RAMALLAH – In May 2005 I was elected to be the first woman to join the Sinjel Municipality in the Ramallah district. At that time a new law had been passed which set a minimum quota for women’s representation in local councils. The assumption underpinning the law was that women should take part in decision-making processes. So, despite the fact that the idea hadn’t yet been widely accepted in many rural communities, women from different economic and cultural backgrounds suddenly found themselves taking part in political life.
In 2005 a twenty-six year old woman like me knew nothing about local governance despite advanced educational degrees. It did not even occur to me to nominate myself until it was publicised that the new quota law meant that two women would be joining my local municipality. Jokingly, I wrapped the Palestinian hatta [keffiyeh, or headdress] around my neck and said to my colleagues at work, “I am going to run against Mahmoud Abbas!” My friends looked at me indignantly as if I had broken a taboo, and asked, “are you nominating yourself for the municipal elections?” I wanted to say “yes”, but my courage betrayed me. Nevertheless, I decided to overcome my fear because I knew the council - which for the most part was made up of elderly uneducated men chosen for their familial affiliations – did a poor job in addressing women’s needs.
This conversation with my friends resulted in a number of men from various parties showing up at my home and suggesting that I join their list of nominees for the Council. Luckily I didn’t face any objection from my family but the people close to me wondered if I should really take the risk.
I have learned it is not easy for women to take part in political life. Traditionally, they have been chosen for their political affiliation, not their ability to serve their community. In general women’s participation in formal politics has not been proactive. It was rare to find a woman who came forward and nominated herself, especially in the rural areas. When a woman does take part in politics, as I found out, she is assessed twice: once as a politician and secondly as a woman.
My presence on the Council was not met with great enthusiasm, with men finding it hard to accept women who discuss and propose, and perhaps even argue. Some people even suggested that a female presence at municipal meetings was unnecessary and that the relevant documents should simply be brought home. But as I had been working side by side with men within academia I thought, why should I refrain from working alongside men from my local community? The strategy that I employed to accommodate these difficulties was the belief in gradual change.
During my time in the Council I tried to involve myself in various issues. I nominated myself as a member of the municipal finance committee and continually argued with our mayor when he didn’t request my attendance at meetings with representatives from other councils to discuss a deal or an agreement. I trusted my ability to initiate projects that achieve a minimal level of prosperity for women in the area I come from. But the political circumstances that accompanied the Hamas victory in 2006 resulted in donors withdrawing their funding and thus my initiative was shelved.
Indeed, things have begun to change since the introduction of the quota. Over the past five years the presence of women in municipal councils has generated a sense among some women that they can come forward and participate in public life. Women who will be elected in the upcoming elections will now have a greater effect on political life. Now more accustomed to women’s presence in politics, people are realising that closing their eyes to gender issues and women’s participation is counter-productive. It is time to understand that the future of our society should be built by all its members.
As a Palestinian woman, I’m proud of Laila Ghannam and Janet Michael, the two women who hold prominent roles in Ramallah city. Real change could happen when we have a female president in Palestine. Then we, as Palestinians, would finally reach inner reconciliation with ourselves as human beings who believe in equality and democracy.
It stands to reason that a Palestinian society with a greater degree of social equality will be in a better position to reach a sustainable resolution with Israel and to build a strong independent state. The road won’t be easy but now that Palestinian women have begun to take part in political life, we can begin to imagine that such a future is possible.
- Asma Asfour is a member of the Sinjel Municipality and is an activist for women’s issues. This article was written forthe Common Ground News Service (CGNews).