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PeaceTimes Edition 65. Courage: From the Universal to the Specific

15 January 2007 No Comment

Patricia Smith Melton

This is the third in a series of essays by Peace X Peace founder and editor of Sixty Years, Sixty Voices: Israeli and Palestinian Women Patricia Smith Melton, who meets frequently with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. In this installment Smith Melton speaks with a diverse group of women from the region, all of whom demonstrate extraordinary courage in the ordinary things they do every day to promote peace and women’s rights in their communities.

Earlier essays are “Hope: Tempered out of the Crucible” and  “Your Power as a Third Party.”

The opinions offered in the quotes below are meant to show the perceptions and life experiences of women who live in the region and are not to be taken as political statements by Peace X Peace.

Smith Melton thanks Peace X Peace liaisons Elana Rozenman, Rula Salameh, and Ruth Gardner, and each of the women and men who trusted her with their time and words and fostered understanding of the region’s beauty and complexity.

Courage: From the Universal to the Specific

By Patricia Smith Melton

Courage is not a solid. It is a liquid that rises to the occasion. It is not rigid, it must be flexible. It must look for opportunity, it must be wise, it must not be foolhardy, it must not believe everything it is told.

Courage is seldom about clashing and slashing or shock and awe. It is usually about quiet steps taken daily in the face of repression or danger to gain at least the possibility of a fruitful life for yourself and others. Courage adheres to an individual’s conscience rather than “objective” truths of cultures, religion, or dictates. In real time it is focused, pragmatic, and doesn’t expose itself to danger through unnecessary bravado.

Courage, I have learned, is about protecting the children-and that is what the women I meet in Palestine and Israel are doing. Never doubt that the force holding our world together is mothers, whether they are biological or not, whether they are female or not. Many “mothers” are men whose passion to protect children and our planet and provide a gracious sanity in our world equals that of any woman, and all mothers realize that anything that improves our world, by definition, helps protect the children.

Her name is Jihad Abu Zneid. She is a member of the secular Fatah party and is their only female representative from Jerusalem in the Palestinian Legislative Council. She established and heads a women’s center in the Shu’fat refugee camp on the edge of Jerusalem. A team at the center provides job training for women and educates them on political empowerment and how to confront the problems of drugs, family violence, and early marriages.

She says “I was born in October 1967. My father named me ‘Jihad’ because he felt I would be a jihad. My name means ‘holy war’ or ‘struggle.’ To me, it means a struggle for peace, for women’s issues, for all Jerusalem issues.”

Abu Zneid knows about courage and is a model of an educated woman who came back to work for women and children. She has found herself the sole female inmate imprisoned with men, she has stood up to Israeli soldiers who arrested her, she has confronted Islamic fundamentalists who spread rumors about the women’s center, and she challenged earlier elections that kept her from taking office. (Read more from Jihad Abu Zneid.)

Her name is Tal Kramer. She is the Executive Director of the Rape Crisis Association of Israel, the umbrella organization of nine centers where trained volunteers provide support across Israel’s diverse ethnic spectrum. The centers have victim support groups, awareness training on sexual violence in workplaces, education on sexual harassment in the schools, and witness assistance programs for victims who take their abuser to court. The association advocates for legislation and funding in the Knesset, and raises awareness throughout Israel on their society’s immense issues of sexual violence and trafficking.

She says: “Courage is speaking your truth.”

Kramer confronts a government that has been historically unresponsive to sexual abuse. She manages a tentative relationship with the police and court system, and she speaks out on sexual violence in Israeli schools. All this while the volunteers support women and men of all social sectors through 24/7 hotlines that receive between 30,000 and 35,000 calls annually. (Read more from Tal Kramer.)

Maha Abu Dayyeh, a Palestinian, is Director of the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, aiding women who experience violence in the private sphere. A former English professor at Bir Zeit University, Abu Dayyeh speaks as a woman who has had “the gun pulled on me and my kids many times.”

She says, “Courage is to take a stand for something that might be seen as unacceptable in your own community or friends or family. Courage is to be different and unconventional. You need to be thoughtful, for courage doesn’t mean recklessness but is persistence in following your instinct and your faith in doing what is necessary to do.” (Read more from Maha Abu Dayyeh.)

A bu Dayyeh’s friend, Terry Boulatta, is an activist-documentarian who is on the board of the Women’s Studies Center, one of the oldest women’s professional organizations in Palestine. Speaking on women in Palestinian politics, Boulatta recounted that when the (Palestinian) Authority took power in 1994, women “faced them on the regulations for issuing women’s passports, where women were requested to bring a male guardian in order to apply for a passport. The women’s movement was strong because they had been fighting in the streets like the men. In fact, when the men were in prison, women carried on the intifada”.

She says: “You cannot ask us to go back to traditional ways of doing things. We succeeded in getting rid of many traditional retroactive regulations. This is a strong movement with a strong secular opinion, and we would like to see it stay that way.” (Read more from Terry Boulatta.)

Elana Rozenman, an Israeli Jew, is a Peace X Peace liaison living in Jerusalem.

She says: “A hero is a person who is able to remain peaceful in the midst of enormous conflict and violence. A hero is a person who does that through being able to identify with and understand all the people around them, and being able to put themselves in the situation of all the people around them. This takes enormous courage, enormous deep understanding, and an enormous love.”

Not one of the amazing women and men I have met in Israel, Palestine, or anywhere else in the world has said to me “I think I will do something courageous today.” Instead they look at the task at hand and the practical steps to do that task without putting themselves or anyone else unnecessarily in harm’s way. Abu Dayyeh states it like this: “My strategy is always to take a point and work from it. … What we have to do is look for an opening, believe in what we are doing, keep faith, and keep on going.”

Ordinary people listening to their consciences and summoning up the fortitude to do what they feel needs to be done even when it’s dangerous, even when it’s not accepted by the majority, that’s courage. That’s courage big time—step by step, ordinary person by ordinary person, peace by peace.

About the Author

Patricia Smith Melton is the founder and first executive director of Peace X Peace and the editor of the 2008 Sixty Years, Sixty Voices: Israeli and Palestinian Women. Her vision of connecting women through the Internet as Sister Circles for direct private communication has guided the development of Peace X Peace and the Global Network in three years to more than 1000 women’s Circles in 60 nations. Smith Melton has a special interest in the Peace X Peace presence in Israel and Palestine.

Read More

Interview with Jihad Zneid
“I was born in October 1967, and my father named me “Jihad” because he felt I would be a jihad. My name means ‘holy war’ or ‘struggle.’ To me, it means a struggle for peace, for women’s issue, for all Jerusalem issues… To be a woman in Palestinian society, a man’s society, it is not easy to run for election …” Read the full transcript »

Interview with Jihad Abu Zneid, Member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and President of the women’s center of Shu’fat refugee camp

PSM: Jihad, tell us about your name.

JZ: I was born in October 1967, and my father named me “Jihad” because he felt I would be a jihad. My name means ‘holy war’ or ‘struggle.’ To me, it means a struggle for peace, for women’s issue, for all Jerusalem issues.

PSM: So you have become a jihad for Palestinians?

JZ: I grew up in a big but very poor family. I live in and grew up in the Shu’fat refugee camp in Jerusalem. We were 15 brothers and sisters. In 1997 my brother was arrested [by the Israelis] and he got 18 years in prison. One year after, another two brothers were arrested. My uncle and two of his sons had been arrested in 1992.

I have spent day after day visiting the prisoners in jail. In 1992, I was in a hunger strike against the Ashkelon prison and what the Israelis were doing to the prisoners. I started to sleep in the Red Cross. Before that, I never left my home at night. I started to help the Palestinian woman who is suffering daily, the mothers of the prisoners. . A lot of men came to me and asked me to come to Fatah [party]. They start to discuss with me what Fatah means and the principles of Fatah. I am still very happy to be in Fatah.

PSM: And now you are an elected Fatah member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

JZ: I was elected in 2006 as the first and only PLC woman in Jerusalem. It’s a lot of responsibility and not easy, especially with the isolation of Jerusalem with the wall. We have to connect all the women because we feel as Palestinian women in Jerusalem we are lost. We wonder what the next strategy is for women in Jerusalem. How can we cooperate as women and start networking? I am starting networking for all the Palestinian women in the villages and camps and city. I am gathering information to make a good strategy for women over five years.

PSM: How does this work relate to the Women’s Center you established in Shu’fat?

JZ: The center focuses on many issues of women, children, and refugees, such as employment, human rights, and supporting the families and women against violence in the family. We also help women affected by drugs in the family. We give them counseling and psychological help and physical treatment.

Every party in Palestine-Fatah, Hamas, Communist-they have a women’s section. In Fatah I felt the gap between the leaders and the people, so I came back to the people. I made a survey asking the women in Shu’fat camp “What do you want, what is your priority?”

The women said the number one problem is unemployment, they say we have to create ideas and opportunities to create jobs.

The second was that they need education. The third was illiteracy. They ask also for tools to make the violence in the family decrease. They ask for psychological help for children and mothers where there is violence in the families. They ask for a counseling center.

PSM: So, the sequence was economics, education, prevention of violence. In talking with women from poverty stricken areas around the world, I find they always say a means of gaining employment is most important, followed by education. How do you provide these tools to the women?

JZ: First, we went to UNRWA, the UN relief agency, and asked if we can build a women’s center. We got funding from Germany and UNRWA gave us a building. We start with a small group and now we have 220 women who make up our own general assembly. We have 10 or 15 programs, a kindergarten, a nursery, and vocational training like beauty salon and computer, and a linguistic program that has Hebrew, English, and soon will have French. And for the first time in Shu’fat camp women run for election. For me it is my pleasure to see women politically strong.

We start a five-year program focusing on the young leader, to empower women from age 15 to 25. This is called Young Leader in Jerusalem Building Peace. We are starting courses on lobbying and advocacy, human rights, child rights, connecting women into the society, volunteer work, self-confidence, women in politics. After this training, we ask the young leader to choose one campaign.

The first campaign was against early marriage. It was a great campaign. We found 60 girls in the camp who didn’t continue high school because of early marriage. The Minister of Education rents a place to provide high school for these girls. Next year, we will start building a high school.

PSM: Is the center only for Palestinian Muslims?

JZ: No, in our center we have a Japanese, a Russian, and a Romanian woman. They are married to Palestinian men. In Palestine, we never had this problem of religious discord. In my house, we have a guest who is a Christian woman, she is like family.

PSM: Is there resistance in the camp to your center?

JZ: Now, this is not easy. We are attacked by many Islamic people, by many people in the community. Bad rumors are started about the women who are active in the Center.

PSM: Do you see any connections between these attacks and domestic violence?

JZ: At the center women immediately began to talk freely to us about rape and sexual harassment in the family. We see every day, maybe, 25 new cases. Because we didn’t have a counseling center before, we used to send them to special place. If a woman wants to divorce, we send her towards legal assistance. We give them the first step to go and then we follow up to ask what happened.

Also, there’s a big new project I am doing, fitness and aerobics for women. Every day we have 90 women who come for exercise. We are in the final construction for a swimming pool and a place for women to meet and talk. It will be a place to relax and escape suffering at home.

PSM: And through all this work, you stayed politically involved and ran for office.

JZ: I first ran for the election with Fatah in 1990. I was arrested many times. I was beaten many times in the street for participating in the demonstrations. Then in 1993 I left and lived for six months in San Francisco. It was different environment and made me more international.

In 1998 was the first election for Fatah in Jerusalem. I ran for the election. There were 69 candidates in Jerusalem. To be a woman in Palestinian society, a man’s society, it is not easy to run for election. I got the highest number; in 69 candidates, I got number one.

Because I am woman, I will never forget this day when [a top leader] called me. I anticipated him by telling him, “You don’t want me to be the leader, do you?” He said, “How do you know?” I said, “I know you.” I protest, “I got the highest number. The people believe in me.” However, they were adamant it needed to be a man. I said, “I won’t vote for this man you want to elect [instead of me], but I will not be against him.”

After this, I continue my activities. Day by day, I got more active in woman’s issues, and in 1999, I began to work on behalf of prisoners. Because I grew up in a family whose members suffered as prisoners, I want to help the mothers, wives, and even husbands of prisoners.

In 2003, I was arrested again [by the Israelis]. They said I was active in al-Aqsa mosque. I laughed because I never even go there to pray. They imprisoned me for 17 days, me and seven men. After that, they placed me under house arrest. But in 2005, I decided to run for election again. After the Oslo [Accords] it became open to run for Fatah.

It was a hard time. It wasn’t easy to run for primaries in Fatah. In most of the polling centers, I got about three or four in rank. When we got the final result, [I was told] you have number six, you are the first woman. Then I went [to another place and found] they [arbitrarily] chose a [lower] number and changed it. I was crying, I was screaming. I said “I’ve worked with you, I’ve worked even harder than the men, I have started a lot of special activities, why you treat me like this?” Later, they said I became number 27 [which fits the quota list], so they fill all the quota names, and I became an elected PLC representative.

PSM: And the future?

JZ: If women run for election, we do not have same opportunity as the male candidate because he has money and connections. We need fundraising institutions that help women. Also, big organizations just focus on the same people, on the strong women. We have to go for the middle-class woman from the next generation’s leaders. The next generation is more important than the present generation. We need to find new faces. We need to get new power.

Interview with Tal Kramer
“Women have power together and collaboration of women is crucial for us to have a better world. … I believe in sisterhood…. Women speak the same language; it doesn’t matter if it’s a Jewish woman or an Arab woman. Our ideology is that a woman being a woman can help another woman. It is a feministic point of view.” Read the full transcript »

Interview with Tal Kramer, Executive Director of the Rape Crisis Association of Israel

PSM: The Rape Crisis Association is the umbrella organization for nine rape centers in Israel, specifically in Jerusalem, Haifa, and the Sharon area. How do these centers help victims of sexual violence?

TK: They operate hotlines 24 hours a day and 7 days a week for both women and men. We have a hotline for Arab women, a hotline for Russian women, and a hotline for Ethiopian women, with volunteers who speak those languages. In addition, we meet with victims and have support groups for sexually assaulted women.

All our centers have educational departments that do workshops in Israeli workplaces on sexual violence and raise awareness around sexual issues in school. We also have victim assistance programs for those who decide to file a report with the police and go to court.

PSM: How does your umbrella association serve the centers?

TK: The centers are grassroots organizations that began in the 1970s, because the state, until today, doesn’t give solutions to this problem of sexual abuse. In 1990 the centers decided they needed an umbrella organization to get funds from the government. This is my association’s main job-advocacy and promoting legislation in the Knesset and ministries of the government.

PSM: What about advocacy through making the public aware?

TK: Yes, we have connections in all the media to acknowledge this enormous problem in Israel. We want to bring it to the public in the right way, because, you know, rape can be considered “sexy” to the press (which sensationalizes it). We tell society to embrace victims so they can regain control over their lives and live as regular citizens. PSM: What is courage to you?

TK: Courage is speaking your truth.

PSM: And what is the truth about sexual violence in Israel?

TK: Based on the calls to our centers, we gather statistics. Each year, we get between 30,000 and 35,000 calls. Nine thousand of them are new callers. We don’t think sexual abuse increases every year, we think awareness increases every year and more people get the courage to break the silence and raise their voices.

Our statistics in Israel are similar to those in the United States. One of every three women during her life will be sexually abused. Also, one in seven men will be abused. In early childhood, there are no difference between girls and boys, they are equally vulnerable to the threat of sexual abuse. After 12 years of age, there is a difference, and many cases are incest cases. In incest, one of every six or seven girls and one of 10 boys will be abused by their father, their big brother, or their uncle.

PSM: What about sexual trafficking? Statistics indicate this is a huge problem in the region.

TK: We have a project for working against the trafficking of women, but it is very difficult to reach them.

PSM: Where do they come from?

TK: Moldavia, Russia, those places.

PSM: Do you work with Palestinian women?

TK: We have an Israeli Arab center, but we don’t really work with Palestinians.

PSM: Do you have a relationship with the police where they refer victims of sexual assault to you?

TK: Most reports we get are not straight after the rape. There are so many circles of blame and shame that most victims report only after months or years have gone by. This is the case with 80 percent of the cases.

We fall into the prejudices from Hollywood movies, where you see rape take place in dark alleys where the woman is taken at gunpoint, while in 90 percent of rape cases, the victim knows that person who attacks them in advance.

PSM: When someone calls a hotline, what happens?

TK: The main help we try to give victims is a sense of control over their own lives. We try to guide them to think “what is best for you now, what is the best way forward.” We don’t encourage them to file a complaint because it is a very complex procedure and you have to be very strong to do it; and we don’t give (professional) therapy because we are not psychologists. Most of our hotlines are built with trained volunteers.

We also have hotlines for men staffed with men volunteers. Most of the men victims are assaulted by men, not women. Sometimes they don’t want to speak with a man, they want to speak with a woman so we arrange that.

PSM: What do women bring to solving not just sexual violence but other problems of our world?

TK: Women have power together and collaboration of women is crucial for us to have a better world. Women have more patience, more opening of the heart to listen to and understand other people. I believe in sisterhood.

Women speak the same language; it doesn’t matter if it’s a Jewish woman or an Arab woman. Our ideology is that a woman being a woman can help another woman. It is a feministic point of view.

Interview with Terry Boulatta and Maha Abu Dayyeh
“Peace is a human demand at the end of the day. Men had their chance to bring the peace, not just in Palestine and Israel, but over the world. Everyone agrees they have failed lots of times. Women need to push themselves to the front seats of decision making to make a change. We say in this country, women bring life, so we better protect that life. …. At the end of the day, it takes a woman to think differently on life and non-violence.”

“Courage is to take a stand for something that might be seen as unacceptable in your own community or friends or family. Courage is to be different and to do something different from the conventional thing. You need to be thoughtful, as courage doesn’t mean recklessness but persistence in following your instinct and your faith in doing what is necessary to do.” Read the full transcript »

Interview with Terry Boulatta, documentarian and board member of Women’s Studies Center, and Maha Abu Dayyeh, Director of the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling

PSM: Terry, as an activist who studies and documents Palestinian women’s lives, how do you define peace?

TB: Peace is a human demand at the end of the day. Men had their chance to bring the peace, not just in Palestine and Israel, but over the world. Everyone agrees they have failed lots of times. Women need to push themselves to the front seats of decision making to make a change. We say in this country, women bring life, so we better protect that life.

PSM: You are known to speak out strongly for your beliefs. What is your stance on violence versus nonviolence?

TB: I am of the generation of the first intifada, the intifada of nonviolence. I am a strong believer in the principles of nonviolence. The actions we took in the first intifada allowed us to put the Palestinian people on the map of nations. With all the outcomes of this intifada, we were never able to establish a better way of resisting. If you have noble ideas, you better use noble means to achieve your ideas. At the end of the day, it takes a woman to think differently on life and nonviolence.

PSM: Can Palestinian women think, and act, differently to change the situation here?

TB: The very strength of the Palestinian woman comes from the social and political situation the Palestinian people have faced. Women were the early fighters in the political arena. We had women fighting in streets even under the British Mandate. So, having women active politically is nothing new for Palestinians. In the beginning, Palestinian women were active through charitable organizations; and through the 1960s and 1970s, [we engaged in activism] through the grassroots organizations. Now we work through the professional organizations. This is all part of the woman’s movement in Palestine. We are all united with one political objective and that is the freedom of the Palestinian people.

PSM: Give me recent examples.

TB: The women’s movement has kept its strength despite the fact that many trade unions became weak after the arrival of the Palestinian Authority in 1993 and 1994, thinking that now we are in the position of state-building. But the woman’s movement kept its tradition and its fight. You could see the women’s movement in the streets fighting against the Authority for gender issues. For example, we faced them on the regulations for issuing women’s passports, where women were asked to bring a male guardian in order to apply for a passport. The women’s movement was strong because they were fighting in the streets like the men. In fact, they were in the forefront of the demonstrations in the intifada. When the men were in prison, women carried on the intifada. So, you cannot ask us to go back to traditional ways of doing things. We succeeded in getting rid of many traditional retroactive regulations. This is a strong movement that has a strong secular opinion, and we would like to see it stay this way.

Because we are people under occupation, we cannot neglect the political position and national aspirations of our country. While we are fighting against the occupation, we keep the gender agenda next to our heart, and we believe they should go side by side.

PSM: Maha, what is your definition of courage?

MD: Courage is to take a stand for something that might be seen as unacceptable in your own community or friends or family. Courage is to be different and to do something different from the conventional thing. You need to be thoughtful, as courage doesn’t mean recklessness but persistence in following your instinct and your faith in doing what is necessary to do.

PSM: As director of a women’s center for legal aid, how does not being reckless apply to your work?

MD: Working with Palestinian women, I look at things in their complexities. Things are not simple. What Americans do not understand is the complexity and diversity and pluralism in the Palestinian society and the various issues we struggle with in the private sphere and the public sphere. Having been educated in the U.S., I understand what is going on in the American women’s movement. Here, it is just as complex.

As Palestinians, we are at a crossroads. We have influences from all over-from the West, from the Arab world, from Israel. We have been exposed to various cultures, yet we are a very closely knit society. Within the same family, you find all these differences. That’s what I deal with in my day-to-day work with women and women’s issues, trying to understand the context they come from. In a particular family, who are the various forces and powers?

I understand power in the private sphere, and I understand power in the public sphere. I know abuse of power in public sphere; I live under occupation. I know what abuse of power is: I have the gun pulled on me and my kids many times. I also know the power women can have if they are able to see it, use it, and develop it.

My hope is that every woman sees that power within herself and works towards further recognizing the beauty of the power within her and uses it to make rational decisions in this irrational situation here in Palestine. It is not only irrational but it is brutal in a very quiet bloodless way. I live now next to the Wall, and I know what that means for me to be separated from my family by this wall. That’s why I don’t have simple answers for anything, because things are not simple.

My strategy is always to take a point and work from it and build on it, like [laying down] bricks. It has worked for me. What we have to do is look for an opening, believe in what we are doing, keep faith, and keep on going.

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