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Palestinian and Israeli Women Confront Gender Issues—But Not Each Other

In December 2003, a week-long conference entitled Gender: Order and Disorder, took place successively in Tel Aviv, West Jerusalem, and Ramallah. Israeli and Palestinian women passionately addressed issues common to both. Omnipresent in the background was the central reality of every woman’s life in the Middle East: the influence of the Palestinian/Israeli crisis upon their identity, aspirations, opportunities, their frustrations, and their tragedies. But no Israeli woman faced any Palestinian, nor vice versa. For although the conference was open to the public, in today’s political climate, Palestinians from the occupied territories are unable to travel to Israel for any conference, and no Israeli would dare appear in Ramallah.

Thus no Palestinian heard Tel-Aviv University sociologist Orna Sasson Levy present her research, which turns on its head myths about the role of the female soldier in the Israeli army. No Palestinian viewed “Detained,” the powerful film by Anat Even and Ada Ushpiz about the emotional burdens Israeli society places upon the widows of its fallen soldiers. No Israeli heard Rana Nashashibi of Birzeit University speak on Israeli violence and its effect upon Palestinian women, or Hind Khoury present the economic importance of gender order upon Palestinian reconstruction, or journalist Tahseen Yaqeen’s personal account of how gender became her issue.

The only participants who were able to hear both sides came from Germany, where the conference had been organized by Professor Christina von Braun, a cultural historian at Humboldt University in Berlin. Prominent German scholars also attended and presented their papers throughout the sessions.

Looking back upon the experience, Professor von Braun declared, “The most important part of the conference was—for us—the meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian women. We all came home very deeply impressed and with the feeling that we have gone through quite an intense ‘schooling’ on the conflict situation of Israel and Palestine. No other topic could have led us there as deeply as that of gender.”

But an iron curtain of silence has descended between Palestinian and Israeli women. Their respective struggles regarding gender order are waged in the shadow of their primary allegiances to nationality, ethnicity, and religion. Perhaps if they agreed to participate jointly in such a conference abroad could they learn of the similarities and differences in their societies’ attitudes toward gender, and thereby begin to bridge the vast gap that separates them.