Terrorist,” “primitive,” “patriarchal,” arrogant,” “untrustworthy.” These are just some of the stereotypes that a group of Israelis and Palestinians came up with during a workshop on mutual misperceptions at a conference in Elsinore, Denmark—home to Hamlet’s castle and, for two weeks, some 30 Middle Eastern educators.
Through Netivot Shalom, the religious peace group I was representing, I had met with Palestinians in various venues over the years. In Denmark, however, I discovered that we are often unaware that stereotypes exist until they are challenged; mine were about Palestinian women. I had believed that they were fairly inconspicuous and submissive within their patriarchal society. These images were broken as I became acquainted with the powerful and impressive Palestinian women whom I met.
- Sanaa, open, pregnant and mother of two, teaches English to adults in Ramallah. I noticed her on the first evening during a cultural event on humour. As was fairly typical, the men took center stage during the ad-hoc telling of jokes. Among the women, only Sanaa joined in, feeding us one joke after another with great softness and warmth. Sanaa’s courage was brought home to me later as we made plans to see a movie together in Jerusalem; she casually mentioned climbing over army checkpoints on her way to the movies or the shopping mall.
- Tania, in her early 30s, also from Ramallah, had just been appointed deputy-head teacher at a school, by-passing older and more experienced candidates. She was now considering how to deal with the jealousy and anger of several male colleagues. The ease with which Tania, like Sanaa, dealt with the dual demands of family life and career— with no fraught dilemma—and with the support of their husbands, surprised me.
- For Kifah, a Palestinian teacher in her 40s, motherhood played center stage as she expressed her worry and anger about her son. He had been celebrating his 16th birthday in a cafe in West Jerusalem the previous week when his ethnicity was discovered and he was beaten up. She was awaiting the results of his CAT scan.
- Mona, from East Jerusalem, with her carefully considered and confidently expressed views, quickly became the unofficial leader of the Palestinian delegation. The business editor of a Palestinian weekly newspaper, she has just set up a newspaper for Palestinian youth.
These women returned to Israel with me, inside of me, substantially changing my own attitudes and images of Palestinian women. They were neither prominent nor unusual in their community, just successful professionals similar to me and my colleagues. I realized that the pictures I had had—similar, I suspect, to those of many other Israelis—were no more than cumbersome stereotypes.