By Anna Amo (Bissan’s Buddy)
Saturday was the final full day for the Palestinian women in London and the last time we would be seeing them. The whole day was marked by a feeling of trying to get the most out of the little time left. The morning sessions was amazing, every girl present who had been involved in the week as a visitor or a buddy spoke about their experiences over the course of the week, things they had learnt, the way their thinking had changed as well as sharing their specific thoughts on the lives of Palestinian women in the context of the various themes they had been focusing on all week.
I was really moved by all of the presentations and I have tried to summarise some of the things people said and the issues they raised.
Dr Fadwa spoke about her experiences working with Cadfa and I loved to hear her talking about some of the first volunteers from Camden to visit the university in Abu Dis. The fact that she still remembered the names of the people who went out made me realise how strong the ties made on these trips can be.
Esra’a, Hanin and Decca gave a summary of a discussion that they had been having over the week about the similarities and differences between Palestinian and British Women. Esra’a argued that aside from the occupation, women themselves were extremely similar. She felt that in terms of lifestyle and aims in life the women from both countries were much the same. What she did feel was that the problems faced by Palestinian women stemmed from the occupation, disrupting their lives and making it harder for them to achieve their aims.
Hanin felt there were more differences between Palestinian and British women besides the occupation. She argued that culture was also a major factor. She described her experiences of being thought of as weaker and of her education being thought of as less necessary because of her gender. Hanin felt that the discrimination between men and women went beyond the circumstance of occupation and that the lack of infrastructure and facilities exacerbated this. Hanin asked how do British women get their strength when, she noted, so many live alone away from their families? She described how Palestinian women could find strength in facing the occupation.
Decca then went on to give us a British perspective. She reminded us that women are women wherever they are and that in all places they are struggling for equality. She drew attention to the fact that women are struggling for equality everywhere and in Britain the struggles may be different in nature but the fact of the struggle is familiar to all. Decca spoke instead about the double struggle that Palestinian women face both under occupation and within their society, trying to achieve recognition and be favoured equally with men. She ended by talking about the ways in which women, whatever they are struggling against, can come together to share methods and ways of fighting.
Many of the British women spoke of how, even though the Palestinians had been the visitors, it was the British women who were made to feel so welcome and invited into the lives and hearts of the Palestinian women. So much of the week was about sharing and it was felt the Palestinian women really opened themselves up to their new British friends, including them in their conversations, their traditions, their food, as well as their history and suffering. I definitely felt that the Palestinian women did a great job in not letting any of the British girls fall back on their comfortable tradition of distant politeness. Natalie said she felt that the weekend away in particular had felt like a really family-like time, perhaps because the women-only (and pyjama-attired) setting made everyone feel very relaxed.
Hanin spoke about what she had learnt about seeing our image in the eyes of others, she said she had learnt a lot over the course of the week about the gaps in the understanding of the people she had meant when it came to how they would see her from a far. She thought this was extremely useful as it allowed her to learn how she might need to present herself in the future to people in order to try to close the gap further. She said she even found this as a way to heal herself in a small way from the suffering of occupation.
Haya said the visit added to her as a Palestinian woman, that it motivated her to participate in more programmes like this one, and that she loved the art galleries that she visited in London that exhibited art by Palestinian women. She said that she had been surprised to find the suffering of Palestine represented in London in this way. She also talked about how difficult her life in Palestine had become since the building of the Separation Wall by Israel. She explained how her journey to school, once ten minutes, now took anything up from two hours as she had to travel through checkpoints. She said the latest development of having to pass through a terminal to get to her school meant that every trip was an extremely long, arduous and humiliating experience.
Nawal was the only Palestinian woman to admit to enjoying the British food and also spoke of her interest in the Islamic artefacts found at the British Museum. Nawal also had some difficult stories to tell about her personal suffering at the hands of the occupation. She explained the difficulties her sister had experienced when she tried to get to hospital to give birth and was held up for an hour. Nawal also told her own story about being extremely frustrated with soldiers at the checkpoint refusing to let her through to go to school and how she was arrested when she protested this and was handcuffed and taken to the police station for five hours until someone found out where she was.
Haya talked of how it wasn’t safe to stay out late as the soldiers can do anything - of how soldiers entered university dormitories to destroy property. Nawal felt that all social life in Palestine was affected as families were kept apart and given limited permission to see each other, if at all. Haya explained that Israel aimed to separate and so weaken Palestine further.
Fatmeh spoke about the plight of Palestinian prisoners detained by the Israelis. This was an extremely personal issue for her as two of her brothers have been subjected to long years in prison. She has not seen one of her brothers for the last decade as the Israeli’s claim they are not brother and sister and will not allow her to visit. One of Fatmeh’s sisters is also forbidden to visit as her name means “resistance”. A cousin of Fatmeh’s died in prison after 20 years but his body is still being held by the Israelis as he has not completed his sentence. Although Fatmeh spoke of her own suffering, including her nose being broken by the gun of an Israeli soldier on the night her brother was arrested, she made it clear that her story is one that is repeated over and over again for families in Palestine. Esra’a acknowledged that she has a cousin imprisoned under administrative detention and he has been held for four years, six months at a time without charges that keeps on recurring.
Samah, who comes from Jinin Camp, talked a little about her experience when Jenin was attacked in April 2002. Her family lost their home and two of her Uncles were killed. In comparison to her life in Palestine, Samah felt that it was amazing to see a different world, she said, “People here are alive.” She said she wanted to keep fighting to get a better future and continue life and become more self-confident.
Haya concluded the presentations by adding that she felt people in Palestine were both, “Fighting to live and living to fight.” She said she was happy to have come to the UK to tell everyone their stories and convey their strong personalities.
After the presentations everyone had lunch together and we had an opportunity for skills sharing and more talking. A lot of craft work went on with more knitting and embroidery and we talked a lot about the problems facing people and especially women in London and the rest of the UK and how some of the British women were using their skills to work on these issues or to protest about the problems.
The evening was a wonderful end to the week. Everybody gathered in the new Kentish Town Community Centre building. HAnin and Fatmeh moved everyone present with their powerful personal testaments to their lives, their hopes and suffering. There were fantastic performances from some very diverse musicians, there was even a tear or two when Dan Burne and Jo Mortimer performed “Beeswing”. We ended with dancing, more Dabka – Aisheh expertly leading the group - and lots of hugging in our final moments.
I really loved meeting the women from Palestine, and I am so happy to have had the chance to spend some time with them and listen to their stories.