BLOG: The Triple Burden: What it Conflict Mean for Palestinian Women?

Gender Across Borders
Wednesday, January 26, 2011 - 19:00
Western Asia
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It's now widely known that conflict has a disproportionate impact on women and girls. Since the end of the Cold War and a rise in what academic Mark Duffield1 calls “new wars”, conflict has shifted from the battlefield to fronts much closer to home–the city street, the suburban shopping mall, a rural olive grove. In the Middle East conflict, Palestinian women bear the brunt of a four-decade occupation that is regularly punctuated with bursts of intense violence. The triple burdens of occupation, poverty and patriarchy combine to push many women from living to merely, often barely, existing. The home is the traditional domain and realm of power for Palestinian women, the primary place in which they wield authority, but this peace has been shattered by the pervasive practice of house demolitions, dawn raids, and, as happened during the last incursion of Gaza, aerial bombing of houses and apartment blocks.2

Although the conflict in and occupation of the Palestinian Territories is often played out in and around the home, high level political negotiations, an almost exclusively male-only affair, pay scant attention to the social, economic and psychological pressures that Palestinian women endure trying to keep families fed, children safe and demoralised and emasculated husbands sane. Why is “peace” seen as the business of politicians, diplomats and military personnel, mostly male, mostly profoundly unaware of how terrifying, demoralising and cruel conflict is? The peace-builders of the Quartet (the four part mediation team established in Madrid in 2002, composed of the UN, EU, US and Russia) have never endured a pregnancy knowing that already there are not enough household resources to go around. They don't face daily humiliation at checkpoints. They don't understand how it feels for a smart young woman to lose out on educational opportunities because a 20 metre high separation wall makes the closest town or city virtually inaccessible.

Women are sorely underrepresented in politics internationally, but in the Middle East, where deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes divide space up between public and male, and private and female, it is simply ‘not done' for women get involved in negotiations. As feminist scholar Simona Sharoni observes, the first intifada did see an increase in female participation as community organisers for non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. This was a period of hope, not only that the struggle for nationhood might be realised, but that women might have a place in the running of that nation. Sharoni notes in a comparative study of the first intifada and the Troubles in Northern Ireland that Palestinian experiences of mass arrests and administrative detention—indefinite detention based on secret evidence—opened a window of opportunity for women and a legitimate excuse to get involved in politics.3 Their involvement was tolerated and cautiously welcomed by the men forcibly removed from society as a show of patriotism. However, the second intifada from 2000 was much more violent and militarised, and public spaces for Palestinian women as activists and peace-builders shrunk again. Women's groups who were at the forefront of alternative peace-building activities from the immediate aftermath of the Oslo Accords in 1994 have been systematically excluded from rounds of negotiations over the past ten years, from Camp David in 2000 to the “Road Map” plan drawn up by the Quartet to Bush's Annapolis Conference in 2007. UNSC Resolution 1325 demands that women are involved in every aspect of peace-building, but Israeli and Palestinian women are conspicuous only in their absence at the negotiation table.

There are brave women on both sides of this bloody conflict who have decided not to wait for a peace deal to be negotiated and have instead taken the initiative to breach social and physical boundaries to meet with each other and try to find alternatives to hatred, distrust and bloodshed. The Jerusalem Link, founded in 1994, is comprised of sister Israeli and Palestinian organizations, Bat Shalom and the Jerusalem Center for Women, and works towards bringing Palestinian and Israeli women together to campaign for an end to occupation and foster a gender-balanced peace. But their efforts are hampered at every turn and they endure ever-increasing restrictions on where they can meet safely, accusations of collaboration with the enemy and inevitable painful disagreement over the legitimacy of actions of members of both their societies.4

So what's the solution? It needs to be radical because formulaic attempts at peace-building between Israel and the Palestinians have failed so far. There needs to be a realisation at the highest national and international levels that women, and not just the select few that have made it into the political elite, have unique insights into and experiences of the devastation that conflict causes. There is space for women to re-enter grassroots political organisation as they did initially on both sides during the first intifada and mobilise together to influence the politics that sustain and perpetuate violence. Women in this conflict have demonstrated their resilience, their patience and willingness to reach a fair compromise – it's time that men pay attention and see how it's done.

Aoife Allen is an Irish feminist and freelance writer. She holds an MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development from SOAS, University of London. Her areas of interest and expertise include women in conflict and peace-building, feminist movements in the Middle East and the political economy of war. From 2007-2008 Aoife worked for the Jerusalem Centre for Women, a Palestinian women's development and peace-building organisation.