I have worked in Palestine at different times over the last year and a half. I have worked within and apart from the International Solidarity Movement to show solidarity with the Palestinian people, through direct action and also through sharing independent media skills with people of Jenin.
The first colonisation was that of women by men. There is no society in this world where that is not the case. However, as a “western” woman this analysis has to go hand in hand with a recognition of the colonisation of East by West, or ‘Black’, ‘Asian’ and ‘Arab’ people by ‘White’ people. Palestine is suffering from military occupation, from land theft and the removal of a community from their indigenous home. Still, as an activist and anarchist there has been a lot of criticism of working in Palestine. This ranges from the argument that supporting a national liberation movement is pointless, as any form of nationalism is oppressive, to people feeling that Islamic movements are “reactionary”, especially as regards the status of women. In between are those who think everyone who goes is a “middle class adventurist”, a similar charge to that levelled by the Israeli military that we are “terror tourists”.
As a non-Muslim or Arab woman in Palestine you are in a strange middle ground. As a stranger you are outside of any hierarchical family structures, you can do as you like and are able to talk to me and, unlike the foreign men, are able to be in the women’s sphere of kitchen, talk and children. The way women live Palestine varies massively according to beliefs, the nature of the men in their lives and religious interpretation. Among my acquaintances are activists who wear their hair uncovered and challenge the occupation in any way they choose, and women who choose to cover every inch of skin when not in their own home and will not speak to a man outside their immediate family. Obviously the latter course is not always chosen, but this depends on the nature of their husband and family rather than on Islam itself. One example is a domestic tyrant, who was politically part of the National rather than the Islamic movement, who drank, smoked pot and slept around, but confined his wife to the house, forbid her to talk to any other man and made her wait on him hand and foot. In comparison, I met a family who were part of the Islamic Jihad political movement, whose daughters were students, the eldest studied history at university, had chosen her husband because she loved him and did not wear a veil.
As an atheist anarchist I do not believe in god, I believe that all religion is a form of social control and that at least the main monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam are patriarchal. Islam is certainly used as an excuse for patriarchal oppression, as is Judaism and Christianity. But it really angers me that Islam is picked out above the others for Western condemnation. An elderly American-Jewish woman, born in Palestine decades before the creation of Israel and now living with the Bedouin in Jordan complained to me about the focus on honour killings in Jordan. “Yes they are terrible. But last year 12 women were killed in Jordan in honour killings, and 500 women were beat to death in Israel by their husbands.” Understanding about the way that other communities function, can perhaps only really be achieved by living among the people, and really talking to the people. Many Muslim women choose what level of religious restrictions they observe, whether or not to wear the hijab for instance.
On the other hand, in recent times the level of patriarchal enforcement in Palestinian society has increased. As the situation has worsened, as the attack on Palestinian society has increased, women have become less free. Older women would often be pleased I smoked, because so did they, while their daughters did not. The first Intifada characterised by mass demonstrations and strikes had women at the front line. This Intifada (The present Al-Aqsa intifada) started with mass demonstrations but the casualty rates were much higher from the beginning, and as ten or so people were being killed in each demonstration tactics shifter to armed resistance. Some women were still involved, but women fighters are rare. Support roles are more common; women who act as lookouts, or help fighter to get away. On look out, the mother of two children is serving a four hundred year prison sentence. Her children will never see her again. With such long prison sentences the Israelis will keep the dead bodies of prisoners until the years are up. This is probably why women do not normally play a role in the resistance as they are the ones in the family who primarily care fro the children.
Some things in Palestine drive me crazy, certain thing that I think are intrinsic to a full human life, sexuality – be it hetero or homo – for instance, being able to touch a member of the opposite sex, wearing what clothes you choose, are haram- forbidden. However, other things, distinctly lacking from my community in London such as complet and selfless generosity, an immediate ethos that the community should help each other out, the way that people know and socialise with each other and fight for their community together, make me wish I could stay there forever. Right now the question of patriarchy in Palestine seems like almost an obsolete question, as Palestine may soon be obliterated completely. Standing by the sea at Jaffa, looking along the beach at the corporate monstrosity of American style Trade Towers in the Middle East, and only knowing through legend that once there was nothing here but Jaffa – “The Jewel in the Ocean” – orange grooves, and two Palestinian coastal villages, it is hard to believe that the places I know as Palestine will still be there for my children to see. The part of Rafah I lived in is now just a stretch of sand, the only reason I know there were houses there is because once I lived in them. If Palestinian society survives, as a refugee community or on their own land, then it will be for Palestinian women to fight their own battle against patriarchy in the way they choose. Western women should support without dictating right and wrongs, in the same way that solidarity work should always be. We must never forget that European colonial elites have spent hundreds of years forming philosophy, mindsets and attitudes of control, never stop questioning why we in the West are always in a position to judge. Take a good look around this country before you start solving the worlds problems. Would it be better if women in the Muslim world were wearing high heels, free to advance a certain way up the corporate ladder, fighting to earn enough money to pay another woman minimum way to care for their children, or were free to be prostitutes, or porn stars, not only selling their labour but every part of their bodies becoming a commodity?