We had the privilege of screening at one of the largest Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Bourj Al Barajneh. In attendance were mostly women and their children with only one man in the audience. We screened six films addressing violence against women and women at work.
The discussion centered around four themes, the first of which was the family. It is frowned upon for a woman not to bear male children or too many female children. Instead, couples will continue to try for a boy when they haven’t had one yet or for another one if they feel they want more than one. The only man in our audience commented that education on family planning should be priority. Having children for the sake of growing the family or in an effort to produce a boy/more boys is unfair to the children if the parents cannot provide for all of them equally. Having too many children when you realize that your resources are limited only hurts the kids and forces them to live with lower standards than they would have otherwise had to accept had the parents kept the family at a manageable size.
The conversation then turned to the heated discussion of women holding jobs. There was a divide between the women. Some felt that work outside of the home was for men only and that when women hold jobs, they take jobs that would otherwise be available for men. The woman who started these comments found little support. She quickly became heated and felt she had to leave the room. The organizers of the screening convinced her to return to the discussion but she found just the same resistance by the others. The few that agreed with her claimed that many jobs are just too dangerous for women to hold such as the mechanic portrayed in our WVN film “Thorns and Silk.” Others argued that no one can force a woman to work but that it needs to be her choice. The opposing side made the argument that women can handle so much work than men that even the women in Palestine used to do harder work than the men. It is only now that society dictates what a woman can do. A woman’s family, husband or even another woman can impede a woman’s attempts to gain employment. Our audience expressed that even if a woman works, it’s not like Europe where working women have laws to protect them, in the Middle East there are few to no laws that protect women in the workplace. They believe that if a job is hard for a man then it will be twice as hard for a woman so the government should protect women within those jobs. Additionally, even if women work, they are still expected to tend to all of the work in the home. The women expressed that men don’t help with house duties, a woman’s duties are known from the start of any marriage. This dual burden makes women less inclined to seek outside employment.
As has been traditionally the case on the WVN Global Tour, the issue of religion came up. As one woman tried to argue that Islam forbids women from working, another woman counter argued that it is society that keeps a woman from working and they mask the reasons behind religion. Another woman argued that a woman has a choice but within the teachings of Islam; she can ask for permission to do certain jobs that may otherwise be seen as unsuitable for women. Her counterparts argued that religion cannot be the excuse as to why women cannot do certain things. This particular woman, and the majority agreed, that boundaries and confines to women were made by men. Appropriately, the only man in the group spoke up that women should do everything they can to help themselves and conditions for other women. Everyone agreed that laws are what will help improve conditions for women. The laws should change and people should stand up for changes in the law.
Bringing the discussion full circle, the women expressed that gender roles are taught to children at a young age. When kids first enter school, they play one another’s games; boys can play with kitchen toys and girls with cars. As children get older, they are told that only girls can play with kitchen toys and boys with cars. “Why can’t a girl be a mechanic?” one woman asked. She doesn’t have to put her body under a car but she can run the shop. Even at birth, some women told us, it is decided that a girl cannot grow up to be a pilot or an accountant (among other professions) because those jobs are not meant for girls.
The point we appreciated the most was when our host organization, Association Najdeh, took a chance on screening the scene in "Thorns and Silk” where a Muslim woman is a taxi driver in Jerusalem but wears the traditional headscarf for Jewish women in order to make her clients comfortable. Fortunately, our attendees were not terribly upset by this scene but appreciated what the woman had to do for her job and to help provide for her family.
Director of Global Programs
(Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English, 2011)