Migration: Refugee Camps: Palestine

in Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures Online
Diana K. Allan
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While books on Palestine have proliferated, few, until recently, examined women and gender in any depth. Since the 1980s, gender studies have begun to redress the asymmetries in our knowledge of Palestinian society, particularly the processes structuring relations between gender and nationalism (Fleischmann 2003, Hasso 1998, Sharoni 1995). Following the creation of the State of Israel, around 800,000 Palestinians were displaced. The majority of refugees were from rural areas and ended up in refugee camps in the border states of Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. Because of differing levels of access and political sensitivity, there is a far greater depth of research available for camps in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories than in Syria and Jordan. While certain dynamics of gender and women's experience in camp settings are subject to generalization, others are highly contextual, arising in relation to the policies of host states, and the cultural, political, and era-specific conditions of the national movement.

Fundamental to any understanding of women and gender in Palestinian society is the patriarchal structure of familial and institutional relations that privileges males and elders (Rubenberg 2001). Since most refugees displaced in 1948 were rural peasant farmers, conservative social norms prevailed in the camps. The confined space and lack of privacy, however, complicated traditional codes of gender interaction. Peasant women had often had more mobility in their villages than urban women who adhered to norms of segregation; however, this freedom of movement was challenged by the presence of strangers in close proximity. Men were categorized as productive breadwinners while women were defined by their domestic and reproductive roles. During this period women lost their former role in agricultural production and were forced into a household economy based on cash and rations.

Women have not been accorded the same political and social rights as men, preventing them from transmitting their nationality to their children should they marry non-Palestinians. This patrilineal model of political kinship also structures the United Nations Relief and Works Agency's (UNRWA) definition of who is entitled to its services, discriminating against the growing number of families of mixed parentage in camps in the diaspora (Cervenak 1994). Since refugees are often viewed with hostility by local populations and have limited state protection, the institution of the family carries additional weight in camps, providing security, but also keeping the legal and political rights of women under familial control. In these contexts of chronic poverty large families continue to be valued for financial support (Johnson 2003). Preference for sons also keeps fertility high and patriarchal norms in place as women invest more time fulfilling their domestic obligations than engaging in economic or political activity outside the home (Hammami 1997). Nevertheless, surveys conducted in camps in Lebanon found women anxious to acquire qualifications and jobs (Zakharia and Tabari 1997).

Dispossession, the dispersal of family and kin, and prolonged conflict have, however, weakened kin and patriarchal structures in some respects. Loss of property and livelihood eroded the main sources of subsistence for refugees and the capacity of men to be sole breadwinners. High unemployment in the camps, the need for women to work to supplement household income, and limited financial independence gained through UNRWA ration cards, have all diminished patriarchal control (Taraki 1997) and strained traditional gender roles, increasing the likelihood of familial tensions and domestic violence (Johnson and Kuttab 2002). While the provision of education for women in camps has given them a comparative advantage, access to professional or technical training is rare and the heavy burdens on women during times of crisis force many to marry at a younger age, leading to high dropout rates.

The rise of the national movement in the 1960s had a dramatic impact on women as the exigencies of the national struggle relaxed familial and social controls. The Resistance in Jordan (1968–70) and Lebanon (1968–82) marked the first mass mobilization of camp women through political parties and women's organizations. Young women were mobilized into the Resistance and given political and military training, while housewives, enlisted through the General Union of Palestinian women, attended demonstrations and contributed to defending the camps throughout the Lebanese civil war (1975–90) (Sayigh 1994). The growth of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) economy and welfare services encouraged women to abandon jobs in the Lebanese sector for positions in institutions inside the camps. Women's labor and militant activities were thus seen as legitimate both for their contribution to the struggle and because gender and sexuality were brought under the purview of Resistance leaders (Peteet 1999).

Although the Resistance cultivated a national consciousness among women, feminist ideals remained subordinate to the national cause, and gender hierarchies were left intact for fear of alienating camp elders and undermining communal solidarity (Peteet 1991). The national movement introduced new constraints for women by glorifying their nurturing and reproductive roles as mothers of fighters, and encouraging women to have more children to win the “demographic war” (Abdo 1991). Associations between women and nation, continuity, and authenticity has necessarily assumed heightened political significance in exile where refugees struggle to maintain ties with their homeland (Sayigh 1996). Interestingly, however, following the PLO's departure from Lebanon in 1982 – a period in which camp women were being redomesticated – the most vocal critique of the Resistance, came from the “mothers of martyrs,” who felt that the PLO had reneged on their promises to honor and support them (Peteet 1997).

Synonymous with the honor of family and nation, women's sexuality continues to be placed under close scrutiny. Given the vulnerabilities of camp life, sexual deviation by women, particularly with men outside the community, is often viewed as political fitna (chaos). In cases where honor has been threatened by sexual impropriety, or rape, women have been killed by relatives. Few statistics of honor killings are available for the camps because of political and social sensitivity of the topic, but also because violence against women is rarely reported to the police (Shaloub-Kervorkian 2004). Such concepts of honor and shame have been exploited by Israeli interrogators of female prisoners (Warnock 1990) and by opposing forces in Lebanon.

During the first intifada (uprising) in Gaza and the West Bank (1987–93) many camp women were mobilized by the Women's Work Committees, which were the first initiative to promote an explicitly feminist agenda and engage in sustained grassroots politicization (Abdulhadi 1998). Since camps were particularly vulnerable to attacks by Israeli forces, domestic space became a site of conflict and resistance, destabilizing gender boundaries as women hid combatants and intervened on behalf of arrested sons and husbands. Through their active roles in combating Israeli repression, camp women gained visibility and influence. The 1988 Israeli ban on the Women's Committees contributed to the decline of secularism in the camps and the ascendancy of the Islamic movement. Under the leadership of Hamas, a new political culture of austerity and modesty developed, imposing greater restrictions on women and calling on them to wear the ḥijāb (headscarf), transforming it from a symbol of religious piety to one of national resistance and militancy (Hammami 1990). Despite the constraints imposed by the Islamic movement, many women regard it as an empowering alternative to secular politics both in the West Bank and Gaza, where it remains a political force, and in the diaspora, where it is restricted to providing social services.

Since the 1990s women have been largely excluded from peace negotiations, and the Palestinian National Authority has proved indifferent to women's issues. In the camps women feel betrayed by the leadership, but also by the women's groups who failed to consult them when the Women's Charter (1994) was drafted (Abdo 1999). Continued Israeli occupation, the escalating violence of the second intifada in the Occupied Territories – which though popularly supported, has not had the mass participatory quality of the first – and discriminatory policies of host governments in the diaspora have curtailed the opportunities afforded to women living in camps and increased their vulnerability (Kuttab and Johnson 2000). The growing institutionalization of the women's movement through non-governmental organization programs offering “gender training” are seen by many as depoliticizing and disempowering – driven more by the agendas of foreign donors than the needs of women living in the camps (Giacaman 1999).


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