Arafat's Feminist Legacy

It is impossible to talk about democracy without women's participation in it. The Palestinian woman has a glorious history of partnership in the struggle against the Israeli occupation for liberation and independence.

It could be that if the late Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat were still alive, the demonstration that is planned for one of the next few days would not have to be held. It could be that Arafat would have made some members of the Palestinian Legislative Council change their minds and vote in favor of the provision in the Elections Law that is clearly aimed at creating more cracks in the patriarchal social tradition. But in the absence of the father figure, whose wish was his command, the snail's pace of the hard work that a coalition of feminist and pro-feminist organizations has been investing to advance women's participation in political life is even more evident.

Between one military incursion into the Palestinian cities and the next, between siege and closure, between a funeral for a child killed by Israel Defense Forces fire and a memorial for a senior personality in one organization or another also killed by IDF fire - the Palestinian feminist coalition has not relinquished its aim of influencing the future. During the past three years it has marked out a clear and defined aim: legislation that will adopt the principle of a quota of places earmarked for women in the Palestinian parliament. The astonishing zigzags that this legislation has experienced in the parliament in recent months show how difficult this mission is. They have revealed a male alliance, an alliance that crosses organizations: religious, independent and conservative Fatah representatives in the legislative council have joined together with the religious movement - Hamas - which officially opposes reserving places for women.

Perhaps this week, or perhaps next, the PLC will hold the second reading of the general elections bill (which has been rejected several times). One of the key changes proposed by the bill, as compared to the law that applied to the elections to the legislative council in 1996, was a change in the electoral system from local to mixed - local and proportional. In the first reading at the end of January, the provision in the draft law that accepted - although in a very partial way - the principle of reserving places for women was cancelled. The demand of the feminist lobby was for a quota of 20 percent of the representatives. The draft set a quota of 30 percent women on the lists that will run for election and a quota (undefined) among the representatives who will be elected by the proportional method (who, on that reading, are one-third of all the council members). But even this minimum was eliminated in the first reading. The feminist lobby's demand is to bring back the quota for women.

The lobby operates through the National Campaign to Advance Women's Participation in Elections and nongovernmental organizations, some of the political parties and public figures - to change the election law. The two forums act in coordination and are demanding an equal distribution between the number of representatives who will be elected by the local system and those who will be elected by the proportional system, as well as lowering the minimum age for candidates from 30 to 25.

A call for `positive intervention'

What is embarrassing is that precisely the same parliament that rejected the quota principle had voted only two months earlier in favor of the same principle in the Local Elections Law. This vote too had its zigzags: In the first reading of the Local Elections Law, in August 2004, a representative quota of 20 percent was set for women in the local councils. On October 21, on the second reading, this provision was canceled. On November 30, the council again accepted the principle, but with a variation: It was stipulated that at least two seats for women would be reserved in the local councils. Arafat's position, it turns out, played an important role here. Especially after his death.

The main campaign for the women's quota began alongside renewed talk of elections to the PLC, in the summer of 2002. After Operation Defensive Shield in April, 2002, and while trying to spur the sides to a truce, the donor countries applied pressure to Arafat to replace his government and to carry out an administrative and security reform. Palestinian NGOs, the leftist opposition groups in the Palestine Liberation Organization and the internal Fatah leadership again raised the demand to hold elections. For feminist activists - some of them Fatah women's organizations, some of them members of associations for advancing the status of women - this was an opportunity to demand the encouragement of women's participation in the political arena.

Khadija Abu Ali, a member of Fatah and the general secretariat of the General Federation of Palestinian Women (an organization in the PLO) composed a document at that time about the importance of setting a women's quota as means toward social equality. Democracy, she wrote in the document, is not an aim in itself but rather a means to the creation of a just and egalitarian society. It is impossible to talk about democracy without women's participation in it. The Palestinian woman has a glorious history of partnership in the struggle against the Israeli occupation for liberation and independence. The experience of other societies - as has also been proved by studies in France, for example, says the document - teaches that women have a positive role in the creation of proper government: They tend less toward arrogance and administrative arbitrariness, they consult more, they tend less than men toward corrupt practices like giving and accepting bribes. But the modest experience of the 1996 elections proves that without the support of the political organizations, "the respect that the Palestinian people has for women" is not enough to change the prevailing, conservative social perceptions about women's participation in political life. Therefore, "positive intervention" is needed - that is, reverse discrimination.

During those two very difficult years, militarily and politically, the women's organizations and the human rights organizations worked in all the possible channels to promote the idea of "positive intervention": meetings, talks to persuade political representatives, advertisements in the newspapers, luncheons with Arafat.

To many people the idea of a womens' quota sounds strange, says Abu Ali: Reverse discrimination is perceived by many - among them women - as an inegalitarian act. This was also Arafat's initial position. "I prefer that women be elected because of their efforts and their qualifications," he said. However, he was gradually persuaded by the feminist lobby's arguments.

During 2004, when the internal leadership of the Fatah was acting - in the face of opposition from Arafat and his close associates - to hold elections for the local councils before the general elections, the feminist lobby began to focus its efforts on getting the principle of reverse discrimination accepted in those elections. It based itself on Arafat's public statement that he supports the setting aside of a minimum of 20 percent for women. Thus the principle of "20 percent" was accepted in the first reading of the Local Elections Law in August 2004. In October, when in the second reading, the provision was eliminated after the Fatah conservatives applied tremendous pressure in the PLC, the representatives of the feminist lobby complained to Arafat. "Shame on you," said Arafat to some of his associates who had brought about the result of the vote. And then he fell ill and died.

The feminist representatives went to the Fatah representatives who had voted against the quota for women and said to them that Arafat's support of the quota principle is his political legacy. That is, they plucked the strings of the patriarchal tradition in order to advance a principle that aims at changing a tradition that prefers to see women outside the public sphere. Abu Ali says that the women were well aware of the absurdity and consciously used Arafat's status as a father.

This worked, at least partially. In the third vote - when the registration of candidates for 26 local councils in the West Bank was already underway - it was decided to obligate every list by law to set aside two places for women and in the final result - to reserve two out of the nine to 13 seats on the council for women.

The effect of the law was immediate: Before its passage, 51 women had registered as candidates in 26 local councils in which the first stage of the elections was held in December. After the law was passed, the number of women running rose to 139. The number of men who ran: 748. The jump in the number of women who registered as candidates shows they needed the political system's intervention and encouragement in order to face the pressures of the traditional family system.

Tougher competition

In the elections themselves, 53 women were elected members of local councils. Of them, 33 won more than the minimum number of votes. That is, both in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank it was proved that many women were elected by more votes than some of the men. But it was also proved that the contending lists were not eager to put more than two women in realistic places on the lists. In the opinion of the activists in the feminist lobby, the increase in the number of female candidates and the success of many of them to win by a relatively large number of votes worried the men in the Palestinian parliament and spurred them to vote against the provision for a women's quota that was in the draft of the law. The competition for a seat, it turns out, is becoming tougher. According to the women activists, some members of the Fatah explicitly admitted to them that they were not prepared to give women competitors the advantage in a quota of seats.

Officially, however, the opponents to a women's quota give other reasons, of course. Only the Hamas movement published its official position against a women's quota. And these were some of the arguments it raised: A quota contradicts the Palestinian basic law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender; a women's quota will create a precedent and enable "other marginal groups" to demand quotas (such as "workers organizations, organizations of the handicapped, agricultural organizations"); a quota will weaken the legislative council because the election of women whose ability is limited will come at the expense of able male representatives.

In short, the feminist counter-argument is that the conservative social traditions that oppose public activity by women are preventing talented and vibrant women from proving themselves. Not only are women are deprived by this, but also society as a whole loses out. The feminist lobby has been trying to transmit this message in recent months in private conversations with those who are hesitant and opposed to the provision, and in publication of the names of those who voted against it, at meetings in the various districts. The demonstration that is slated to be held parallel to the debate in the PLC is one manifestation of this continuing activity.