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Interview with Zahira Kamal: “We are not on the agenda of the men”
in SHS Newsletter 10
On her visit to UNESCO in 2005, we interviewed Zahira Kamal, at that time Minister of Women’s Affairs of the Palestinian National Authority, on her experience as a women’s activist and politician and on the role of women in Palestinian society. Currently, she is the Director of the Palestinian Women's Research and Documentation Center.
Interview with Zahira Kamal: “We are not on the agenda of the men” You have been at the vanguard of the Palestinian women’s movement for many years. When did this start and what motivated you?
It began in the mid-1970s. At that time I was working at the Women’s Teacher Training College under UNRWA in Ramallah, where I was teaching physics and science teaching methods. Most of my students had received very high marks in high school. I was surprised they came to the Teacher Training College instead of going to university. When I asked them why, they would tell me “You know, we are many in our family and my brother has to go to the university”. So I discovered there was a lot of discrimination in women’s education. I would often receive calls from the students’ families, asking me to let their daughter stay at home so she could help the mother, who had just had her ninth, tenth or eleventh child. Sometimes there were only girls in the family, so the mother had been willing to have another child hoping it would be a boy. Or maybe she already had a boy but wanted a brother for that boy. This is another example of discrimination: the mother becomes a machine for giving birth to children, but if the child is a girl, it is not really wanted. This doesn’t mean that the parents don’t love their daughters. They do. But they want a boy to carry on the father’s name and to provide security for the family.
     So I tried to encourage my students to go to university after teacher training college and continue their studies. For instance, I contacted universities to ask them to accept my students, not as first year students, but to take into consideration the academic teaching they had received at the college to save them a year of studies. And it worked.

You founded the first grass-roots movement for Palestinian women. Could you tell us about that experience?
At that time we were under occupation. We still are. But in the early 1970s we didn’t even have political parties. So as a group of educated, middle class people we tried to establish so-called “volunteers committees” through which we taught or organized discussions on general issues, such as how to clean the streets or build fences for schools or sewage systems in the camps. It was a time of gatherings and hard work. But one of the problems was that almost no women – especially women from the working class, from rural areas or from the camps – would participate in these project committees. We realized that it was because the committees brought men and women together, which was not accepted in a conservative society. So we had to think about another way.
     We began to discuss different women’s issues, such as equal wages for equal work or paid maternity leave. You have to remember we didn’t have a government, let alone a ministry of labour. So we would go and negotiate with businessmen about these issues and we managed to establish agreements with industrial owners. We also started a sort of trades union for industries employing mainly women, such as the textile industry. And we worked with theatre groups in order to address women’s issues through drama. In 1978, our efforts were institutionalized through the creation of the Federation of Women’s Action Committee. In fact, we were doing “needs assessment” without realizing it. That term came later. But we used to go to the villages and establish different committees in every village and different programmes according to the needs of that particular village. We did not simply copy the same programme in each place. If they needed a kindergarten we would help them build a kindergarten; if they needed a particular form of training then we would help them with that. We were trying to meet the needs of the people by communicating with them on a social and political level.

You also played an important role in the creation of the first Palestinian Ministry for Women’s Affairs...
I resigned from teaching in 1990 and, from 1993, I worked with UNDP as a manager for a women and development programme. Through this experience, I came to learn more about gender issues and, ever since then, the idea of a ministry was on my mind. I used my visits to different countries to gather recommendations on how to establish such a ministry and I found out there were different mechanisms for that. Sometimes it is called Equal Opportunities, sometimes it’s a Women’s Affairs ministry, other times it is a Family and Child ministry – but in all cases they deal with women’s issues. I looked into the organizational structures, the policies they were following and so on. In 1994, when Chairman Arafat came to government for the first time, as a group of women we applied for the establishment of such a “women-focused machinery” and presented him with the structure, the policies and the mandate. But the social environment was not yet ready for this and it took some time until the ministry was actually established. In 1996, I decided to resign from UNDP and work with the Palestinian Authority for the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation. There, I started working to promote women’s affairs through the department I was heading, the Directorate of Gender Planning and Development. We introduced gender mainstreaming policy plans for other ministries, and trained staff from different ministries on gender issues. Within three to four years, over 400 people were trained. To begin with, the ministries sent us only women to attend the training sessions. But we said “no, of the 3 people sent from each ministry, at least one should be a man”. This way, the gender concept became familiar to the ministries and to our society. Meanwhile, the party had elected me to be their representative in the government and when my name came up, they said, “here is Zahira, she would be perfect for the job, and we can establish a women’s ministry!” So we were given a mandate of 30 years to raise the commitment of the government to gender issues, and make sure they are reflected in its policies, plans and projects.

You have a high level of education and an impressive background as a women’s activist and a politician. In choosing this path, have you never encountered any personal difficulties or objections from your own family?
Of course. It was very difficult sometimes. But actually, I got the support of my family because of the way I was brought up. I was the eldest child in a family of eight, six girls and two boys. My father had married late. He was old when I was born. And he wanted me to be educated, to be good at school, and to be involved in many things. So I used to sit with him and his friends, listening to their discussions of politics and so on. It became a part of me. My father was a mathematics teacher and so I became very good at mathematics, chemistry – all the scientific disciplines. My father wanted me to jump at this opportunity. But he was ill and in hospital when I graduated from high school, and people told him not to send me to university. At the time, I was insisting on going to Cairo. That was my dream. We call Cairo the “Mother of the whole world”. It was at the time of the Abdel Nasser regime, and represented a whole culture, the openness of the Arab world. So I wanted to be there. Naturally, that was a little bit hard at a time when my father was ill. But I said I would refuse to eat unless I was allowed to go. I didn’t know that was a hunger strike. But I threatened to stop eating unless I could go. Of course, no parents like their children to stop eating. Food is very important in our culture and has an absolutely central place. So in the end my father promised me on the Koran that when he recovered he would take me to Cairo. And he did. When other people found out that my father was taking me to Cairo, they decided to send their daughters as well. So my father went to Cairo accompanied by ten young girls; he helped settle each one of us there. This was in 1967. I was a friend of the Arab movement and in Cairo, representing Palestinians in the student union and I became more active in politics.

You have also been held under town arrest...
I paid the price of my political activism by being held for 6 months in administrative detention and being put under town arrest for seven and a half years. Which meant that I couldn’t leave home from sunset until one hour after sunrise and I was not allowed to leave Jerusalem at all. That was very hard. But it is very important how you deal psychologically with yourself in such a situation. For me, it did not mean I would sit at home. Although no UN agencies allow their staff to engage in politics, I went to UNRWA and demanded an office space and a desk. I was under town arrest so I couldn’t go to Ramallah to teach, but I said that I would teach my students long distance. Of course it was not easy even for them to accept this idea. How can you teach physics from a distance? I said: we will start something different. So every day, I prepared working papers for my students and sent them with the first UN car to Ramallah. I got the answers with the last car that came back by 2.30 p.m., then I had to correct them and prepare the second shipping. Every day I found myself working as hard as a student!

What kind of obstacles have you met as a female politician in a male-dominated society?
As I said, I was raised in a universe where I was in contact with the male world. And when I headed the Democratic Front in Palestine from 1975 to 1992, I was dealing with men all the time. I’m the kind of person who believes in dialogue, cooperation, democratic decision-making, participatory approach and so on. This facilitates your approach to others and, at the same time, you are being an example. However, I’ve been in situations where people would take decisions without consulting me. Sometimes meetings are held at night. I would go to all the meetings. But it is very hard when you have to get up to go to work in the morning. You have to deal with that. Sometimes when you are talking, men try to ignore what you are saying and don’t pay attention. As if what you are talking about is less important. Other times, a delegation is formed and you find out that you are not in it. And you have to fight to get in. Or there is a meeting and they don’t call you. I can tell you that when I ran for elections in 1996, I had to run fast to find out what was going on. Oh sorry, we forgot! That sort of thing not only happens to me. It happens to almost all women. We are not on the agenda of the men. They have their own network. They organize themselves, not in meetings, but through other activities, for instance while they are playing cards or when they are in a club or a coffee shop. So they decide things that you are not part of. I think this is one of the main problems: how to institutionalize these kinds of networks?
     Men know better how to deal with different issues in the community from the very outset. When they are kids, they grow up playing in the streets, they know the people from the street – the father, the son, the grandfather and the people passing by. So they build a vision and a community that grow up with them. A man can go from one place to another and get a better understanding of what is going on. Because he knows all these different things, he can better decide his own future. Women do not have this knowledge. The girls usually stay at home. They start knowing when they grow up. So there is an information gap between men and women, and women must make an extra effort to bring all the information together.
     Finally, there is family pressure. You know, I didn’t marry. But maybe that is the price you have to pay. Because even if the men like you as a friend, as someone they can talk to, when it comes to engagement, they do not want to be with a strong woman. Sometimes they tell you frankly that if you want to make a family, you have to cancel your social and political activities to be able to spend more time in the home. That is when you have to decide what you yourself want.

The new resource centre being set up in Ramallah is going to work on the problems of Palestinian women. In your view, what are the specific problems?
In our country, we haven’t got a big education problem. Almost all kids go to school. The problem starts at the sixth or seventh grade when they become teenagers. Both boys and girls drop out of school. But while the boys go to the labour market as unskilled labour, the girls stay at home with their mother to help with the household and wait for a husband. So when women drop out, we have early marriage. When you have early marriage, you have early pregnancy – early pregnancy, with no birth control. That means a high birth rate. And a high birth rate means high dependency and unemployment. This affects national development as a whole! Each year, we have a 4.5 per cent increase in the number of first grade students, which means a lot of classes to be organized in different areas for the newcomers. In other countries, schools are being closed down because there are fewer and fewer children. But our situation is different. Fifty per cent of our population is under the age of 15, which means that each year, tens of thousands of people are coming onto the labour market. Since there are no work opportunities, this means unemployment. And when you have a high rate of unemployment, other difficulties arise: social problems, poverty, drugs, violence against women... All these issues have to be tackled.
     As I said, the general level of education compared with other Arab countries is relatively high. Forty-six per cent of students in the university are women. But that is not reflected in the labour market. Only 12.4 per cent of the active labour workers are women, so there is a big gap. To study why there is this gap, and what we can do about it, is a big challenge. Of course, one of the answers could be that higher education does not meet the needs of the labour market because girls often study the humanities while boys tend to choose scientific disciplines, IT and so on. Another problem is that in the field of vocational training, only 27 per cent of the students are women. This kind of training used to be focused on very traditional training, such as sewing, hairdressing, etc., so it was not attractive for girls. Five years ago, only 18 per cent of the students were women. But when I was at the Ministry of Planning, we developed some new programmes in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, and started maintenance of computers and office equipment. Since then, the percentage of women participating in vocational training has risen. We have to continue this work and find new areas of vocational training through which we can attract girls. This could, for instance, be graphics or architecture assistance – girls are very good at that. But we need to do a study on this. Maybe the new Resource Center in Ramallah could help us study this.
     Another general problem is women’s participation in the economy. As I said, 12.4 per cent of the active labour market are women. That does not mean that the rest of the women are not working! But their work is not considered as providing an income for the family. It is informal work that women do. Who will value that? In a country like ours, 66 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. How are they surviving? When you look at the people you don’t see this degree of poverty. It means that there is another factor which can be added to the income of the family and helps it survive. This added factor comes from the work the women do. The question is, what we are doing and how? What is the income? How does it affect the life of women? This should be studied. Also, we know very well that women who work often do not have control of their own salary. For many of these women, a contract is made between the contractor and the woman’s father and the salary is paid direct to the father. Around ten years ago, I did a study on this problem. One of the women I spoke to told me she had been wanting to buy a jacket for two to three years but she didn’t have the money, because her entire income went to her father who never gave her anything. It is like slavery. We don’t know how many women are in this situation. But almost all women give at least 50 per cent of their salary to their family.
     Finally, there are problems relating to human rights. Violence is on the increase with the military oppression, and this is reflected in the violence against women and children. Another issue, which is related to traditions, is the problem of honour killings. This problem needs to be studied and discussed. Women have to know about their rights, and the community has to know about the right of women to decide their own future.

Gender equality and women’s rights are sensitive issues in Muslim society. What is your opinion about this?
The problem is not Islam. The problem is the interpretation of the verses in Islam. We have to know more about the religion, so that we cannot be fooled, but defend our position and talk about it. I am following this very closely.
     Recently, a woman was killed in an honour killing. She had graduated from university and she was Christian – so the problem concerns not only Muslims, but also Christians in our community. It is more a problem related to traditions than religion. This woman loved a man who was Muslim. She had met him at university. She had a job and she was mature. However, her father refused the marriage. At first, he forced her to throw herself from the third floor. She broke both her hips and was in hospital for three weeks. Then the father tried to make all the arrangements for her to come home. He promised he would not do anything to her and even signed an agreement that he would not harm her. I was against that. We knew very well from the evidence that he wanted to kill her. When she came home in a wheelchair, he beat her on the head with an iron bar and she died. I went to demonstrate with the women’s movements. We organized a ceremony to gather the condolences of women and men who are against this kind of killing. We held a press conference where we said we did not need a guardian for marriage. If a woman is mature, she can arrange her marriage by herself. We wanted to start a debate. We reminded people that it was Aisha who asked for the hand of the Prophet Muhammad. So if even at that time a woman was allowed to ask the Prophet Muhammad to marry her, why should she not be allowed to do so now? We seem to be going back centuries. The problem is not religion, but all the people who are trying to interpret the religion according to the situation. So we have to deal with it with an open mind and with sound knowledge about our history and our rights.

You were an adviser in the Middle East peace negotiations. In general, do you think women could play a bigger role in conflict resolution?
Yes, I think we can do things differently. When I was in the negotiations in Washington, I looked at those who were coming to the press conferences, and it struck me that very few women were present. Perhaps there were a few from the media, but not women working with society. And when you are doing peace negotiations, you need the support of the people, not only the press. So what I did was to hold meetings with the heads of different women’s organizations in the United States, just briefing them about what was going on. To let them know. Men have other networks where they get this knowledge. But because women do not have these networks, I went to talk to them. Also, after the seventh round of negotiations I decided not to go to Washington. Not because I was against it. I was still on the Steering Committee. But I decided that it was better to be at home to be able to talk with the people about what was going on in society. I believe that agreements are not just agreements that can be signed at the top level. If you don’t have support from the community, the agreements cannot be activated. Although there is an agreement between Egypt and Israel, people do not relate to it at all. In Palestine and Israel, we have to live alongside each other. So as people, we have to accept what is going on. The human aspect of any political measure should be underscored.

Interview by Jeanette Blom.

A Resource Center for Palestinian Women
UNESCO and the Palestine Ministry of Women’s Affairs have signed a Memorandum of Understanding concerning the establishment of a Palestinian Women’s Resource Center (pwrc) in Ramallah (see SHS Newsletter 09, in PDF format). The Center will serve as an observatory and clearing house on information relating to women’s issues in the Palestinian National Authority. It will carry out networking, advocacy and policy-oriented research for gender equality and the human rights of Palestinian women. The Center is the first of its kind to be established in an Arab country outside the Maghreb region. The official inauguration of the Center is planned for November 2005.

Zahira Kamal
1968: B.Sc. in Physics from Ain Shams University, Cairo.
1968-1990: Teacher at the Ramallah Women’s Teacher Training Centre
1978: Founding Member of the Palestinian Federation of Women’s Action, first women’s grass-roots organization of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
1993-1995: Director of the Women in Development Programme, UNDP.
1996-2003: General Director of the Directorate of Gender Planning in the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation.
Since 2003: Minister of Women’s Affairs of the Palestinian National Authority.
In 1979, Ms Kamal was placed under administrative detention for six months and under town arrest from June 1980 to March 1987 and from June 1990 to July 1991. She has been a member of the Advisory Council of the Palestinian Delegation to the Middle East Peace Negotiations and is an active participant in meetings with Israeli Peace groups.

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Click here to read other articles from this issue of SHSviews.
Author(s) UNESCO - Sector for Social and Human Sciences
Periodical Name SHS Newsletter (new name: SHS Views)
Publication date 2005-09
Publisher UNESCO
Publication Location Paris, France
Related Website http://www.unesco.org/shs/views

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