For those who go to the polls on Oct. 8 for Palestinian elections, it will not be easy to vote for women candidates in West Bank and Gaza municipal councils. That is, unless the Electoral Commission actually steps in to stop the mockery that is taking place.
Many local lists, nominally independent but actually linked to some of the main political parties, have chosen not to publish the names of women candidates, regardless of what the law provides for the election; in fact, candidates must be fully identified by name, age and address. Instead of their actual names, they are identified as “wife of…” or “sister of…” They are identifiable only through their closest male relatives. They won’t be recognized even by their image on election posters because it is already, or will be, replaced with a flower or a dove.
A woman glorified during the Intifada, identified by name and surname as a “martyr” and displayed on posters around the city, must be, according to the leaders of these “independent” lists, anonymous and faceless while alive and taking active part in public life. In the face of this, the two biggest parties, Fatah and the Islamist movement Hamas, remain silent. And with them, the Palestinian National Authority and its President Abu Mazen, who nevertheless have passed laws and signed international treaties against gender discrimination.
The goal of 20 percent women participation has become a reality in the occupied Palestinian territories for several years, but it seems they have been adopted as an imposition by the patriarchal system that tries to circumvent them.
“After years of struggling to achieve goals that have never been reached by most of the Arab countries, today Palestinian women take a step back,” Amal Kreisheh, a longtime Palestinian women’s rights activist, told il manifesto bitterly. “Unfortunately, the substitutions of the names are not isolated cases. It is happening in many districts in the West Bank. It means the promoters of these voter lists do not acknowledge women’s fundamental rights, evidently backed by significant segments of society.”
Kreisheh blames the PNA, and she is also critical of the left. “The PNA has an ambiguous attitude,” she said. “On the one hand, it passes laws for equality between the sexes, and then it does not complete the steps necessary to apply them and enforce the rights won by women.” The left, Kreisheh added, “simply applies to a minimum quotas for women and does not begin a broad and sustained campaign in favor of women’s rights.”
The protests are widespread — not just from women’s organizations. Some denounced “the Islamization of Palestinian society” and made reference to “awrah,” the religious principle that demands certain parts of the human body must be covered.
On a closer analysis, however, the substitution of the names of women candidates seems to be the descendant of behaviors imposed by the tribal society that still dominates in rural areas. If it is true that among Islamic jurists, the prevailing principle is that the woman is obliged to cover her entire body, including the hair, except for the face, hands and feet (some, especially the Salafis and Wahhabis, advocate for a complete coverage) at the same time, the religious tradition does not explicitly forbid the publication of the names of women.
“The patriarchal and tribal society still shows all its strength,” Kreisheh said, warning that Palestinian women will not stand by and will continue to fight for their rights.
Luisa Morgantini, former vice president of the European Parliament and for many years engaged in the rights of Palestinian women, observed this trend in the run-up to October elections. “I met Leila Ghanem, who is a governor, and I expressed my indignation to her,” said Morgantini, who is visiting Ramallah. “All the battles fought by (Palestinian) women to achieve the women quotas and to be protagonists in political life are now being destroyed by this vision (of women) that emerges from Facebook and on the electoral roll. I hope that the protests will stop those who want to represent women only as the wife of this or the sister of that.”
Naima Abu Taima, who deals with gender equality at the Media Development Center of the University of Bir Zeit, goes further and favors a boycott of female voters. “To be represented in this way is humiliating, so let men go to the polls alone. We must only attend if our rights are respected.”
Kreisheh considers the boycott a very delicate point. “On one hand, we see how we are pushed not to participate in elections; on the other hand this vote represents a rare moment of expression of the will of our people. A call for a boycott might not be the right choice.”