Rudaina Sahouri, mother of three young girls in Beit Sahour, West Bank, reminisced about her younger years and how different the situation is now, “In the past, and before I was a mother, we could go anywhere in Palestine or Israel without anybody stopping us; nowadays we can’t give this life to our children because it's forbidden to go anywhere without special permission unless it's Easter or Christmas.”
Palestinian women are especially disadvantaged concerning mobility, economic opportunities, and empowerment as they are discriminated against within an oppressed population.
The experience of the occupation is generally a humiliating one for Palestinians, making them more determined to resist this attack on their culture and way of life. Rutenberg references a ‘general tendency in Arab-Palestinian culture to enshrine the family as the marrow of society. Factors like maintaining honor and family standing, therefore, become even more important, and it is the women who are perceived to carry this family honor.
According to Amira Musllam, a women’s’ rights activist in the West Bank and Holy Land Trust consultant, girls are repeatedly told from a young age that they must be careful of every action they take lest it is considered shameful or promiscuous.
“That’s what they preach to us from when we’re little. A woman is a shameful creature, everything is a taboo for her: her body, the way she looks, what she wears, the way she talks,” said Musllam.
This has serious implications for the ability of women to earn an independent income or have a life separate from the family in many cases. The cycle is reproduced with their daughters whereby the next generation is taught what is acceptable and what is not. Because it is the mother’s role to instruct her daughter in proper behavior, this means that as a mother she cannot be seen to be engaging in any behavior not permitted by current social norms, ensuring the perpetuation of the cycle.
The Separation Barrier, built by Israel in 2002, has had a devastating impact on the number of tourists coming to visit Bethlehem and thus its economic well being; since 2002, 98 shops have closed down on historic Star Street. Organized and founded by Holy Land Trust, Bet Lahem Live is a four-day long festival that runs annually at the beginning of August. Of the 98 closed shops since 2002, 30% re-open each year for the duration of the festival and 5% continue to stay open after the festival year on year. Bet Lahem Live make a positive impact every year.
It is a chance for Palestinians to demonstrate that there is so much more to their identity than just their suffering and oppression- they are incredibly talented musicians, artists, weavers, cooks, and more. The scope of the festival is wide-ranging, including workshops on the importance of nonviolent resistance to the occupation, live music and faith panels to promote interfaith community relations.
Obviously the festival can’t provide all of the solutions to the extensive and complex problems investigated in this article- its main goal is to bring life to Star Street and promote lasting change within the community. The empowerment of women through the festival is a central strategy for achieving this. Regarding the economic difficulties, women face the festival provides an opportunity for women to break free from the traditional waged labor jobs whereby transportation, hours, and wages are controlled by male trustees of the family.
Having a stall on Star Street gives important entrepreneurial experience, encouraging women to open their own small businesses after the festival. According to Amira Musallam, “empowerment should be making the woman more self-aware and discovering the power she has as a woman”.
She believes that Bet Lahem Live Festival can help to do this, “They feel independent and not stuck with the family and tied to what the family wants. They can meet new people and make some money from the things they made with their own hands. They will be the leaders of their own small businesses. It gives them a lot of power when people want to come to their stall and buy their products.”
Fadwa Abbad, director of mental health charity Sunna Alamal, identifies key strategies to improve the situation concerning cultural perceptions of women in the West Bank and Bethlehem area, “We want to see more women as decision-makers, as strategic planners, for people to see women in different organizations and authorities connecting with the community and thus giving them the chance to lead and participate as much as men”.
Bet Lahem Live gives opportunities for women to play this leading role in organizing and running events during the festival such as stage managing, timetabling various acts, and overseeing logistics. According to Fadwa,
“Bet Lahem Live shows the community that we have women who can lead effective businesses and run income-generating projects and initiatives of social change.”
Importantly, she highlights the fact that empowering women in this way is not giving them a role just because they are women. They are demonstrating their ability to run successful projects just as well as men in a very public environment. Whilst four days is a short period of time, the effects of this empowerment are much longer-lasting.
Elias Deis - Executive Director
Holy Land Trust’s E.D., Elias Deis has worked for over a decade at Holy Land Trust. He was formally the Travel & Encounter Program Director and serves on the Beit Sahour City Council.