Patriarchy in Palestine

In Palestine, women have to struggle against gendered violence by their own society and by the Israeli occupation.

Palestinian women run during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border fence in the southern Gaza Strip
Palestinian women run during a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland at the Israel-Gaza fence on October 12, 2018 [Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters]

In late November, a 16-year-old girl called Yara Ayoub from the Galilee village of al-Jish went missing. A few days later, her mutilated body was found in a dumpster. Two suspects – a 28-year-old man and his father – were arrested on murder charges.

Thousands of Palestinians from the girl’s village and the surrounding areas attended her funeral. The outpouring of grief was palpable and people marched in the funeral procession wearing stickers reading “Yara in our hearts”.

Since news of the murder spread, many Palestinians across historical Palestine have been consumed by discussions on social media about violence against women and the harm inflicted by patriarchy. There have been demonstrations in Nazareth, Sakhneen, Haifa and Jaffa, all calling for an end to violence against women.

Patriarchy in Palestine exists, as it does elsewhere in the world, as a system that upholds male dominance and male hierarchies. It enforces gender binaries and stereotypes in order to preserve the current power structure. While the patriarchy affects everyone, its violent manifestations disproportionately affect women.

To paraphrase Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, men are most afraid of women laughing at them and women are most afraid of being killed by men. This fear gets internalised – consciously or not – in our everyday behaviour.

In the streets, we often have to choose between putting headphones on and listening to music so we don’t have to hear verbal harassment or staying alert in case someone tries to creep up on us. At night, we often hold keys in our hands as a weapon in case someone attacks us. Some of us also have to worry about abuse and violence within the family and our social circles.

According to a 2011 survey on violence conducted by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), some 37 percent of women were the victims of gender-based violence in the 1967 Palestinian territories. A November 2018 report released by the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement showed that sexual harassment is also pervasive online, with one-third of Palestinian women facing gender-based violence on social media networks.

The international community often likes to spin the issue with gendered violence in Palestine as if it’s an “Arab problem” and Palestinian women need saving from Palestinian men. Such orientalist discourse propagates colonial views and white saviour-complex urges that are used to justify humanitarian interventionism. It is a frequently overlooked fact that Jewish women suffer from similar rates of gender-based violence within Israeli society.

Racialising the discourse on violence against women in Palestine is obfuscating the larger context of violence Palestinian women suffer from. Patriarchy exists in Palestine not only in the form of problematic social dynamics and gendered violence among Palestinians, but also in the form of occupation and settler colonialism.

In this sense, fighting for our liberation comes with potentially dangerous consequences for us women. When we go to a protest, we know full well that our bodies maybe used as weapons against us. If we are arrested, we may be sexually harassed or assaulted.

Currently, there are 51 female Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli prisons who are subjected to various forms of harassment and torture. That said, women also suffer from the murderous campaigns of the Israeli army; their snipers and bombs do not distinguish between Palestinian women and men when they kill.

Indeed, Palestine is a perfect example of how colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy work together to keep women, as well as the poor and the marginalised, under a devastating system of oppression.

In this context, it is important to note that the case of Yara Ayoub is not an isolated incident, and although her murder prompted a lot of discussions and demonstrations, we cannot leave the issue at that.

We have to fight against patriarchy in all of its ugly manifestations, a fight that must not be left to women alone. Palestinian men must also be active participants in this process. It is simply not enough for a Palestinian man to call himself a feminist and call out his peers and family members for their sexist behaviour; he must also engage in self-scrutiny and recognise the toxic patriarchal norms that he himself embodies and practices. 

Collectively we must work to create grassroots spaces for the Palestinian struggle to flourish which are free from toxic masculinity and patriarchal hierarchies. Women’s rights and emancipation cannot and should not be compartmentalised into “women’s spaces”; rather, they have to be part and parcel of our collective liberation struggle. This is the only way to defeat the patriarchal, capitalist and colonial occupation of Palestinian lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.