PALESTINE. On International Women’s Day, which is really every day, we celebrate the triumphs of women and vow to improve their global stature. Protecting women from discrimination and violence, promoting them to leadership positions and supporting women’s movements are necessary efforts in a world that treats them unfairly. We must begin, though, by figuring out what the problems are, where they exist, and why they persist. In the fight for gender equality, we must be fact-finders before we are advocates.
One situation that demands our attention, and which I explain in an upcoming report for the Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado, is that of women in Palestine (also known as the West Bank and Gaza Strip). Though women are mostly better off there now than in earlier decades, they still face discrimination in public and private life, and suffer from the instability of a region in perpetual conflict.
It starts with the laws. Many laws in the West Bank (derived from outdated Jordanian legal codes) and Gaza Strip (derived from outdated Egyptian codes) make women’s lives difficult. Family and penal laws are the most troubling. Palestinian Muslim women, but not men, must get a male relative’s consent to marry. Women, but not men, must relieve their spouses of all financial commitments to obtain a divorce. Divorced women, but not divorced men, lose custody of their children after remarrying. Men who kill female relatives in a fit of rage receive reduced prison sentences. Male rapists escape legal sanction if they marry their victims. Adulteresses spend six months to two years in prison, adulterers one month to one year. These laws violate the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the leading global convention on women’s rights that the Palestinian president has ratified. They confine women to a medieval system of gender relations that portrays them as less than men. They are the source of most human rights violations against women in Palestine.
The violations are many. Over a third of Palestinian women were assaulted by their husbands in 2010. More were killed by male relatives last year than in the previous two years combined. Women’s labor force participation rate is among the lowest in the world, and their unemployment rate among the highest. Aspiring women lawyers and doctors are deflected into careers more relevant to motherhood. Many female laborers don’t receive legally guaranteed benefits, such as paid maternity leave, and most earn less than men for comparable work. Major media outlets run offensive stories of women, and female journalists avoid divisive gender topics, like the veil. Schools use textbooks with only masculine pronouns, and many girls drop out to get married. Women are politically weak, holding three percent of elite public positions in the West Bank and none in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. In all spheres of Palestinian society, women are maltreated, underappreciated and vulnerable. Despite official proclamations to the contrary, Palestine is a men’s country.
Israel’s presence in the territories often worsens the problems. The government’s security apparatus limits the movement of Palestinians, sometimes separating them from vital healthcare services. Pregnant women, unable to reach hospitals, have died at Israeli checkpoints. Near Israel-Palestine borders, Israeli soldiers have harassed, beaten, imprisoned and shot female protesters. Housing demolitions and land expropriation policies leave women homeless and traumatized. The separation wall has turned Palestinian women into the West Bank’s most isolated social group, as many families let only their sons apply for travel permits.
The story is not all grim. The Palestinian Authority has amended many discriminatory laws, drafted gender-sensitive legislation and created agencies that promote women’s rights. More girls enroll in school, and graduate, than ever before. Women are venturing outside the home, securing decent private-sector jobs and seats on local political councils. Women’s organizations document human rights abuses and propose reforms. Cultural biases against women are weakening, as more unemployed men rely on their employed wives for financial support.
Still, the gap between CEDAW ideals and Palestinian realities is wide. Women remain disadvantaged, and government policies cannot fully address the complicated origins of their suffering. Improving their lives requires the support of many people and institutions, and perhaps equally many steps. The first, and most important, is to acknowledge the problem.