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Women on ballot in Palestinian city's first election in decades

AP

Palestinian Maysoun Qawasmi, the 43-year-old party leader of By Participating, We Can, attends a meeting in the West Bank city of Hebron on Sept. 13, 2012.

HEBRON, West Bank – “By Participating, We Can!” that slogan has made a group of women in Hebron who are challenging male dominance the talk of their famously conservative Palestinian city.

Hebron, the West Bank’s largest city with 250,000 Palestinian residents, will go to the polls to choose city officials for the first time since 1976 on Oct. 20. And it will be the first time that one of the candidate lists on the ballot is made up entirely of women – teachers, civil-servants, business women and volunteers.   

The road taken by these women has not, however, been easy.

They have faced tremendous opposition from the local community, including comments directly to the women such as “you are wasting your time.”  

But Maysoun Qawasmi, leader of the bloc, and a 43-year-old mother of three sons and two daughters, remains undaunted.


Challenging the status quo
Qawasmi explained that the women initially faced legal objections to forming an all-female political bloc.

“I researched everything I could about election laws until I found out that there was no law against an all-female party competing,” Qawasmi said. 

She said some members of her own family initially resisted her challenging the status quo given the importance of tribal values woven throughout the fabric of society here.

For example, she explained that a local belief states, “No matter where a woman reaches, her brain remains small.”

But Qawasmi, who wears a headscarf and describes herself as secular, has not lived by those words. She is a journalist and human rights activist. Politics are new to her, but she does not believe that her secularism puts her at any kind of political disadvantage.

“I go down and talk to people. I always tell my kids that social skills are more important than intellectual skills,” she said.

As a member of a prominent family clan in Hebron, her family name has been advantageous.

“We have a good CV and this is beneficial. But I am also up against five other candidates from the Qawasmi family. Besides, almost three quarters of my family clan support Hamas, so that’s at least 20,000 votes gone,” she said. (However, the Islamic group Hamas say they are boycotting this election). 

The idea of forming an all-female bloc stemmed from five years of work empowering women. For her and those around her, she had already crossed customary boundaries by becoming the manager of the Palestinian Wafa News Agency in Hebron.

The bloc had initially recruited 50 potential qualified candidates – but that number whittled down to 11.

“Many high-caliber women had to pull out for various reasons,” she said. “We had a highly qualified woman with a Ph.D. who had to pull out when a brother chose to run for elections in the same family; the male is given priority over the woman.”

Generally, running as a bloc increases the chances of getting more votes leading to a higher number of seats in the municipality. Qawasmi believes that her bloc is likely to gain support from young men and women.

‘Women should represent society, but not to this extent’
Not everyone however, agrees with her vision.

Wadie, a 35-year-old chef from Hebron, offered his opinion on the matter.

“Our religion does not give a woman the right to enter the Shura Council (Consultative Council). It dignifies her to be in her house,” said Wadie, only chose to share his first name.

“I personally don’t believe she will get votes except from the Qawasmi family. If Qawasmi succeeds she will be fought against, she is not liked because she encourages freedom.”

He added a religious argument to his opposition. “Eighty percent of Hebron is religious…I have to stick to the book of God. Women should represent society, but not to this extent.”

Wadie’s opinion may represent a high percentage of the men in Hebron, but there are others who are looking at more than gender with their vote. 

“It’s not a man or woman thing, people judge according to who works harder. If the rest of the bloc was as strong as [Qawasmi] they would have a chance at winning,” said Issa Amr, a 33-year-old male resident of Hebron.

Hoping other women will follow
For now, Qawasmi is satisfied that the bloc has been officially registered.

“I want to do what I can do. I want to do what must be done by decision makers and prioritize real issues that have not been addressed by the municipality,” she said. “I hope this will enhance the role of women in the political sphere at the larger level. I do expect women in other locations to follow.”   

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