There is little tolerance for corrupt, broken regimes in the Middle East these days. Templates that have governed Arab countries and dictated women’s behavior in society are changing. The voices of Arab women are no longer kept in jars, and are being heard loud and clear in Tahrir Square alongside men that come from all parts of society. They range from the poorest farmer to a young Google executive, all of whom share the same need for freedom.
Egyptian women were once told to go home and raise presidents, but not run for president. This thinking only encouraged more women to join the non-violent Egyptian revolution. But what changes can Palestinians, especially women, bring to their situation? Politicians and men in Palestine can no longer stamp their name on wheat fields, olive groves and agreements that serve their personal agendas. Three generations of Palestinians have inherited tents of exile, displaced emotions, and a reputation of being terrorists who treat their women poorly.
“Changing the Circumstances You’re Born With” Scholarship
There is no better person to discuss the role of Palestinian women, Arab culture and conflict than Rula Jebreal, a Palestinian author and journalist who has transformed her childhood struggles into successes. Born in Haifa in 1973, Rula and her younger sister were sent to an orphanage in East Jerusalem after her mother committed suicide in 1978 when Rula was only five years old.
Despite the protection and guidance of Dar Al-Tifl orphanage, Rula could not escape the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She did not know how her future would play out living as a Palestinian woman following traditional Palestinian customs. Her peace of mind, heart and sense of belonging in this world was cultivated through education.
At 19, she accepted a scholarship from the Italian government to study medicine. This was a major accomplishment as scholarships are available only for the top 2% of students (for others that wish to pursue a post high school education in Palestine and other Middle Eastern countries, there is no option to take out loans to pay for it). Rula now has three degrees–Physiology, Journalism and Political Science. She is fluent in four languages: Arabic, English, Hebrew, and Italian. She also published two books, The Bride from Assuan and Miral, the latter having been adapted into a screenplay and movie. Rula has become a positive role model for not only Palestinian women but also for any woman looking for a better way of life.
I had the pleasure of talking to Rula about Palestinian women, war and education.
Q: What makes a Palestinian woman a Palestinian woman?
Rula Jebreal: A woman is a woman. There is no difference being a Palestinian female than a woman in any other country. But because of the tragedies we have lived as Palestinians, it made our women become stronger, more determined and more
emotionally fragile. The trauma we constantly lived caused us to be, more than ever, hungry for love and understanding. The tragedies forced us to care. Being a woman means affirming our lives through compassion and sensitivity—regardless of nationality. Being a Palestinian woman, or a woman who lives in a war zone, means these feelings become more dramatic. In other words, there is greater yearning for love, stability, and caring to deal with the increase pain, suffering and hurt.
What matters is the humanity inside of you. Do you or do you not care?
Q: What are the challenges of a Palestinian woman today?
Rula Jebreal: The challenge is to keep up your humanity and spirit. It is about believing in your self despite feeling oppressed. How do you cope when someone is constantly harassing you, abusing you, putting you down and denying you your own identity? The challenge is to stay calm. The challenge is to continue believing in art, education, love and thinking people can evolve to become better people. To be a Palestine means dancing a rough dance to maintain equilibrium – one that forces you to do what you need to do to get through your daily life. This dance of control creates aggressiveness and intolerance, which is why Palestinians have to find ways of keeping up their spirit and believing that the future can be positive.
Q: Are Palestinians and Arabs focused too much on war and terrorism?
Rula Jebreal: No. The recent Arab Revolution proved the opposite. Only through culture have we been able to achieve results in the Middle East. Look at what we saw in Tahrir Square. They used technology to spread knowledge of books, literature, voice their opinions and plan nonviolent actions. Think of how powerful that was and what the Egyptian people have been able to achieve in a short time. Literature, culture and art sparked revolutions of change and progress.
Palestinians have been using words, books, poems, stories, embroidery and folk songs as the currencies of exchange in every day life for a long time. It is our way of maintaining and honoring our identity. Arkhas hibr afdal min al dhikr is a Palestinian and Arab proverb that means the cheapest pen is better than memory. The pen has brought us influential authors like Egyptian writer Nawal El-Saadawi, Abdel Awdeeyah from Morocco, and the most recent best selling Arab author Alaa Al-Aswany, who wrote Chicago. Then there are young people Google Executive, Wael Ghonim, part of the younger generation that have used technology to create a bridge for opinions and who aren’t afraid to examine society, regimes and hold mirrors in front of our faces. When we finally saw our true reflection, we said enough is enough. We could not stop from moving forward. Tahrir Square and all of Egypt closed down ‘for constitutional changes.’
Q: What is a Palestinian woman’s role in society?
Rula Jebreal: I have always thought women are more practical, pragmatic and sensitive than men. A man’s idea of control in society is a backward idea that has not produced any meaningful results. It was power by men, kept by men, exercised by men, but led nowhere. Women have taken a different route and they are the ones holding up a flag of a really evolved society. It is a more difficult task for the Palestinians to do because of what they are going through, but if you look anywhere else in the Middle East, women have huge roles in changing society. I’m very proud of today’s Middle Eastern women. They are involved everywhere–hospitals, schools, universities, NGOs (Non-Government Organizations), government, and other parts of the workplace. They are transforming our society through sensitive language and building trust for the future and cross-cultural understanding. Basically, they are working under stricter circumstances and achieving more results than men.
Q: Which women served as your role models?
Rula Jebreal: I have great respect for the founder of Dar Al-Tifl orphanage, Hind Al-Husseini. She opened in 1948 after the Deir Yassin massacre. She saved many girls from starvation, death, prostitution and abuse. Dr. Hanan Ashrawi is another remarkable woman who served as the Minister of Higher Education and Research. She founded and led the Birzeit University Legal Aid Committee and Human Rights Action Project. Dr. Ashrawi was very involved in the evolution of Palestinian women and the country, shattering Western stereotypes about Palestinians. Sheikha Mozah, First Lady of Qatar, is an incredibly valuable woman. She is building a platform for women in her own country, inviting people to discuss art, culture, and education. By offering scholarships in fanoon, the arts, she is really giving people a chance that they didn’t have before.