The Role of Palestinian Women in the Contemporary Arab World
In almost all cultures, gender roles and hierarchy are firmly established in both public and private spheres. In Palestine, these roles include the masculine role that projects strength, honor, and leadership, while the feminine ideal is purity and subservience, while all the while each gender struggles in union to achieve the independent state of Palestine.
The struggle for independence, the strict gender roles imposed, and the pressure placed by Palestinian culture to adhere to these roles has over time created an environment which emphasizes the respective qualities in each gender as noble and serving the greater good, rather than the individual. While Palestinian men and women are expected to be committed to the liberation of their people, the ideal and honorable Palestinian man is strong and wise, while the honorable Palestinian woman is controlled and obedient.
Possessing such a proud cultural heritage, gender is crucial to maintaining the social hierarchy and the community perception is a key concern for men and women alike. Though lacking a physically recognized nation state, Palestinian culture is strong and extremely patriarchal, based on strict moral and honor codes. The roles that each gender plays in liberation are based very much on these codes. Because of this, men are largely judged to be honorable based on accomplishments and how they run their family.
Women on the other hand, are judged mostly by their sexual conduct and not their direct contributions to something like the liberation movement. A man whose wife is considered sexually acceptable by social codes is deemed honorable, as is the husband who receives credit for imposing such behavior upon her. Besides sexually-related issues, honor only accrues to Palestinian women who are considered obedient daughters, accommodating sisters, supportive wives, reliable and devoted mothers, good housekeepers and cooks, reasonable, and hospitable (Baxter 748).
Because of this, Palestinian women that wish to remain honorable in the eyes of the community are relegated to fulfilling their gender roles solely as wives and mothers in the familial context, and this is their greatest contribution to maintaining Palestinian culture. One of the key reasons that gender roles are so crucial to the Palestinian culture is the strong emphasis placed on the family. The fundamental unit that comprises the Palestinian community is the family unit, and the uniform expectations of what a Palestinian family should be are firmly established.
Since the family is the central institution in Palestinian society, the arena in which the way to be and to live is ideally modeled, taught, and monitored, honor is primarily considered to be the purview and responsibility of the family (Baxter 746). Because of this, the greatest achievement for a family is not necessarily to be well liked by the community, but to be honorable and therefore respected.
The role of women in this case relies heavily upon the local customs and beliefs and their ability to maintain chastity and serve their families, and not necessarily take an active role in politics, militant action, or business. Palestinian culture relies heavily on the concept of honor within its patriarchal hierarchy, and this influences the way the liberation movement is conducted. The role for Palestinian women, therefore, is not to achieve any great success outside of the familial unit, but to remain a key component within it.
With little concern for their own desires or basic well-being, Palestinian women are largely expected by cultural mores to measure themselves solely by their sexual conduct and how they maintain their familial duties, doing everything in their power to avoid shaming their husbands, fathers, and other family members. The basic function of Palestinian men is to see to it that their women stay on the honorable path. The biggest problem with Palestinian emphasis on honor and how each gender achieves it is that it discourages women from elevating themselves.
Women are not encouraged to seek employment, education, or virtually anything else outside the boundaries of their family, because the surest way for them to achieve honor in the eyes of the community is to obey the men and the firmly established gender roles. The emphasis on honor and how it is defined by Palestinians goes a long way in eradicating the strength and value of the individual female and replaces it with a skewed feminine ideal, which may be alienating to the countries that they wish to influence in acquiescing to a Palestinian state.
To women in the West, the quest for gender equality has been a century-long struggle. And while complete equality with men in areas like economics and politics has yet to be achieved, these women enjoy many freedoms and advantages that women in Palestine do not. But, this is not to say that the movement for gender equality has completely passed the women of Palestine by; the larger national liberation movement has merely obscured it.
While simultaneously being presented with more opportunity to elevate themselves in an otherwise oppressive society, their role as members of the Palestinian ethnic and religious minority amplifies their gender disempowerment (Sa’ar). However, while it is easy to view the entire movement for female equality around the world to be culturally universal and applicable to women of both the West and Palestine, a much more accurate view emerges when investigating the impact of such movements on the women of today.
Despite popular beliefs in the West, the movement for gender equality was a serious movement in Palestine and its results include a wider sense of self-efficacy amongst Palestinian women of today. The popular Western conception of women in the Middle East, including Palestinian women, is that they are an oppressed class that has neither attempted any sort of feminist movement nor wish to.
However, the groups like the Palestinian Federation of Women’s Action Committees have gone far to inspire a generation of Palestinian women to seek the same equality that the women of the West fight for. The PFWAC was a nationalist-feminist organization created in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in 1978 by women who were also leaders of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), one of the four primary constituent parties of the Palestine Liberation Organization (Hasso).
The importance of the PFWAC as a contributor to the possible formation of Palestine seems to negate almost all the criticism of the West that decries what it sees as Islamic culture’s misogynistic hierarchy. It proves also that while Palestine actively seeks to liberate itself and achieve sovereignty, Palestinian women also seek the same within the potential state. One of the main results of the gender equality movement of the PFWAC in Palestine is the increased independence in the women of today, influenced by the movement of the previous generation.
This independence is also coupled with camaraderie with their fellow women, and as Hasso points out: “engagement with the PFWAC dramatically reconstituted their gender ideologies, political worldviews, sense of the possible, and self-definitions [and] also produced a strong sense of cohort or generational consciousness” (600). Even after the PFWAC dissolved in 1996, it contributed to many of its former members gaining a new sense of independence and confidence that allowed them to make more decisions and foster gender awareness among other women.
This new awareness also led many women to seek and attain jobs and paid employment, which helped them achieve public independence and a refuge from domestically-imposed inequality. The efforts of groups like the PFWAC also did a large part to remove the stigma of unmarried women, and encouraged more egalitarian relationships for women who were married. But, as the failure of the PFWAC ultimately missed many of the goals of conceptualized feminism, it went a long way to advance the rights of Palestinian women and continues to be felt in the generation it helped educate.
Borne from the push for national liberation, Palestinian groups seeking to foster equal rights for women have had a lasting influence, thanks to organizations like the PFWAC. While it has contributed significantly to the plight of Palestinian women’s rights, it was dissolved over a decade ago and left many of its goals unachieved. However, in that time, the realization of the state of Palestine has also made great strides, but it also fails to achieve its ultimate goal of statehood.
Palestinian women played a crucial role in the efforts to achieve statehood over a generation ago, and their role in the process allowed for an increased role in everyday affairs. But, with the strict patriarchal society in which they live, no matter what advancements they achieve in the public sphere, Palestinian women still have a long way to go to achieve equality in their domestic lives.
Perhaps the next great movement for Palestinian women will better address these issues, inspired by the lasting effects of groups like PFWAC. The state of Palestinian women has improved dramatically over the past few decades in areas of education, reproductive and health concerns, individual rights, as well as an improved standard of living. These advancements have led to greater numbers of assertive, outgoing, sophisticated, and highly accomplished Palestinian women.