On June 30, Women’s Voices Now was generously hosted by Tomorrow’s Youth Organization in Nablus. Located in the northern West Bank, TYO provides all-encompassing support programs to children, youth, and parents of the local communities to enable them to live healthy and empowered lives. The organization is especially groundbreaking in the entrepreneurial, mental health, and fitness programs provided for women. By providing a safe space where women can come to learn, grow, and challenge the accepted social norms within which they live, TYO aims to help women realize their personal potential and thereby further enrich their communities.
Four films were screened focusing on the relationship patterns between men and women, moving from a light-hearted take on the persistent pressure on women to bear a son (“Male and Female”), to the social isolation teenage girls often experience and the friendship a man can offer (“Laila and the Garbage Man”), to the effectiveness of women in the working world in the both the absence and presence of men (“Thorns and Silk”), and ending with the devastating effect of rape on a woman’s social standing and her perception of herself (“A Call at Night”). Animated discussions in Arabic followed the screening of each film, led by Psychosocial Program Manager Suhad Jabi and translated by Program Assistant Inas Badawi. While the full film of the discussions with English subtitles will be available online shortly, the following is a summary of the women’s reactions.
The women, who had been laughing while watching the animated short “Male and Female,” launched into an impassioned and lengthy discussion on the pressure they feel from their husbands and families to bear sons. When asked if they felt they could stop having children if they had not yet borne a son, each woman said it was her husband’s decision—the man has the right to dictate the number of children a woman bears; a woman’s “no” is not an option. In spite of the pressure these women said they felt, they did not vocalize a desire to change this dynamic.
“Laila and the Garbage Man” proved a more controversial film for the women to watch. Several of the women tutted when the elderly garbage man first befriended teenaged Laila, and when asked about this reaction during the follow-up discussion, six of them said they feared the man would violate her. Though this does not occur in the film, the women maintained that the platonic relationship between a man and a girl was inappropriate. Despite their sympathy for Laila’s loneliness, most women did not support the fulfillment Laila gained from the garbage man’s friendship because he held a position in society not widely respected. During a brief break following this discussion, Suhad expressed her frustration that the women could identify the sources of their unhappiness and oppression but would not let themselves imagine new ways of being, of interacting with their husbands and children to affirm their roles as individuals rather than as mere support for their families.
Suhad chose “Thorns and Silk” next, wanting to provide positive role models of working women for those present and trigger changes in the way they thought of themselves. The documentary focuses on four women in the West Bank who reflect on their experiences of working in male-dominated arenas. Two minutes into the documentary, when a woman who films brides during weddings is being interviewed, Suhad leaned over to me and whispers, “This woman makes me angry.” When I asked why, she explained that the woman, before accepting work as a filmmaker, had asked her local mufti for his opinion and acquiesced too much to the demands of her husband. Later, as the film focused on a self-possessed Arab woman fearlessly driving a cab in Jerusalem, Suhad threw me a conspiratorial smile and, “I like this woman.”
The most emotionally wrought film of the day, “A Call at Night,” was saved for last. A general pall seemed to fall on the room as we listened to an anonymous woman from Gaza describe how she was raped by her boyfriend after getting into his car, then was forced to marry him. The documentary ends with her chilling, resigned claim that she would be better off dead. While much of the discussion was beyond our limited skills in Arabic to ascertain, Inas made sure we understood one particular fact while she translated: eleven women thought the victim was to blame for the rape—she should have known better than to get in the car.
In follow-up discussions with the workers at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization (interviews available online soon), an intriguing reality was made apparent: a sharp divide exists between women of the First Intifada (1987-1993) generation and those of the Second Intifada (2000-2005). Women who grew up during the First Intifada tend to be more education-focused and affirming of the collective power of women in society. On the other hand, those women who experienced the economic recession and difficult circumstances that followed the Second Intifada have gravitated toward the superficial allure of the internet, learning to value physical beauty and male affirmation above intellect and independence.
Why fight for the empowerment of women? Because they raise the next generation of movers and shakers in society. Because they reinvest 90% of their education and income into their families and communities. Because they internalize the victim monologue and perpetuate their own oppression and unhappiness. Or my favorite reason—because they are people.
By: Molly Lower
Zafer al-Masri Foundation Building
Nablus, West Bank
Palestinian Territory, Occupied
Google map and directions