Fathiya Barghouti, 30, arrived for an interview at her new city hall office straight from the bank. There, she had signed documents giving her power of attorney to sign checks for the Western Bnei Zayid municipality, which includes the villages of Beit Rima and Dir Ghassaneh, north of Ramallah.
"The first woman in Palestine elected to this post in 5,000 years," a fellow villager laughed proudly.
She spent the first three days meeting with municipal clerks, to understand each one's responsibilities. She said she's giving herself two months to understand how the municipality operates.
Barghouti trained as an Arabic teacher and once held a managerial position in the Education Ministry. Management doesn't intimidate her, and she also expects to learn a lot from courses the Palestinian Authority local authority office will run for her and other municipal heads. She knows the priorities: developing the municipal workers' capabilities, improving sanitation, developing the health center, improving the roads.
Barghouti is a devout Muslim, as her attire and the fact that she does not shake men's hands demonstrate. But her religion did not prevent her running as an independent candidate; her religion did not prevent her agreeing to head the municipality after it became clear that the Fatah list (named for Yasser Arafat) and Islamic Reform list each won five of 13 municipal seats - that is, a tie.
All of the 13 (including another woman, on the Islamic list) are freshman council members, and all but two are 40 years old or younger. The local elections that were held December 23 in 26 West Bank communities introduced "fresh" forces, as another elected councilman, Mahmoud Atta, put it, bursting with energy and a desire for change. Atta himself, also religious, ran on the Fatah slate.
When Fatah and the Islamic list tied, power shifted to the three remaining candidates, who became the tie-breakers. The left's representative and the independent candidate from the People's Party (formerly the Communists) adamantly refused to support a Fatah man for mayor - attesting to their mistrust of the ruling party. Fatah wouldn't vote for anyone not on their list; the Islamists were more flexible. And so, with the votes of the Islamists and the left, a woman was elected mayor.
"You in Fatah can learn about being in the opposition, it won't hurt you," somebody laughed at Mahmoud Atta, in a friendly chat at the dental clinic of Dr. Yosef Rimawi, the left's representative on the council. It turned out that the political tensions did not spoil friendships among people. And Atta was quick to retort: "And it won't hurt them, Hamas, to learn about governing responsibility."
Barghouti (no relation to Marwan and Mustafa Barghouti) took fourth place in the municipal voting. Rimawi said with a grin that he came in last on the list, vote-wise: of 10 candidates on the left's list, only he, a member of the Popular Front, was elected. "And even that was thanks to confidence in him personally," Atta said. Rimawi conceded that the election results came as a shock: the two villages were known as bastions of the left and Fatah, and suddenly Hamas and the Islamists had grown powerful.
Barghouti herself is representative of the change: Her relatives were always leftist activists, she was active in various organizations identified with the Popular Front - in high school, at Bir Zeit University, in a women's organization. Through these activities she gained her self-confidence and knowledge of political, public and social activity. But she was increasingly drawn to religion and does not term herself a "woman of the left."
It was her husband Majdi al-Rahimi, a Popular Front member, who suggested she run for the council. She says he has been praying and fasting for a decade at the PA jail in Jericho. He was sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in planning the assassination of then-tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi.
"He brought up the idea [of running for office] during one of my visits to him in prison," she said. "It's important that women not be absent from the social processes, from the social-political endeavor. He had complete faith in my abilities." In her view, the fact that she is his wife helped her get elected, but was not the only or primary factor.
At another village, Beit Furiq, a woman was also elected - Hanan Abu Ghulme, the Popular Front representative, but for two years, in rotation with the Hamas representative. Ghulme's brother Gahed was sentenced by a PA court in April 2002 to a year in prison for his role in the Ze'evi assassination. He too is, still, imprisoned in Jericho.
A coincidence? By the same token one can ask whether it's a coincidence that nine of Beit Rima's 13 council members have served stretches in Israeli jails. The two women elected came from a political tradition going back years, in which - especially on the Palestinian left - women's participation was an ideological pillar. It turns out that the "fundamentalization" of part of that generation did not alter their attitude toward women's participation.
The generation that has now been elected to the local councils got its political and public training in struggle against the Israeli occupation. In that struggle it developed its sense of social responsibility, now reflected in the desire to improve the standard of living.
Barghouti, with her criticism of the PA, has promised that her sole objective as mayor is to improve municipal services for the two villages' 6,000 residents.
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