February 23, 2005
She looked so natural and professional in her office, it was hard to imagine that her presence marked a quiet earthquake in Palestinian society.
On a rainy Sunday afternoon, our service taxi passed a prominent Israeli colony about twenty kilometers north of Ramallah. It sported the usual rows of identical prefabricated houses, all built illegally on Palestinian land. Fifty yards on was the turnoff to the Palestinian community of West Bani Zaid.
The narrow access road was as potholed as if a bomb had been dropped on it and straddled by an Israeli-controlled gate. Such gates can turn large Palestinian areas into prisons at any time. Luckily it was open this time. We bounced our way forward on our way to visit the new mayor, recently elected in the second phase of Palestinian municipal elections last month. Her name is Fathiya al-Barghouthi.
In Ramallah, a powerful professional woman is nearly as commonplace as in any Western society. But in the villages, while women have played important roles in civil and political activism, electing a woman to run an entire region was a clear break from long tradition. And by all counts a welcome one.
We arrived at the Bani Zaid municipality building and were shown to her basic but comfortably-appointed large corner office, where she sat working at her desk. Wearing silver-framed glasses and a tasteful pale blue jilbab (traditional dress/overcoat) and hijab (head scarf), she smiled and welcomed us in. She looked so natural and professional in her office, it was hard to imagine that her presence marked a quiet earthquake in Palestinian society.
Two men sat around a coffee table in front of her desk, and we joined them. An aide soon offered us hot Arabic coffee. The quiet and sincere respect she garnered was easy to see, and she answered our questions forthrightly.
We asked who supported her most in her new role as mayor. She answered, “Other Palestinian women are very supportive of my work. They believe that I and other women are fully capable of working in many of the same capacities as men.”
She said that now was the time to prove with actions rather than words that she and other women have the same faculties and qualifications as any man. Social consciousness played a role in her victory, she said. People’s mindsets are changing rapidly in the direction of a more equal distribution of both rights and responsibilities for the social welfare of Palestine. This encouraged people to elect a woman and support a more progressive trend.
She, and apparently her constituents as well, thinks women taking a more active role in shaping society will be good for everyone.
We asked if anyone stood against her in her new position of power. “Palestinian society as a whole fully accepts the idea that a woman can be a strong civil and political leader and can attend workshops and meetings the same as any man. Naturally there was a contingent of conservative stalwarts who refused the idea at first, but even they have come around by now.”
She ran as an independent in the Bani Zaid race but had ties with leftist and Islamic parties. There is an ‘affirmative action’-type quota which requires a minimum number of women to be elected, but her win was not due to the quota system. Women exceeded the minimum easily, claiming 52 of 306 open seats in the West Bank, around 17% of the total. This was nearly triple the quota.
But Barghouthi admits her family ties helped her prevail. She is from the Barghouthi family and her husband, a jailed PFLP activist, is a Rimawi. These are two of the most prominent families in the region. She also drew strong support from Islamic movements.
We asked if her life changed dramatically since she took over her new job. She said the differences were surprisingly small. “Before I was elected, I was a school teacher in a village nearby. I worked every day from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. My work schedule as mayor is largely the same, but sometimes there are workshops or meetings that last until 4:00.”
Barghouthi’s husband is currently serving time in a prison in Jericho, allegedly for driving the getaway car after the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rachbam Ze’evi. The assassination came in response to the Israeli assassinations of PFLP leaders in the West Bank. But she said that even before he was arrested, life was never quite normal or easy. Rimawi was always hunted by Israeli police, soldiers, collaborators, and undercover agents, and he was rarely afforded the luxury of relaxing in his own home.
Barghouthi received her BA in Arabic language studies from Bir Zeit University, the West Bank’s most prestigious center for higher learning, in 1999. She began her studies in 1992 but was interrupted several times by her marriage and the birth of her two children. During her years at university, she was active in student unions and in the student council.
I asked what her priorities were for her term of office. Her main goal, she said, “is to provide better services for the people in my district by developing and expanding the municipality’s capacity and organizing projects to help civil society.” Due to closures, checkpoints, invasions, incursions, Walls, arrests, and other ongoing crises related directly to the Israeli occupation, many types of infrastructures, including streets, water, and electricity, have been destroyed or damaged. There is also, she says, a pressing need for space dedicated to youth recreation and sports.
We asked her what a title like ‘mayor’ meant when her power was entirely subordinate to Israel’s military occupation. She said that of course the occupation affects all aspects of life for all Palestinians, and her new job is no exception. “Israeli forces have closed the roads to villages nearby, which makes it impossible for us to reach them to fix streets or provide services. Sometimes, because of the occupation, I can’t do my job.”
Occupation aside, we asked how she managed to balance running two villages and raising two children. She said that she begins her day by waking up her children and seeing her 9-year-old daughter off to school and her 5-year-old son to one of his sets of grandparents. After work she comes back to the apartment, cooks, and helps her children with their homework. She is, she says, no different from the millions of working mothers all over the world.
Mayor Barghouthi said in conclusion that she will not let any difficulty stop her from doing all she can for her people. She is proud and happy to be an active and effective member of Palestinian society. As long as there is a civil struggle against occupation, aggression, oppression, expropriation, and apartheid, she will participate in that struggle.
And if there will ever be justice, freedom, and peace, she will participate just as actively in that.