PALESTINE: All-Female Ticket Aims to Be Heard, if Not Seen

Sunday, October 14, 2012
NY Times
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Peace Processes

The faces of five men in business suits and one woman in a white head scarf beam under the slogan “Modern Hebron” on campaign banners along the streets of this famously conservative city ahead of local elections scheduled for Saturday. Other banners saying “Hebron Independents” feature 12 less formal photos, including three women, with looks more stern than smiling.

But the purple banners labeled “By Participating, We Can” show no faces, only a drawing of a vaguely female figure, arms aloft, in front of the Palestinian flag and the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The drawing stands in for the pictures of 11 women, the first all-female list of candidates for elective office in the Palestinian territories, and possibly the Arab world.

“My picture, perhaps it will lose a vote,” explained Maysoun Qawasmi, 43, the leader of the Participation ticket. “I'm sure if I put pictures on my fliers, people will say, ‘Maysoun is coming here to teach the women of Hebron to go against customs.' ”

Ms. Qawasmi's long-shot, low-budget campaign is one of hundreds unfolding across the West Bank this month in the first Palestinian elections of any kind in six years, which analysts describe as an important if imperfect taste of democracy in a place where politics are adrift.

Peace talks with Israel are frozen. Reconciliation efforts between the Fatah party, which controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and the Hamas faction that rules the Gaza Strip also seem to be perpetually stalled. Last month's street protests were largely suppressed, and there is no internal challenge to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.

So the chance to elect municipal councils is seen as a much needed opportunity for political expression, and 4,696 candidates, including 1,146 women, are running in 94 cities and villages.

“People are fed up; they don't think they should be held hostage until the reconciliation is there,” said Hisham Kuhail, chief executive of the Palestinian election commission. “There are things that can be moved.”

But the balloting, which has been postponed twice since 2010, is hampered by a Hamas boycott and the Fatah leadership's ousting of members who chose to run outside the party's official lists. (Some 250 localities are not voting either because no candidates registered in time or because only a single slate signed up.) And while municipal councils are the closest form of government to people's lives the world over, in the West Bank they lack control over taxes, development projects and, in most places, even basic services.

“It's an attempt on the part of Fatah to generate a sense of legitimacy,” explained Basem Ezbidi, a political-science professor at Birzeit University. “Of course it's always nice to have the fresh blood, but in Palestine it's a different story. It's not going to make that much of a difference on the ground whether X or Z or Y is really running the city, knowing that the money comes from the Europeans and the ability to operate comes from Israel.”

A September poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 50 percent of West Bankers did not plan to vote, and 43 percent said the elections would not be fair; nearly half did not believe that the balloting would ultimately take place.

On the street, cynicism abounds. Ayub Sharawi has a “Modern Hebron” poster in his clothing store because he is a friend of two of the candidates, but he said he would probably not vote.

“We don't trust Palestinian leaders; we see each one of them is working for himself,” Mr. Sharawi said. “Even the good people couldn't do anything because of the pressures around.”

Some are trying. In Bethlehem, Fadi Kattan, a tourism entrepreneur, is managing a list of candidates called “The Future” and pushing the message on social media that, he said, “you don't need any more people who are 75 years old, you need young people” who can run a modern city. In Nablus, Ghassan Shakaa, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee, said he resigned from Fatah to run an independent list because “people want to see change.” In the village of Qira, Mr. Kuhail of the election commission said, nine slates are vying for 600 votes.

For the first time this year, there are quotas requiring that one of every five council seats goes to a woman, and in nine cities, there are set-asides for Christians as well. Nour Odeh, a Palestinian Authority spokeswoman, said that 17 percent of the current municipal council members were women, and noted that a group of women was the first to lobby for Palestinian independence in 1920.

Here in Hebron, home to about 200,000 Palestinians, 50,000 of whom live in an area controlled by Israel, these will be the first local elections since 1976, when Ms. Qawasmi's father-in-law was elected mayor. Khalil Shikaki, who runs the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, said the “all-female list is a very innovative idea, but Hebron is the worst place to test its viability.” (Another women's slate is running in a village near Ramallah.)

This is a tribal, religious place where it is rare to see women's hair; a decade ago it was unusual to see a woman driving. Few women work outside the home, and Ms. Qawasmi said she closed the women's sports club in 2005 because the members were blocked from playing soccer or basketball in public or jogging on the street.

“If you are a nurse or you are a teacher, O.K., but to be a leader, a decision-maker — they think the woman has a small mind,” Ms. Qawasmi said of her neighbors. “The woman needs help, but she can't do anything because she's afraid to raise her voice. I will shout.”

Raised in Jordan, Ms. Qawasmi went to a university in Beirut before marrying an architect from one of Hebron's leading families 21 years ago. She has five children, ages 7 to 20, and manages the local office of the Palestinian news agency while volunteering with women's groups.

She said she was spending about $5,000 of her own money on the campaign, and struggling even to recruit candidates. People have warned that her husband would take a second wife because the campaign was causing her to neglect her duties at home. Her platform is, essentially, that more women should be on the 15-member council. At a meeting last week, when the owners of a factory raised issues like new roads, smoke-free workplaces, electric bills and public toilets, she responded mostly with statements like, “Those who took care of you are women — your mother.”

In the middle of a recent day of campaigning, she came home to a sink full of dirty dishes. Later, her youngest child, Lilah, complained, “You forget us,” and asked for a bedtime story.

“I said, ‘I'm tired,' ” Ms. Qawasmi recalled. “So I told her a story about me, about my campaign. I said, ‘Give me a chance; in 10 years, you'll be so proud of me.' She said, ‘I'm proud of you now.' ”

And then Ms. Qawasmi fell asleep in her daughter's bed.