I spent a good deal of my trip to Gaza in mental confusion over what I was seeing of women’s roles. The gender dynamics made me uncomfortable, but I wasn’t sure where to come down, or if I had a right to do so. I’ve been thinking about the issue since I’ve gotten back and decided to write about it for a few reasons. For one thing, Hamas has lately required women lawyers to wear head scarves; and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights has condemned the order. And just yesterday, the Centre publicized the honor killing of a 27-year-old woman in Jabaliya camp and called on Palestinians to impose "international standards" on this crime.
But the main reason I want to write about it is that it only seems fair. I bash Israel and Jewish chauvinism 24-7. I’m trying to do my part to change Jewish identity. Does that mean I can only talk about my people? Heck no. Also, I think the pro-Palestinian movement has to come to terms with the question of women’s roles in Palestine as it does outreach to a larger American liberal coalition.
So: what did I see? And, what does it mean?
Let me begin with two anecdotes that convey my discomfort. One delegation I was with was shepherded around Gaza in two vehicles. There were 13 in the delegation, and four of us were men. A man always had to sit in the front seat with the driver—having the most leg room, and best view–I guess because a driver sitting with a woman not his wife violated Muslim religious custom. I don’t know. The arrangement upset me. I’ve traveled in groups a lot in my life, sharing cars; and I put myself in the women’s position, and thought how angry I’d be to have to sit in the back all the time.
The second anecdote involves the European cup finals match on May 27. Our hotel had a television with a live broadcast, and I’m guessing there were 100 people in the hotel garden watching the game, smoking hookahs. Fun. I can’t remember one woman there, beside the hotel owner. That upset me. It supported the impression I’ve gotten in Morocco, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, that public social spaces are a male province. It reminded me of New Year’s in Palmyra, Syria, when my wife and I went out to a restaurant and it was all men celebrating New Year’s, except for the belly dancer. Did all the women choose to stay home?
I wrote about this stuff when I first got to Egypt in May, and maybe crudely, focusing on women in an American University of Cairo delegation who were covered. Helena Cobban had a good response to me then, and I know it upset others. But covering doesn’t seem to me to be the issue; western women also dress conventionally. It’s the apparent lack of choice—I think I saw only a half dozen women in Gaza who were not covered—and the social control it seems to represent. One woman in our delegation was a nun (not covered), and she said the covering reminded her of the social control that the nun’s habit grants the Catholic church over women.
Here is a photograph of some of the kids who accompanied us on a tour of rubble in eastern Gaza. You can see that two of the girls are wearing lengthy head coverings. I guess they had recently passed menarche. In the hot weather—it didn’t seem fair to me, I pitied them. Those girls were going down a separate path from the boys, and, it would appear, a more limited one, ordained by authorities.
Roles are the issue. I have a liberal friend back here who thinks Title IX is about the greatest thing the federal government ever did. Title IX would be difficult to implement in the Muslim societies I’ve visited.
Of course every society has gender roles that women often struggle against, and some of these role differences are surely consensual. More importantly, my problem with women’s roles is nothing like my problem with Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians and endless human rights abuses against them. But to deny the narrowness of the roles seems to me pointless. I got the impression that the more public-spirited women we met in Gaza were mostly unmarried. In fact, a friend in my delegation said that professional women sometimes sacrificed marriage because the wife role was too confining. When we met women in their homes, delegation members would often comment later on how strong they are– perhaps apologizing for the limited roles the women have by saying they get to be strong. My feeling was, Of course they’re strong; women are strong. Why can’t they be strong in other arenas too?
One member of my delegation said that when we were made uncomfortable by the fact that a teacher of young students we’d seen (right) was clad head to toe in a niqab, with gloves, we were just seeing her with western eyes. I liked it when a gay woman in our delegation, who has been engaged with feminist issues all her life, said, “But I am western.” And I would say the same thing. I am western. Does that mean my ideas are culturally-bound? Maybe. But I find certain liberal values emulable. And there isn’t a lot of liberal space in Gaza society.
I recognize that Gaza is under blockade and in an extreme situation. A thousand and more people were just murdered by a despotic occupier– for no reason at all– and businesses and government offices wantonly demolished. I understand that an oppressed, isolated, decapitated people, whose men have been made to feel humiliated and powerless (per the Palestinian psychologist we met), will turn to what they can control, and what makes them different, religion.
But that doesn’t mean I have to approve of religious roles. I’m not religious myself; and one of the reasons I started blogging is that I was determined to apply to Israel the liberal ideals my country had come to during hardwon struggles over minority rights, and screw the religious ideology that made Israel. When I’m judging Israel, people say it’s fine for me to bring my luggage to Asia. When I’m criticizing Palestinian society, I’m a westerner suffering from orientalism.
People may say that Muslim society affords a woman freedoms we don’t have here. I’m sure that’s true. My wife likes to cover in the Arab societies we’ve visited because it gives her a freedom on the street, from others’ eyes. But she was on holiday; she gets to choose. Myself I feel a diminution: the absence of women in cafes and restaurants gives public life a grinding masculine air to me. It bothers me that I did not see one woman driving in Egypt or Gaza. I have to believe some women would like to drive.
I imagine people saying that my own sexism disqualifies me from pronouncing. But I’ve struggled for decades with my masculine identity, my sexism, and my racism, and homophobia too. I’ve changed my attitudes over my lifetime–and American social movements have reshaped me. I recommend the process.
Finally, people may say that my broaching this topic creates a distraction from the real cause: Palestinian freedom. I think they’re wrong. Palestinian women are sure to benefit from Palestinian freedom; and one way we will build this movement is by reaching out to liberals who feel strongly on gender-role issues. The tendency of politicized people to deny obvious flaws in their cause is at the heart of this great essay by Orwell, in which he blames himself for accepting certain stupid blindnesses out of party loyalty.
There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it…The emotional urges which are inescapable, and are perhaps even necessary to political action, should be able to exist side by side with an acceptance of reality. But this, I repeat, needs a moral effort
I actually think we will be more effective in taking on the neoconservative critique of Islamic society, and the Israeli one, too, if we concede the points they are right about and assign them their rightful, minor place in the discussion.