The Community Center, Baqa al-Gharbia, 8 March, 2016.
“Woman is the first victim of violence” was the title of a well-attended gathering held on the occasion of International Women’s Day in Baqa al-Gharbia. The event was sponsored by WAC-MAAN (henceforth WAC), WAC Women’s Forum and the Women’s Council of Baqa al-Gharbia. The women who flocked to the local Community Center came not to enjoy a shopping spree or sample tasty goodies so much as to deal with the violence harmful to Arab society and, above all, to its women. About 160 attended the conference, including a delegation of women from East Jerusalem that WAC-MAAN assists in the face of high-handed treatment by the Employment Office and the Social Security Service. Also attending were women from the Orthodox “Ors Al-Jalil” Association of Kafr Cana, women active in Sindyanna of Galilee, members of WAC’s Women’s Forum from the triangle area, agricultural workers organized by WAC, and members of the Women’s Council of Baqa al-Gharbia, who set up outside the hall stalls with products of small businesses, handicrafts and consumer-products which are run by women from the village with the help of the Women’s Council.
The Speakers Panel was no less impressive than the turnout. Next to moderators Wafa Tiara from WAC and Fawzia Kitani from the Women’s Council appeared powerful, influential women like Ratebah Natshe from East Jerusalem, activist in the Female Labor Union and the Palestinian Fida Party; Fadwa Mawasi, Head of the Baqa al-Gharbiya Women’s Council; Rawiya Handaklu, a lawyer and feminist activist; Abir Ghanaian, director of the “City without Violence” project; and Dr. Taghreed Yahya-Younis, a Tel Aviv University sociologist. Women activists also spoke – Abir Majadla, a Women’s Council volunteer; Abir Mawasi of WAC’s Women’s Forum; and Rania Saleh, WAC’s Field Coordinator in East Jerusalem.
Folk singer Maria Abu Wasel wowed the audience with improvised folk songs, and the young poetess Manal Badran read a militant poem against “manhood” and violence. Wafa Tiara delineated the framework for the women’s struggle against violence: “Our society is sick, and we must recognize that. We struggle for an egalitarian, democratic and modern society that respects each and every man or woman and permits freedom of expression without censorship. Hence our support for the Arab Spring and particularly the struggle of the Syrian people fighting for democracy and against dictatorship; our opposition to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian people; and our support for joint Jewish-Arab struggle.” Tiara also said, “We are fighting for jobs for women because economic independence is the key to the struggle for change and social justice.”
Ratebah Natshe from the Women’s Labour Union in the West Bank said the oppression of women is not only due to the attitudes of men, but also to women’s acceptance of male logic. She attacked the concept of “women’s honour” and related how occupation soldiers take advantage of it to provoke Palestinians and punish them. Natshe referred to the Palestinian women’s glass ceiling which allows them to reach high positions and even become ministers, but only in matters connected with education, welfare and health. She said that in her work, she encourages women to enter the political arena to challenge the masculine monopoly.
Fadwa Mawasi, head of the Women’s Council, spoke of inequality as latent violence. “Decisions on resource allocation remain in the hands of masculine leadership and we have to settle for the crumbs they throw us,” she said. “We live in a democracy, but on its margins. Men are afraid of our abilities, but we are our own worst enemies.” Mawasi reminded us that she was the first woman in Baqa al-Gharbia who stood at the head of the local council elections list and was thus awarded leadership of the Municipality’s Women’s Council. “You don’t request that right, you seize it. We do not fight men, we insist on being full and equal partners with them.”
Lawyer Rawiya Handaklu, who ran for municipal elections in Upper Nazareth, spoke on economic violence, which is no less brutal than verbal or physical violence. Arab women are better educated than men but what is the value of study if there is no work? The worst, most exploitative employers are Arab bosses who pay a woman ten shekels per hour. No Arab man would agree to work for such a sum, but women accept it. Handaklu pointed out that many women do not control their salaries and give up their inheritance rights, thus weakening their economic, social and political power.
Abir Ghanaian, social worker and director of the project “City Without Violence,” said that a hundred years after women took to the streets for their rights, violence has only increased. “Where are we in the struggle against violence?” she asked. “What do we do to change the situation? Are we waiting for the men give us our rights on a silver platter? You seize your rights, you do not receive them. A woman has to feel her own power and to think not only of her family and her home, but also of the society around her because if she does not do so, nothing will change.”
Dr. Taghreed Yahya-Younis spoke about the international and local frameworks within which violence develops. Violence in Israel is expressed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the violence of the state vis-a-vis its Palestinian citizens. “But”, she added, “we are also responsible because of our tradition of violence and blaming the victim, which finds expression even in traditional songs sung by folk singer Mariah Abu Wasel, in which the woman accepts violence towards herself. “We have to bring new content to our tradition, that of democracy and equality”, said Yahya-Younis, “and to give new meaning to the way in which we perceive masculinity”.
Maria Abu Wasel, who arrived onstage to perform another piece admitted: “This is the first time I’ve been confronted with such an idea and it’s very true.” As an example, she sang a song about a woman who loves a person who hurts her. “We love our songs”, said Abu Wasel, “and we fail to notice that they may glorify violence and cause us damage”.