Saffa, West Bank – At Ibtisam Mansour’s traditional stone home, enveloped in grape vines, olive trees and cacti, five women sat every night for the past month, planning, scheming and writing. For weeks, they’ve been working on their election campaign, going as far as to draw most of their propaganda materials by hand, in anticipation of the elections taking place on October 20.
Two years in the making, this all-women election bloc is garnering a lot of attention, raising the ire of some of their fellow Palestinians from Saffa, a sleepy village just outside of Ramallah, but also becoming the subject of admiration of others. The village is just a stone’s throw away from the Green Line, the internationally recognised border between Israel and the West Bank, but another demarcation stands out more vividly: Israel’s separation wall, built here in 2002. From Ibtisam’s front porch, you can see the lights of the nearby settlement of Modi’in flickering in the distance.
The five-woman bloc- dubbed “Women of the Town” – is one of two all-female lists running for the upcoming local elections taking place in the West Bank. The last municipal elections took place in 2005 in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. A year later, parliamentary and presidential elections were held. This year, the Gaza Strip is not participating and Hamas is boycotting the West Bank elections.
The current elections are taking place after a two-year series of postponements. And that’s exactly when the “Women of the Town” came together and formed this group. “In 2010, we decided to take fate into our hands,” said Ilham Sami, the 48-year-old eloquent leader of the group. “We wanted men to stop choosing on our behalf.”
According to the Central Elections Commission (CEC) in Ramallah, there are approximately 4,700 candidates running for municipal seats, 25 per cent of whom are women. In addition to Ibtisam’s bloc, an all-woman group is also running in the southern West Bank city of Hebron.
For two years, the women have been working on garnering the support of their community. They conceived a vision, created a platform and launched a grass-roots campaign to change the way their village of about 4,000 people viewed women running for public office.
Ibtisam and her running mates are focusing on a myriad of issues that they say would improve the village’s standard of living, most notably urban planning, drainage system creation, road rehabilitation and youth empowerment. If elected, she said her team would focus on providing services to all, digitising the council’s financial and administrative system and preparing a master plan for the village.
“We believe that the village council is a small government,” Ibtisam said. “It would focus on everything from education to health, infrastructure and agriculture. We would also like to work on helping out the marginalised, such as women and the disabled.”
“This year, the political factions asked us if we would be part of a national list. We said yes at first. But then we were pushed down to the bottom of the candidates’ list. We realised that they were afraid of us and just wanted to pacify us“
– Ilham Sami, municipal candidate
In forging the group, Ilham found support in Ibtisam, an elderly homemaker, Ibtisam’s daughter Suheir, a fashion designer, Iman, a teacher, and Fida, a mother of five. As soon as they found out elections were taking place in October, they banded together, finding an impromptu campaign headquarters at Ibtisam’s home. During the last days of campaigning, they spent many-a-nights staying up until 2am putting up their posters around the village.
Since election season happens to coincide with this year’s olive harvest, the women have also taken to the olive groves to campaign, as their fellow residents harvest crops.
Ilham and her team are running against two other lists, all vying for nine seats of Saffa’s village council. The way Ilham sees it, the difference between her bloc and the other lists is that they are not running according to family or clan, which traditionally dominates the political candidate selection process here.
“The way women are normally chosen for the lists here is based on appeasing the large families and according to clanships and tribalism,” Ilham explained. “In the past, the women chosen were relatives of officers in the security forces, who are not allowed to run for elections. We won’t be appeasing anyone in this bloc.”
The village of Saffa is largely dominated by two clans comprising many extended families. The clans are also factionally aligned either to Fatah, the largest Palestinian political party, or one of the leftist parties, such as Mustafa Barghouti’s Al Mubadara, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) or the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).
The current village council is divided among five members of leftist parties, three from Fatah and one independent. But Ilham doesn’t want factions to be an overriding factor. “The left and right think the same. They are both patriarchal in their thinking. They both see that women are only good for the home.”
Changing societal norms is no easy business. The husband of a woman in their bloc was threatened by his extended family with disownment if he didn’t dissuade his wife from running. She eventually quit.
But two years of hard work paid off. “This year, the political factions asked us if we would be part of a national list. We said yes at first. But then we were pushed down to the bottom of the candidates’ list. We realised that they were afraid of us and just wanted to pacify us.”
Ilham also says that they were surprised at how supportive people were. “We got into this thinking we would lose, but we wanted to do it anyway.” The bloc is seeing most support come from other women and male youth.
Despite many people’s efforts to label these women as feminists, Ilham said they are not. “The problem is with the patriarchal thinking of the men, not the men themselves. That’s what perpetuates clanship and blind family allegiances.”
Suheir Saleh, another candidate from the all-women bloc chimed in. “The men aren’t against women running. They just want to define what their role is.” Suheir hopes for the best but if the worst comes to pass, she said the group has a plan. “We will create an all-woman shadow council that will ensure the local council works for our needs.”
Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @DaliaHatuqa