HARIS, West Bank - Whenever I volunteer in the West Bank, friends back home are concerned for my safety and comfort, wondering how it feels to be a woman living in a predominantly Muslim community. As an outsider, however, that's not a question I can answer. I, a Jewish American volunteer for the International Women's Peace Service, can never know what my female Palestinian neighbours experience because foreign women enjoy a sort of special status in Palestine - privy to many of the privileges of being female without the same restrictions imposed on local women. What I can say, however, is that some of the most inspiring and independent women I've ever met have been Palestinian. Each one has a story of struggle and hardship - as a woman and as a Palestinian - and also a story of survival. Take, for example, my friend Fatima.
Fatima Khaldi grew up physically handicapped and fatherless in a refugee camp in Gaza. When it came time for college, she was instead made to work in a sewing factory to support her younger siblings. But Fatima had bigger dreams. Determined, she took two jobs to put herself through school, studying during the day and splitting her free time between caring for orphans and the elderly. She founded the first campus group at Jerusalem Open University, a club for female social work students like herself. After graduation, she worked as everything from a political organizer to a nurse for drug addicts. While taking care of handicapped people she met the man she would later marry, a blind musician, and when the young couple moved to his village of Qarawat Bani Hassan, west of Nablus, Fatima started the village's first kindergarten for their five young children to attend. Meanwhile, she began working at the Working Women's Society in Nablus, raising awareness among women about human, social and worker's rights.
Life in Qarawat was never easy. Fatima's husband was generally controlling and unsupportive, as well as physically and emotionally abusive. Then, after the second intifada began, Israeli military checkpoints consistently disrupted her commute to work, so she was forced to leave her job in Nablus. Shortly thereafter, Fatima's husband left her for another woman.
Over the years, I have learned that Fatima's life is but a microcosm of the story of Palestinian women today: fighting a battle on multiple fronts. Fatima's stunted leg is the least of her handicaps - she is also a woman living in a patriarchy, and a Palestinian living under intense military occupation. The paralysing nature of Israeli military rule in the Palestinian territories cannot be overstated: the colossal theft of land, resources, life and dignity would be enough to discourage almost anyone, and yet people like Fatima exemplify the most hope-inspiring and defining characteristic of most Palestinians I've met - resilience.
Always a survivor, Fatima transformed her daunting obstacles into more strength and perseverance, and that same year joined with two other local women to form "Women for Life" (WFL), an organization dedicated to empowering local women in their struggle to live in a free, just and democratic society. I met Fatima the year after WFL began. She welcomed me into her home and work with patience and generosity. I watched her organization grow from 3 to over 200 members, meeting regularly to participate in legal and leadership workshops, job training, domestic violence awareness and creative nonviolent resistance to the occupation.
There is a strong precedent for organizations like Women for Life all over Israel/Palestine, many of them west of the Green Line. Israeli peace groups like Bat Shalom, New Profile, NELED, TANDI and the Fifth Mother have worked for decades towards justice, equality and an end to violence in Israel/Palestine through their strength and wisdom as women. Indeed, it's hard to imagine the Israeli peace movement without the dedicated women of Machsom Watch bearing witness at West Bank checkpoints, or Women in Black standing strong on street corners around Israel demanding an end to the occupation, or all the other Israeli mothers, sisters and wives working tirelessly for a better world for their children. Some of them have worked closely with Fatima and Women for Life, teaching Palestinian women Hebrew and helping organize demonstrations and educational tours. The late Israeli academic and activist Tanya Reinhart visited Fatima's region often, and was unwavering in her dedication to exposing the injustices she felt perpetuated the conflict and supporting the people of Israel, Palestine and the international community working for positive change.
It is the collaborative efforts by women in Palestine, women in Israel and women from both communities working together that gives me most hope for a future of peaceful coexistence in Israel/Palestine. In spite of the obstacles, whether living under oppressive patriarchal or occupation policies or in an increasingly militarised society, Palestinian and Israeli women like Fatima and Tanya have remained resilient in their nonviolent approaches towards resisting injustice and struggling for equal rights for all people in the region: men and women, Jews and Palestinians.