What Happened When Palestinian Women Took Charge of Their Village

Against all odds and despite living in a patriarchal society, 14 Palestinian women seized the initiative and fomented a mini-revolution that has brought their village, outside Bethlehem, into the 21st century

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The women of Jubbet ad-Dib.
The women of Jubbet ad-Dib.Credit: Meged Gozani
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

It’s a moment the staff of the Beit Ta’mir district council will never forget. In 2014, in the middle of a workday and with no prior warning,14 women suddenly appeared in the offices of the council, which has jurisdiction over the Palestinian villages around ancient Herodion, near Bethlehem. The women, who were from the Bedouin village of Jubbet ad-Dib, within the district’s boundaries, were accompanied by a stream of children and had brought with them a particularly noisy nebulizer and some plastic bottles filled with cloudy water.

The entire group burst into the office of the then-council head, placed the bottles on his desk and demanded that he hook their village up to the electric grid and to a source of clean water. Pointing to the inhalation device, they implored him not to let one of the girls with them die from the smoke she’s forced to inhale at home, due to the lack of electricity; they use a wood-burning stove to heat the house.

Amana al-Wahash, 36 and the mother of five children, was among the protest leaders. Dramatizing that formative moment for me, she gets up and reenacts the reaction of the council head. She’s tall and thin, but to play the part she walks around using heavy, booming steps.

“He was embarrassed by our action, so he got up and said, ‘I’m giving you 1,000 liters of diesel fuel for the generator’” – Wahash adopts a deep masculine voice and extends her hand in a lordly gesture of generosity.

“He put on a whole show of how he was supposedly saving us. But 1,000 liters of fuel can’t help a whole village, it’s not a significant contribution. We were furious. We asked him to visit the village and see for himself how we live. We offered to pay his taxi fare, but you know how it is with an Arab man – it was a real insult that we offered to pay his way. But winter was coming, it was cold and we needed heat, so we used every means available.”

And it worked. The governor visited Jubbet ad-Dib (at his own expense), arriving one evening during the holy month of Ramadan, shortly before the iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast. As a goodwill gesture, he brought with him packaged meals from a catering firm for the villagers to partake of together after sunset.

“We saw that the meals he brought weren’t worth much – just rice and peas,” recalls Fadya al-Wahash – 40, a mother of six – the head of the village’s women’s association. (The village consists of one extended clan, so everyone has the same surname.) “So we collected 50 shekels [about $12] from each woman and prepared a large, respectable meal. That embarrassed him even more, because he’d come with a delegation and had intended to host them and us, and suddenly we were hosting him so generously.”

Diana Mardi is well acquainted with the activity of the women of Jubbet ad-Dib. A Palestinian who previously worked as a journalist, Mardi is today a field worker for Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights, an Israeli NGO that works to strengthen democracy and human rights in the fields of planning and housing policy, in both Israel and in Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank.

Specifically, Bimkom is assisting the women to map Jubbet ad-Dib in advance of installation of various infrastructures. I met Mardi, along with Alon Cohen-Lifshitz, an architect from Bimkom, when they toured the village one windy day a few weeks ago. They held a lengthy conversation with the group in a relatively new but almost completely unfurnished building that serves as a clinic.

Mardi asked whether the women aren’t leery of telling embarrassing stories about the governor – even if he’s no longer governor, he’s still an important figure in their community.

“We are not ashamed of anything,” the deputy head of the women’s association, Afaf al-Wahash (43, mother of four), asserted. “We went through a rough patch with him, and we are determined to tell the story.”

Indeed, Mardi tells me, “The story of Jubbet ad-Dib should give hope to other Area C Palestinian communities, which are struggling against forces that don’t allow them to live in dignity. The fact that it’s women who are leading a change for the better in their community, in the realm of hooking up to utilities and awareness of planning issues, not only contributes to all the residents or their village, but also strengthens the status of women in Palestinian society generally.”

Embarrassed children

The results of the daring, grit and creativity of the women of Jubbet ad-Dib in recent years are apparent throughout the village, whose small, densely built stone houses abut verdant fields stretching to the horizon. In fact, the women’s achievements are evident even outside the village. The paved access road to the village, which winds between rocky terrain and pastures of grazing sheep, was built under their aegis. A paved road may seem something to be taken for granted, but for the village children it’s a revelation.

Afaf al-Wahash, deputy chairwoman of the women's association of Jubbet ad-Dib, stands next to the solar panels in the village. Credit: Meged Gozani

“Our children used to arrive at the district school [in another village] dirty, from walking along the muddy road,” Afaf relates. “The teachers wouldn’t allow them in, and they would return home, embarrassed. It was shameful for them and also for us. Now there is an asphalt road, and we also arranged for public transportation to take them to school and back. Other villages envy our children because they have busing.”

Thanks to their efforts, the women got the village hooked up to the West Bank water supply. They established a local organic farming enterprise and opened a stationery store; a sewing workshop for mending clothing; a small grocery store; a business that rents amplification equipment, generators and chairs for family and other events – and also arranged for the renovation of the local mosque. But the achievement they’re most proud of is getting their village hooked up to their own power grid by means of a small field of solar panels installed next to the local preschool.

In 2015, between successes, they decided to register officially as a nonprofit, the Association of Jubbet ad-Dib Women. As such, they interact with Palestinian and Israeli authorities as a cohesive professional body – independent from the district council. To create their organization, the women conducted transparent elections under the supervision of the Palestinian Interior Ministry (whose recognition of the association as an official body representing the village is an achievement in its own right, within the context of a patriarchal society). Of the 14 women, three were elected to the group’s sole official positions: Fadya as chairwoman; Afaf as deputy chair; and Athdal al-Wahash as bookkeeper. The other women hold no official posts, but are no less active in the association’s activities.

Thirty-six-year-old Fatma al-Wahash, a mother of three, says: “Before we started to act on behalf of Jubbet ad-Dib, the village was on the margins of the district’s priorities. If projects or budgets came to the district, they never got to us. All we did, really, is balance out the resources, to get what’s coming to us. No more than that. And if in the past the district got all the attention and we were on the sidelines, today it’s the opposite. Everyone talks about the women of Jubbet ad-Dib and the way we changed things. These days the new district head often visits the village, in order to be in the spotlight – we don’t have to go to him anymore.”

One such spotlighting event took place in February, when a delegation of 45 foreign diplomats and representatives of international human rights organizations visited the village.

“They coordinated the visit with us,” Fatma explains. “The district officials were surprised it wasn’t done through them, but they decided to participate as well. We were surprised to see the district head and a few officials here. The diplomats asked whether we have ties with Israeli organizations, or with Israeli citizens, and we answered courageously that there are Israelis who help us. We mentioned, for example, Comet-ME [an Israeli-Palestinian group that provides sustainable energy and clean water to off-grid communities], which helped us set up the solar panels that you see, and also Bimkom, which helped us map the village and advance the project.”

Why did it take courage to say that you have ties with Israelis?

Fatma: “It’s not always accepted here for Palestinians to get help from Israelis. But the Israeli organizations are the least of our problems – the big one is the district government. We invest a great deal in the village, in construction, saving the district money and budgets – but we get no credit. Not even a Facebook post, a plaque, a phone call, something on Women’s Day. We would really like to feel appreciated by them, even in the slightest way. We want them to acknowledge that the women of Jubbet ad-Dib are doing amazing things.”

Members of the women's association of Jubbet ad-Dib, including the chairwoman, Fadya (center), Fatma (far left) and Afaf (far right). Credit: Netta Ahituv

Ice cream, too

Among the women sitting around a table piled high with coffee, tea, cookies, pretzels and their own homemade pastries, during the recent visit by Bimkom, is another Fatma, who’s 60 and has seven children. She’s known fondly as the “old woman of the village,” to distinguish her from “Young Fatma.” When the “old woman” was born, there were only three houses in Jubbet ad-Dib. Being well acquainted with local history, she’s usually the one who shows visiting delegations around, whether they are members of an NGO that wants to help foment change, or representatives of the district government.

“The women of Jubbet ad-Dib really are doing incredible things – I waited 40 years for electricity,” she says, referring to the initial demand to be hooked up to the power grid, in the 1970s. “The younger women waited less time before they got tired of waiting, and arranged it themselves.” Everyone nods in agreement.

Fadya, the association chairwoman, grew up in the nearby town of Zaatara and moved to Jutteb a-Dib after marrying a local man, at the age of 17.

“What do you know about electricity when you’re so young?” she reflects. “I didn’t understand the importance of electricity – what I liked was playing soccer on a dirt lot. Maybe if I’d been 20, I would have made a different decision and refused to marry someone from a village without electric power. I had no idea how hard it would be to manage a home and raise children without electricity.”

Fadya got married just a week after Young Fatma wed another local man. “She had a full week to tell me that it was a bad idea to marry someone from Jubbet ad-Dib, but she chose not to do so,” Fadya teases Young Fatma. “She even came to dance at my wedding, the brazen woman.” Everyone laughs. Fadya’s great success as chairwoman garnered her an invitation to serve, in addition, as a member of the Beit Ta’mir council – the first woman ever to hold that post. Her next goal is for a woman to become district head.

What was life like before the village was hooked up to the power grid? Every week the women collected money from the residents and bought fuel – enough to operate the generator for an hour or two a day. But the generator constantly broke down. Cooking was done over an open fire and the houses were heated by fireplaces, says Raida al-Wahash (35, mother of six).

“The house was full of smoke all the time. Many people here have respiratory problems. We did the laundry by hand, which is hard in the winter cold. There were all kinds of health problems here because of the cold – my daughter still has problems with her legs,” she says.

Fatma al-Wahash.Credit: Meged Gozani

Summers were tough, too, adds Fadya al-Wahash, a 34-year-old mother of six: “We used to take bottles of water to nearby villages and ask people to put them in the freezer so we’d have ice. We wrapped the frozen bottles in blankets and used them to cool medications and food. We also asked women from other villages to keep our meat in their refrigerators, so it wouldn’t spoil. I felt like a beggar and hated to ask favors. Now everyone has their own refrigerator.”

Young Fatma notes also that there was no telephone network and no way to charge cellphones, and everyone felt that they lacked communication with the outside world.

“One day there was a strike in the regional school and we didn’t know about it,” she recalls. “The children also felt out of things, because they didn’t have television and didn’t understand what the other children meant when they talked about ‘Tom and Jerry’ and other shows.”

The women remember vividly the first meeting with the Comet-ME people. It was held in the village’s preschool in 2016. Only women attended – the men were at work. After examining the options, relating both to planning and to the locals’ more immediate needs, the decision was made to install a field of solar panels along the side of the preschool, which has plentiful exposure to the sun and is not too close to the neighboring settler outpost of Sde Bar, from which the women try to stay as far away from as possible. Their fields lie close to the outpost, they relate, and when they work their land, settlers arrive to ensure that they don’t overstep in places “not allowed” to them – a situation that often gives rise to disputes, they say.

Within two months of the decision not to wait for the village to be connected to the central Palestinian power grid, the solar field was in place. That was two and a half years ago. The panels were a gift through a donation from the Netherlands government, the professional knowhow for their installation and operation came from Comet-ME with the assistance of Bimkom, and all the rest – relating to central and home infrastructure – was done by the women: Each of them made sure her house was hooked up to the new grid and decided where the electrical outlets would be located.

On November 28, 2016, Young Fatma flipped the clinic’s electricity switch, signaling the beginning of an inaugural celebration in which the guests of honor were people from Comet-ME and something was served along with the other refreshments that until then constituted a rarity in Jubbet ad-Dib: – ice cream.

As Fadya now proudly shows me around the small grocery store established at her initiative, she is delighted to point out the ice cream cooler. In June 2017, the Military Government’s Civil Administration and the Israel Defense Forces confiscated the solar panels on the grounds that they were installed without a permit. They were returned three months later following the intervention of the Netherlands.

Constructive absence

It’s only natural to wonder how the men of Jubbet ad-Dib feel about the women’s vigorous activism in matters of physical planning. Many of the former are employed as construction workers in Israel. They set out for Checkpoint 300, located between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, at 3 A.M. and return in the evening – thus creating the vacuum into which the women stepped.

“The men support us, obviously,” Young Fatma says, adding, “You have to understand, the men work very long hours outside the village. For good or for ill, they’re not here – they don’t see how difficult things are without electricity and water, and they also aren’t able to get to the district meetings in order to demand that the village be hooked up to the water and power systems. When we did persuade them to go to the authorities and demand what’s coming to our village, they would sit with the clerks, who are their friends, have a coffee and a smoke, and that was the end of the story.

Jubbet ad-Dib.Credit: Meged Gozani

“So we decided that we women would go,” she continues. “At first a couple of women went each time, but we saw that it was no use. They weren’t nice to us, they would fill in some form, and say ‘Yes, yes’ – and nothing happened. After a few times, we decided to do something big and noisy. That was the background to the big ‘break-in’ [when the women burst into the district offices with their children and the polluted water]. Since then, whenever we come to the district, the clerks and the district head get uptight and feel embarrassed.

“Today we know that our husbands are happy that their wives have become at least as famous as Michael Jackson within the Palestinian Authority. Thanks to our confidence and our achievements, our village is now different from the other villages. There’s respect for the women here and less domestic violence, both by men against women and also by women against their children.”

Fadya agrees with Young Fatma. Since becoming active in the women’s association, she says, she feels she is getting more respect from her husband. “What I succeeded in doing for the village, my husband didn’t. Naturally, he recognizes that. At home, I play the role of both the man and the woman,” she says with a smile.

“Sometimes,” Fadya notes, “when we have failures and don’t manage to get something done, or when there’s a hitch in the solar power, my husband says to me that it’s our fault, as though I’m responsible for everything. On the other hand, they encourage us to keep thinking about more ways to improve the village.”

“Encouraging or pushing, it depends how you choose to look at it,” Young Fatma says, and everyone laughs.

“Now even people outside the village rely on us. All kinds of Palestinian Authority departments come to us with requests,” Fadya notes. “In fact, the Palestinian Education Ministry has just asked us to help them find a solution for heating the regional school. We had a brainstorming session with them and thought came up with a plan of action.” To this Young Fatma adds, “In short, this village and the whole region are slowly coming under our responsibility. That pretty much sums it up.”

“When it comes to self-expression, too, we can say what we want without any fear,” Fadya adds. “Our status has improved. We feel secure when we’re together as a group.” The village’s large population of children are also benefiting.

“Our girls and boys are proud of us,” Young Fatma asserts, and Fadya completes the thought: “Our relationships with the children have grown stronger. Before the hookup to the grid, the children felt inferior in the regional school. The children from other villages would laugh at them for being underdeveloped and not having electricity. Now the children feel proud and confident. It’s strengthened their self-confidence. They are proud to live in Jubbet ad-Dib.”

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