In early July, women from villages were among the hundreds who supported 23 Palestinians and Israelis on a hunger strike protest in Ar Ram, an Arab neighbourhood between Jerusalem and Ramallah, where huge concrete sections of the wall lie on the road waiting to be erected. At the end of the hunger strike, some village women joined a vigil of Palestinian and Israeli women. A number had been encouraged to attend by Dima, one of the hunger strikers and a fieldworker with the Rural Women’s Development Society (RWDS), an offshoot of the Palestinian NGO Parc, which deals with agriculture and rural development.
Some of these women came from Biddu, a 7,000-strong village west of Ramallah near the Green Line (the 1967 border). Biddu is next to the planned route of the wall and slated to loose 2,500 dunam (625 acres) of farmland – most of their livelihood. In early May, Dima arrived on one of her weekly visits to the village and met a group of 25 members of a women’s club set up by Parc in their concrete club building. A man stirred a large vat demonstrating candle making, but the focus was a discussion about women’s actions against the wall.
Two Israeli women from Israeli women’s peace organisation Bath Shalom had come to lend support. One after another the Palestinian women voiced their frustration: “Everything is forbidden, it’s like a prison.” “What help are we getting from the outside world or from Arab countries?” “The Wall is killing Palestinian life.” “All of our family’s 25 dunam where we grow grapes and olives is gone.”
The club decided against a “women-only” protest, but continued talking with the Israeli women, despite the fact that three weeks earlier Israeli soldiers on horseback had beaten them with batons when they demonstrated. And at another non-violent village demonstration in February, two men were shot and many villagers suffered after inhaling tear gas.
On 30th June, Biddu villagers heard that they were one of the villages through which the Israeli Supreme Court had ordered the wall to be rerouted.
Since the late 1980s Parc has included a focus on women, after research revealed that 65 per cent of agriculture was done by women, unpaid as part of their household duties and with no control over agricultural revenue. Parc has tried many approaches to raise rural women’s awareness of their rights, give women training and find ways for women to earn an income. It has built up a network of over 150 women’s groups and clubs in villages throughout the West Bank and Gaza (with nearly 13,000 registered members), and opened 115 women’s savings and credit clubs. In 2002 it set up the Rural Women’s Development Society (RWDS) to coordinate the work of the network. In the West Bank, clubs and groups are regularly supported by 14 fieldworkers like Dima. Typically each club has 150-200 members who elect a committee. The women plan their own programmes, which have so far included sessions on women and children’s health, food production, human rights or handicrafts.
Getting education is problematic for village girls especially in remote rural communities where many families still give preference to boys. In some villages Parc runs classes to help women complete their Tawjihi (matriculation) and a number have gone on to university. In other villages women choose to run more basic literacy courses. In a small Bedouin encampment outside a village near Jerusalem a group of 11 women were learning the alphabet in a small, bright transport container. This was the single new “building” (donated by volunteers) among the rag- and plastic-covered tin and wooden shacks and piles of garbage crowded together on an exposed hill top.
Community development and outreach work is always long term and depends on building up and sustaining personal relationships through regular contact. Dima cannot travel freely or easily between villages because of the restrictions on her movement through permits, checkpoints and closure. Cultural factors are a major obstacle. RWDS director Ghada Zughayar explains: “Tribal attitudes and the powerful influence of families make it difficult to involve women, especially those in rural areas, and their activities are often undermined by local political parties as well as deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes.”
Discussion and decision-making help develop women’s confidence and leadership skills so that the groups and clubs can be self-sustaining in the longer term. Ghada lists as major achievements in the past two years the fact that 43 of their clubs has held elections and that the clubs increasingly influence decisions in their communities. “Nine women from these clubs have been elected to village councils in the Tulkarm area [in the northwest of the West Bank] and around 40 more women leaders will run for election to their village councils.”
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