BIRZEIT UNIVERSITY, West Bank – Aya Al Hindy’s red veil matches perfectly with her long red dress. A third-year student majoring in ethics and nutrition, she says women on campus feel more and more at home.
“When you look at the past and where we are today, we have grown. But we are still in the growth stage,” Al Hindy told The Media Line. “We have not yet achieved our goals – that is, we have yet to be like developed states.”
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Birzeit University is just a ten minute drive from Ramallah, the Palestinians’ financial and political capital.
Some 70 percent of the students are women. Some are veiled, others wear jeans. While traditional Palestinian society frowns on women smoking, women here on campus smoke openly.
“We respect all of our students but particularly female students, Birzeit University President Khalil S. Hindi told The Media Line. “We try to enable them with a “get up and go” mentality and we succeed in that.
This university places a great deal of emphasis on gender equality and the empowerment of women. Khalid Al Labadi, an accounting major, says he believes that women should have the same rights as men to work and play a major role in society. But not everyone is ready to accept this.
“Even (Palestinian) society is split into different parts. In some parts, you can see people accepting it and in other parts, people may not accept it in the same way as others,” he said.
Al Hindy says she feels comfortable talking to male students as well as other women.
“You have come to a university, not a village. They are not open-minded there. The girls are not allowed to get an education. There, I wouldn’t be able to talk to you, but here I can even hold a door open for you,” she said laughing.
Friendships between unmarried men and women are considered inappropriate. Once married, women are watched carefully. Any suspected extramarital activity can be punished with an “honor killing”, in which family members murder the women to preserve their family’s honor. The United Nations has voiced concern over the rising number of these attacks. Last year, 20 women were reported murdered by family members, and other incidents may have gone unreported.
Some of the female students on campus say any change in society will come slowly.
“We live in a patriarchal society which comes from our traditions, religion, and what we believe in as a society,” said Nadia Tadros, who studies business and marketing. “We believe that men are stronger and they have more rights. Until we believe the opposite, we won’t be able to do more as women and as society in general,” she told The Media Line.
Education is one weapon to empower women and educate men to pave the way for change. “Since the women don’t have such a voice or a weight in society, the whole sector is a bit neglected. But of course there are wonderful people and efforts going on which provide wonderful education opportunities for women, by women,” Katrin Denys, the regional director of the German Adult Education Association told The Media Line.
“Women are most influenced by poverty so if they have a small business, they can be taken out of poverty, and they can give better education to their children,” says Middle East Business Magazine & News CEO Amal Daraghmeh Al Masri.
She owns three businesses, and two magazines with her partner and husband Khaled Al Masri, and appears in the 'Top Ten Influential Arab Women working in Public Relations in the Arab world.'
She says the law needs to be reexamined and rewritten to expand women’s rights and more has to be done to stop honor killings.
“If you are a woman in a rural area in a difficult situation, and your life is threatened, how can you help your children to advance their lives? How can you go to do business? Al Masri, a mother of three asked.
She grew up in a village near Nablus, one of nine daughters.
“My father is conservative, although he is a big believer in assuring a good education for all his nine daughters,” she said. She decided to leave the West Bank when the first intifada, a violent conflict with Israel, broke out in the late 1980s.
Katrin Denys says that there a lot of very strong women taking responsibilities in public life like Daraghmeh Al Masri but it remains to be seen “how far that really changes the situation for any average girl and women in the family, on the ground, in the schools, in society.”
Some men and women believe that having more Palestinian women take political positions could help. But many say change will come slowly as attitudes toward women first need to change.
“I think the more the number of educated women increases, there will be more confidence among them and I think the confidence of the men towards the educated woman will grow as well,” Ghadeer Fannoun Abu Gharbieh, the head of the non-formal education department in the Ministry of Education told The Media Line.
Meanwhile back on the Birzeit University campus, Al Hindy says it’s hard to predict what she will do after graduation. She says she is attracted to the field of human rights and women’s rights.
“When there are women present in the political arena, it guarantees my rights. We live in a man’s world and when you find a woman, it’s a guarantee that she will defend you,” she said, before running off to class.
Article written by Abdullah H. Erakat.
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line.