Palestinian women face political and social frustrations
By Charmaine Seitz
The West Bank village of Bruqin appears idyllic. Located on a major aquifer, the village’s groves of olive and other fruit trees span the landscape. Carefully-designed homes are nestled in the hills around a new post office and mosque.
But the invisible fault lines that crisscross this village of 4,000--some brought by Israel’s military occupation and others by poverty and society--rise to the surface at a meeting of village women.
Samia Abdullah, 28, is distraught. “From the day I gave birth, there has been so much stress from my in-laws. My mother-in-law is always pressuring me. Sometimes, there is no electricity and I can’t call my husband [who works far away]. Sometimes I just leave or cry.”
Nine other women listen to her attentively, gathered in a circle under the high ceiling of a refurbished village home that serves as a central meeting place for the residents.
Each has her own story to tell at this weekly meeting with a UNICEF-sponsored counsellor.
Widow and mother of seven, Efrah Barakat, lives in a part of Bruqin that is under complete Israeli control. Her house has been threatened with demolition since 2004 by the Israeli Civil Admnistration, which claims it was built illegally. Barakat has hired a lawyer, but even needed rudimentary repairs must wait until the case is resolved.
Twenty homes have been demolished in the village since 1988, the women say. In June, the new central mosque and a US-funded school were issued demolition orders by the Israeli Civil Admnistration, despite their location in the part of the village that is in Area “B”, theoretically under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
For Barakat, the pending demolition means uncertainty and an uncomfortable political role. This week, international supporters visited her house and she spoke strongly about her will to stay in her home at all odds.
“People said I shouldn’t have said this,” she tells the group. “’They will say we are terrorists,’ they said.”
Counsellor Yasmin Qassem of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) offers Barakat support. “You said what you meant,” she tells Barakat. The other women nod in agreement.
For seven weeks, Qassem has met with these women, listening to their daily problems and working with them to come up with solutions. The approximately $700,000 psychosocial programme, funded by ECHO, in partnership with UNICEF, has been duplicated around the West Bank with 168 different local groups.
“The main work with them has been on social violence,” says Qassem of the women, and another Bruqin group for girls. “I have seen a change in them at the roots. How they express themselves has changed completely.”
While the women say that domestic violence is not a frequent occurrence in their lives, they report angering easily and taking this out on their children and family members.
“Sometimes I shout at my children,” says 41-year-old Yusri Mustafa. “It’s not exactly violence, but aggression.”
Like many women here, Mustafa’s husband works for the Palestinian Authority and is stationed far away. Her daughter is in college and she worries about the student’s grades and future. “I am stressed out,” she admits. “But here I have seen from my peers that I need to work to strengthen the relationship between my husband and children.”
Bruqin’s problems are similar to those of many villages in the West Bank. Farmland has been confiscated or made unreachable by the nearby Israel settlements of Bruchin and Barkan industrial zone. Armed settlers enter the village sometimes, causing fear. The Barrier Israel has constructed in the West Bank cuts off sources of work, meaning unemployment is high.
Further, a large stream of sewage and industrial waste originating from the settlements and the Palestinian town of Salfit runs through the heart of the village.
“The smell is awful,” says one woman. “We get skin diseases and the kids are always sick.” The Palestinian Ministry of Health reports that approximately 70 per cent of people with cancer in the Salfit district are from areas near Barkan industrial zone and the sewage flow.
Despite Palestinian and international efforts to build sewage treatment plants in the West Bank and resolve the problem, Israeli authorities have approved only one in nearly two decades.
But for these women, the political challenges that face their leaders are very personal.
Samar Seif al-Din’s eyes fill with tears as she talks about her own recent struggle. She had permission from authorities to visit her twin brother serving time in an Israeli prison, but was forbidden from going by her husband, who worried about an invasive security search. Knowing she would not see her brother, halfway through a sentence of 21 years, broke the 35-year-old’s heart.
“I wanted to tell him so many things,” she tells the group. Qassem consoles her. Even with little recourse, Seif al-Din knows she is not alone.