Nablus Women Organize to Challenge Gender Divides
“The way most of the world’s women are raised is to think they are not equals to men and therefore unable to make any of the changes they would like to incorporate into their lives. They did not grow up with encouragement to seize their goals, let alone were they told that they are deserving of achieving them. It is instilled in them that they are second-class citizens.”
–Suhad Jabi Masri, Psychosocial Program Manager at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization
In Palestine, as in much of the developing world, women are still more likely than men to be underprivileged. There is a clear disparity in the freedoms of women versus men, including restrictions on mobility, lack of training and employment, and inability to make decisions concerning their future. Consequently, women are far less likely to be socially active; they sacrifice their academic careers and fall victim to early marriage, domestic violence, and mental health issues.
I joined the team at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization (TYO) in the summer of 2011 as the first Coordinator of the Women’s Group (TWG), which sought to address these issues by socially engaging the women of Nablus, a small West Bank city about 60 km north of Jerusalem. When I first moved here to Nablus the gender divides were stark as ever, and having a profoundly negative impact on the community. TWG sought to change this with its programming. Since then I’ve had the privilege to watch these programs grow and enrich the lives of refugee women from the poorest areas of town.
“TWG is not just comprised of English, IT, and Fitness classes, but part of the mission is also to provide women with a sense of belonging,” says Suhad Jabi, my dear friend and TYO’s Psychosocial Program Manager. “After conducting our community needs assessment this year we found that of 91 women surveyed from disadvantaged areas of Nablus, 82% reported depression-like symptoms, making a support group necessary. TWG brings together women with similar socio-economic backgrounds and encourages them to support one another with advice, a shoulder to lean on, and friends to share in laughs. Furthermore, bringing strong women specialized in health and social empowerment issues to host seminars is useful in presenting role models for participants.”
I’m so proud of how far TWG has come in just three sessions. We’ve brought several specialists from local organizations to foster confidence and ambition in women from various viewpoints, including nutrition with the Union of Health Care Committees, family planning with the Palestinian Charitable Family Planning & Protection Association, literacy with the Association of Women’s Committees in Palestine, finance management with the Consumer Protection Society, and volunteerism with An-Najah University. The way I see it, there are five linkages to women’s empowerment, and through TWG we have addressed them as follows:
Ownership over Resources
Women are in charge of securing food and water, as well as of overseeing family health and diet. They tend to put lessons learned in seminars about nutrition and food processing and storage into practice.
Reproductive Health Awareness
Women are more vulnerable than men to reproductive health problems, so the ability to control their own fertility is the fundamental step towards their empowerment and equality. When a woman can plan her family, she can plan all aspects of her life.
Economic disparities persist because of people’s inclination to assume traditional gender roles, discrimination from employers, and women’s lack of confidence in their capabilities. With more skill trainings and seminars on capitalizing on their talents, women can be on their way to finding economic empowerment.
Right to Education
There is an old saying – knowledge is power – and the more women understand that, the more passionately they will instill it in the next generation. Without education, how is it possible for women to know that something better exists beyond what they are told by the patriarchal societies they live in?
Community Consciousness and Investment
Nothing is guaranteed, especially not the rights of women. If women seek equality, employment, and political participation, they must be aware of opportunities to be proactively involved in bringing that to fruition. Adopting a spirit of giving back to their community, being in solidarity and partnership with the society will let them reap the benefits of their efforts.
The longer I live in Nablus, the more I see just how vital these linkages are to the sustainable development of my adopted city. Stereotypical gender roles are socially constructed, and just as easily as they are created they can be changed. At times these roles are justified as a requirement of culture or religion; however it is clear that over time fluctuations and changes occur, no matter how incremental they may be. Members of TWG increasingly understand this and recognize that the time has come for them to foster the change they want to see in the community: inclusion in the workforce, access to education, equal rights, and so on. The Women’s Group is using culturally sensitive approaches to aid them in the endeavor of actualizing such changes so they may take their place in the community as knowledgeable, decisive, and powerful change-makers. I’m proud to be a catalyst; but more than that, I’m proud of these amazing women for all they do, and all that they’ll continue to do to bring lasting change.
Samin Malik has a MA in Middle Eastern Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the UK and is a Program Coordinator at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization in Nablus, Palestine.
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.