel like a man again. So you give all this violence to your wife, family or children.
The unemployment leads to violence, bad economic situation leads to violence, land confiscation leads to violence. Many conditions. And in the Palestinian society we are really suffering from this. Political instability [causes] violence. And maybe the education, the home education. When you see your father abusing your mother then you will abuse your wife, you will learn it.