Women and the Middle East Part I: Palestine — Gender, Education, and Life in the West Bank

By Mya GuarnieriJanuary 20, 2013

Women and the Middle East Part I: Palestine — Gender, Education, and Life in the West Bank

This is the first in an ongoing series the Los Angeles Review of Books will publish throughout the year on women and the Middle East. The series will include interviews, on-location reporting and review essays.

Click here for "Women and the Middle East Part II: Jordan - On Gender, Education and the Limits of the Western Imagination."

All photographs by Mya Guarnieri


THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW was conducted with four 18-year-old Palestinian women who attend a university in the West Bank. All of the women are Muslim, though they run the gamut as to the extent of their religiosity: Nawal self-defines as liberal, Salma says that she and her family are conservative. Salma and her parents’ religious/political leanings are reflected in the jilbab [long, loose coat] she wears to cover her clothing as well as by the fact that she doesn’t wear makeup. Noor and Amira both describe themselves as moderate, saying that their commitment to Islam falls somewhere between Nawal’s and Salma’s.

All wear the hijab though it signifies different things for each girl. Nawal says she would prefer to be without the veil and that it is not an outward symbol of faith. Rather, she wears it because her parents and society expect her to.

It’s worth pointing out that a number of female Muslim students do not wear the hijab. One such woman considers herself deeply religious and, for years, has struggled with her peers’ assumptions that she is unobservant just because she does not cover her hair. The girl, who has spent a lot of time in the United States, resents her peers’ judgments as much as American stereotypes that Arabs are terrorists — something she has confronted often since 9/11.

Nawal, Salma, Noor, and Amira all come from middle-class families. All of their fathers work. Two of the girls’ mothers hold college degrees but none of their mothers are employed.

Two of the girls are refugees from “’48,” as they call it: the land that is now known as Israel. Their families were expelled or fled during the fighting that began after the United Nations Partition Plan was passed in late November of 1947; the exodus of between 700,000 to 800,000 Palestinians during 1947–1948 is known in Arabic as the “nakba” (catastrophe), or is sometimes referred to as “1948.”

The other two women come from families who have lived in West Bank villages for many generations.

All names and some identifying details have been changed so that the girls felt free enough to talk about the issues at hand without repercussions from their families and peers.

— Mya Guarnieri


Mya Guarnieri: Why are you pursuing an education?

Noor: I guess it’s more for me, for myself, it empowers me. You know, like there was this discussion the other day on, I don’t know if you watch it, it’s called “The Talk,” and they said that men are intimidated by women who are educated. And so it was kind of interesting because they shouldn’t … they shouldn’t feel intimidated. Sure, I’m educated, but they [men] have a chance to go educate themselves. Why not go educate yourself?

I’m educating myself for me. Maybe it will help me in the future and my kids and myself.

MG: Do you want to work?

Noor and Salma: Yeah.

Noor: I want to work if I get the chance to.

MG: What does that mean, “If I get the chance to”?

Noor: If I get to finish, if I get to find work. It’s a bunch of questions. It’s not so simple.

Salma: Yeah.

MG: I got engaged when I was about your age. And then, after I got married, my now ex-husband prevented me from going to graduate school and, when I found a way to go, it made all kinds of trouble. That makes me wonder about you, Noor, because you’re engaged. Do you think your fiancé will put restraints on you, too, once you’re married?

Noor: No, he’s like, “I want you to go get educated, I want you to finish your education.” But about work, it’s depending on the future. I might have kids … Or I might not find a job. There are other factors. It’s not like, “Oh, I want to work so I’ll get a job.”

MG: Does having kids mean you can’t work?

Nawal: Screw the kids.

[The girls laugh.]

Salma: Yeah, we have this thing in our society that is like, your house, your kids are [more] important than anything else. Your job is not so important because it’s like, your husband is working, challas [enough]. That’s enough.

MG: But how do you feel about that personally?

Salma: I’m studying media because I want to be a journalist. So I want to be a journalist and go and [cover] news. I don’t want to stay at home after four years of studying.

MG: Nawal, you said “Screw the kids.”

[The girls laugh again.]

MG: What does that mean?

Nawal: No, my bad.

MG: No, it’s okay. I know you were joking.

Nawal: Yeah, in my point of view, I’m coming to college and doing this for my [younger] sister and the other generations that are coming up. I’m opening doors — not just for my younger sister, but also the girls in my balad [town]. When society sees more women stepping out and going, you know, other fathers will let their girls go to college and it will be, “Okay, she did it, you can do it.” I think, for me, it’s more about me opening doors for the generation that’s coming up.

MG: Even if you can’t work?

Nawal: I’d better work.

[The girls laugh.]

Nawal: Because you know I didn’t come to college just to take everything and then sit at home. My dad will let me work. As for my husband, I don’t know because I haven’t met him yet.

MG: What would you guys have done if you were in my situation, if your husband prevented you from pursuing your education?

Nawal: I would have divorced.

Salma: Me, too.

Noor: If he was understanding, it could work out. But if not — divorce.

MG: But how would your families react? My mother was pretty upset.

Noor: The same.

Salma: My father, if there are men [suitors], he doesn’t even tell my sister and me about it. His point of view is, “Just finish your education and then you will get married and do whatever you want. But first of all, finish your college.”

MG: So he’s very supportive.

Salma: Yeah. When I finished tawjihi [exam Palestinian and Jordanian students take at the end of high school that determines entry and placement into college or university] — you know tawjihi is hard — I told my dad I just want to marry. I don’t want to go to university. He said, “No, you can’t. Just study because studying is the most important thing in the world.”

MG: What? I don’t believe that you, of all people, wouldn’t want to go to college, Salma.

Salma: Yeah. Because after tawjihi, I was very tired, and I was like, I just want to get married, and my dad was like, no, go to college and then you can do whatever you want. There were some people who wanted to come to my house and ask for me but my dad got angry.

Noor: In my village, divorce is something you can’t technically do. It’s not haram [forbidden according to religious law] —

Nawal and Salma: It’s halal [permitted according to Islam], it’s halal.

Noor: — It is halal

Nawal: But, aadi [normally] … the culture [forbids divorce].

Noor: It’s the culture, it is society itself. They pinpoint you. Oh she’s divorced? No, don’t go [with her]. She’s damaged goods. And it’s sad because it’s not all her fault —

Salma: Yes!

Noor: But the guy? He’s not affected by the divorce at all. It’s all the women, it’s all her fault.

Salma: Yeah. That’s right.

Noor (voice rising): No matter if he did something, it’s still her fault.

Salma: That’s our society.


Young Palestinian women at a Palestinian bus station in East Jerusalem.
Jewish Israelis and Palestinians traveling to and from the West Bank use different bus lines.


MG: Noor is engaged but the rest of you are not. How do you imagine balancing work and family when you finish college?

Salma: I think the most important thing after we finish college is to marry. Because, you know, husband and wife [belong together]. In our society there is a saying, ilmarra labeitha [A woman is for her house].

Nawal: That’s what the society says but I don’t care about that. Whatever happens, happens. If I get married, I get married. After 30, 60, 70, if I’m dead and I get married —

[The girls giggle.]

Nawal: — anything. But for now, I think it’s more important to be a strong woman and … The only places you’ll find [women working] is like, [as] teachers in schools and things like that. You know, you can’t find a woman head of state in Palestine […] Maybe girls want to be head of state and me going to college might open up the opportunity for them.

MG: Your families support your education. But in Gendered Paradoxes, a book I read about Jordan, it says that a lot of parents there support education just so the daughters can catch better husbands —

Noor: My parents were like, “La samah allah [God forbid] your husband dies or something, you have that degree and you can go out and work and not beg for money.”

Salma: That’s the same with me.

Noor: And my dad was like, “I didn’t get a chance to go and study, no one supported me, I want to support you to go and study, I want you to study, I want you to have the education I didn’t get.”


MG: Do you ever feel a conflict between following Islamic values and getting educated?

Salma: No. We have this in Islam to get educated because education is the most important thing, and also if you like doing your job at home and you care about your husband and family, then that’s fine.

Noor: [In Islam] education is a must. It’s an obligation to seek knowledge. And I think that for every hour you’re going to school you’re getting like 700 hasanat (points for good deeds) for going.

Nawal: And that’s the only reason I’m going to heaven.

[The girls laugh.]

MG: Nawal, what is your relationship to Islam and education?

Nawal: Islam gives me the opportunity to get my education. I’m not against it [Islam] but there are some things about it I don’t like […] Overall, it’s not that bad, as long as we get our education.

MG: Do you feel like going to school is doing something for Palestine?

Salma: Yes.

Nawal: Yeah, the more you learn, the more you can help Palestine economically, politically, socially. I mean you have people who are learning urban studies. They can help us with planning. We have lawyers that can help us.

Noor: We also have research facilities that can lead to discoveries and along the way people from Palestine will get recognized that they discovered [something] and not that we [made] the world’s biggest knafeh [cheese dessert].

[The girls laugh.]

Noor: Because, seriously, we’re known for that kind of stuff.

Salma: We can’t go against Israel because they have such a strong military, but if we educate ourselves we will be able to come up with some sort of clever strategy to liberate Palestine.

MG: What is your political affiliation? Fatah? Hamas? Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [communist party outlawed by Israel]?

Noor: None of the above.

Nawal: Screw them all. Fatah is like the [American] Republicans, Hamas is a dictatorship. We [Palestinians] need a democracy. I’m against all of [the existing political parties]. They’re not for the people, they’re for themselves. […]. Fatah is just in it for the money and Hamas is a dictatorship where they’re not only going to take everyone’s rights but, specifically, [they’ll take] women’s rights. They’re gonna make us wear jalabib [long coats worn over the clothes for modesty].

Noor: Like if you look at [pictures from] Gaza, everyone’s wearing it … Fatah and Hamas — neither of them are doing us any good.

Nawal: That’s why we’re coming to college. Inshallah [God willing] maybe people in our generation will take up [the struggle for Palestine].

Amira: I’m Fatah.

Salma: I agree with Hamas on some things, but I agree with Fatah, also.

Nawal: Since I’ve been in college one semester, I’ve started to think that the power is in the college students; they’re the strongest in Palestine right now. If we want to make a revolution we should make it now. [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas has been in the chair for a long time. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. [During Operation Pillar of Defense] every time [journalists] would ask him a question about the Gaza war, he was like, “Oh, we’re going on the 29th to the UN.”

[Salma laughs.]

Nawal: Every question —

Noor: He’d dodge it.

Nawal: The questions were about Gaza and he would keep going back to how we’re going to go on the 29th to the UN.

Amira: But who do you think is better than Abbas?

Nawal: I don’t know. Whoever we have left.

MG: So does the future lie in the political parties or the people?

All the girls: The people, the people.

Amira: Yeah, for me, education is the only opening we can use.

Nawal: Yeah, and during the Intifada, Israelis would hate to see the students go and get their education.

Amira: Until now, especially in Hebron, there are checkpoints that prevent [the students from getting to] their schools.

Noor: [Going to school] is not about you only. It’s about Palestine, as well — your country, making a contribution.


Palestinians are divided among various political factions, as these boys carrying the factions' different flags show.


MG: Amira, you’re studying media, right? Do you want to get married when you finish?

Amira: Does marrying mean there’s no work?

MG: What does it mean for you?

Amira: My work is the first thing. I’m used to participating in the community, so marrying and staying at home will be something horrible for me […]. I cannot do nothing. I can remember that in the year of the tawjihi, because we studied hard, that I stayed home and it was the worst thing ever

MG: Is it important to you to find a husband that would support your desire to work?

Amira: Yeah, I would like to. Guys now — most of them are trying to find girls who want to work because life now is hard so they want someone who will share —

Salma: — The financial [burden].

Amira: Yeah, this is what I see right now. But before they like —

Noor: They didn’t want to educate women because they thought it would lead to a rebellion in the house.

MG: So in the past, men preferred uneducated women, but now, because of the financial situation, they prefer educated women?

Salma: Yeah.

MG: I read an article recently that said that the Israeli occupation indirectly impacts domestic violence.

Noor: The occupation makes education harder. Actually from the university it should be like, 30 minutes to my balad, not two hours. But [because of Israeli checkpoints and the separation barrier] you have to go around. And it frustrates people who have classes to get to and you can’t get to them on time and you get home late … and you go home and you release this anger on whoever is right in front of you.

Salma: I think it’s also like when people used to work inside Israel and now they can’t and they lost their jobs and they lost everything … and so they just beat their wives.

Amira: There is a huge number of people in a small area and the economy is limited —

Noor: It’s frustrating for some people. We don’t have many factories. We don’t have a lot of jobs.


Above: Shuafat Wall: The separation barrier and a tower outside of Shuafat Refugee Camp
in East Jerusalem

Below: Palestinian women chanting at a protest at Qalandia checkpoint.  Together with the Israeli permit system, the Israeli-manned checkpoint, which is one of hundreds in the West Bank, severely limits their freedom of movement.



MG: What does your family expect from your studies?

Amira: My family keeps on encouraging me. My father said, “[Being a journalist] will be hard for you and this will be dangerous for you, as a woman.”

Salma: Yeah, my father says the same thing.

MG: Why?

Salma: They consider it something hard for women […]. If you have a calling at night [to cover a story], that’s hard for a woman.

Amira: And we don’t like, have enough media jobs in Palestine. […]

Salma: We’re going to have to go to Qatar and work for Al Jazeera.

[The two girls laugh.]

Amira: I hate Al Jazeera.

MG: Why?

Salma: I like Al Jazeera.

Amira: From the moment they published the papers of the negotiations [the Palestine papers], I understood that they’re creating problems […] They wanted the people to get mad at the government. [They made the revolutions] in Syria, Egypt, and Libya, and they tried this here. But in Palestine, it didn’t work.

MG: But Nawal says Palestine needs a revolution?

Amira: But we’re under occupation. We don’t have a country.

Salma: We have to get rid of Israel and then we can think about our future.

Noor: No, I think we should have our own revolution within, fix ourselves and present ourselves to the world. If we present ourselves broken to the world, they’re not going to take us seriously. Do you think anyone is going to take you seriously if you’re all broken? If one is Fatah and one is Hamas? We have to have unity. That’s why we need a revolution to fix us.

Amira: So we don’t need a revolution, we need unity. There is a difference; there is a big difference […] Do you think Egypt is in a good situation now?

Noor: No.

Amira: Okay, so they got rid of Mubarak and this is a good thing. But are they okay now?

Noor: No.

Amira: And how long will it take them?

[The other girls nod.]


A Palestinian woman faints after inhaling too much tear gas at a protest against Israel's separation barrier. The demonstration was held on Nakba Day at Qalandia checkpoint, a site of frequent clashes between unarmed Palestinian youth and heavily armed Israeli soldiers. 


MG: What does it say about Palestine that there are so many women here on campus? It’s like, 70 percent female, no?

Salma: [Men] have the chance to go outside. But the girls stay in Palestine and go to the local universities. The boys can go to Jordan and Egypt and the US.

Noor: My cousins, when they finish high school, ala tul [immediately], they go overseas. Ala tul. They get the ticket at the beginning of the summer and then yalla [let’s go]. For girls it’s a lot harder because you don’t get the chance to.

MG: I was looking around here and thinking that this means that girls are “liberated” because there are so many women here at school. But, bil aks [on the contrary].

Salma: Yeah, yeah.

MG: In Adely’s book, it says that sometimes going to school puts Jordanian girls into situations that go against Islam —

Salma: My family is a religious family. We have red lines. When I started at this college I was so, so confused. People would be like, “Hi, Salma, how are you?” And they would want to shake hands, but I can’t. I was so confused […] I was crying […] It was hard for me, it was really hard. But now I have gotten more used to talking with boys.

Amira: I’m used to being with people like this […] I go to camps and conferences; this is what made me adapt. […]

Noor (on being an engaged woman at university): It’s hard. You have to have interactions [with male students]. You know he’s going to ask you for your notes or something like that. You can’t just ignore him and walk away because that’s disrespectful and that’s putting the person down. It’s also hard for me because my [future] sister-in-law goes to this college, too —

The other girls: Ooooooooo!

[They all laugh.]

Amira: She’s watching you!

Noor: So the thing is sometimes we have chemistry lab and partners and I’m always partnered up with [boys] and you can’t not talk. You’re going to have to interact with the other gender […] But there’s a limit to how much you can interact.

Salma: Yes, that’s right. That’s my opinion.

Noor: The thing is it’s really hard now that I’m engaged because I think that she [my future sister-in-law] is watching me 24/7.

[The girls laugh.]

Noor: And it’s a little annoying because sometimes I just want to walk away when someone talks to me in case she’ll catch it and make a mess. So that’s why I try to avoid [boys], but I can’t disrespect a person, and if they’re asking me to borrow my notes, you can’t just walk away. It’s rude.

Salma: Yeah, yeah, you’re right.

Amira: I felt in the very beginning, should I [study with boys] or what? But I think that we are studying with them for four years […] It’s not like two days, a week, or a month; we are staying most of our days in the college with them. So I decided like to make the limitation from the very beginning and to treat them like my brothers or cousins. They all respect me and they know now my limitations.

Noor: Yeah, it’s a brother-sister relationship, they don’t even try anything. They know that limit.

Amira: I remember my first week [one of the male students] did like this (she extends her hand) and I said (she presses her hand against her collarbone).

[The girls laugh.]

Amira: And from that moment they knew that I’m not joking. I’m not joking.

Salma: Like if someone comes up and talks to me and they say how are you? I’m fine, thanks.

Noor: But they know. They know there is a limit.

MG: But there are some girls here who take boyfriends and there is un-Islamic stuff going on on-campus, no?

Amira: Islam is getting behind. People are thinking about leaving this.

Salma: Yeah, a lot of young people don’t care about what is haram or halal, they just leave it.

Amira: All they talk about is smoking and hijab and they forget about the rest —

Salma: Faith and piety and forgiveness.

MG: And what about the girls who pass the red lines?

Salma: Yeah. I was shocked when I saw it.

Amira: It depends on the community — like girls who are from Jericho, who are from Ramallah and Hebron [are all different from one another]. The people from the cities are more open-minded, free.

Salma: We don’t have girls like this in [my town].

Noor: In my balad, if they know that you have a boyfriend, challas, they won’t come and ask for your hand [in marriage]. If you’ve had a boyfriend, that’s the end of the story.

Salma: But the boys can do whatever they want.

MG: Is that fair?

All: No.

Noor: It never is fair.

Amira: This is the problem.

Salma: Because they can do whatever they want, but if he goes to masjid [mosque] all the men say, “Oh, look, he’s here, he’s good.”

[The girls laugh.]

Amira: And then the girl, if she does something wrong just one time she spends the rest of her life asking for forgiveness from Allah and the community. No one will forgive her.

MG: But don’t you ever feel conflicted between your desires and —

Amira: Yeah, we do!

Amira to Noor (in Arabic): But you’re satisfied because you’re engaged.

Noor (in English to the group): Not in that kind of way!


Salma: Yeah this is hard. [Desire] is something adi, usual, it’s human.

Noor: It’s natural to want to be wanted by the other gender. But because you’re a woman and you’re raised in a certain way you know you can’t do it and there’s that restriction.

MG: Is that difficult?

Salma: Yeah, yeah. You must respect yourself and must limit everything in your life. It’s hard —

[Amira smiles, sighs, and lets out a loud, sensual groan.]

[The girls burst into laughter.]

Noor: Parents teach you to put red lines on all that kind of stuff, and the more conservative you are, the better your future because in this society, if people start talking about you, challas, you’re ruined. You are ruined. Whether it’s lies or the truth.

MG: That’s scary.

Amira: I [met] Palestinian girls from inside [Israel]. I think they are so, so, so, so, so free.

[Salma laughs]

Amira: I don’t blame them. It’s the culture around them.

MG: Are you jealous at all of their freedom?

Amira: No, but I feel like they are different, so different.

Noor: Here in the West Bank, we’re more stuck on the Arab culture and Islam and things like that, and so if they find out that you’re dating, you know —

Amira: But there are people like this [the Palestinian girls from Israel] here.

Salma: Yes, we have them in Bethlehem and Ramallah.


MG: What is the solution to the conflict with Israel? Two states or one state?

Amira: Two states but not two states. It’s normal that [the Jews] live with us but it’s our country. They can stay. They’re still human

Noor: I think one state but both stay, like Amira says.

Salma: Yeah, we can both stay but the [Palestinian] refugees have their right to return. The Jews also have the right to live here in Palestine because Palestine is not just for the Palestinians. It’s for the Christian people, the Muslims, the Jewish, yaani, but not Israel and occupation and not military and things like this.

Noor: That’s the thing about Palestinians and the Jewish. They both think, “Okay, this is ours and ours alone.” There are few people who think we should share it. But it should be shared. It’s not just our land.

MG: So you think most people in Palestine say that it’s just [for Palestinians]?

Noor: Yeah.

Amira: It’s Palestine, but we can share it with the Jews.

Salma: Not with the Israeli government, but with the Jewish.

Amira: From the very beginning, before 1948, there were Jews here.

Salma: Yeah, there were.

Amira: And this was the beginning of the problem, accepting them in the first place.

[The girls laugh.]

Amira: Now we’re saying we want them to stay but have the whole country be Palestine. We want them to stay but this was the first problem.

[The girls laugh.]

Amira: So we are repeating it.

MG: Is there anything we haven’t covered that it was important for you to say?

Salma: I am afraid [of the future].

Amira: Me too. I pray nothing will happen.

MG: You mean with the military? Like a war?

Amira: Yes.

Salma: [I’m worried about] finding a job.

Amira: But nothing could be worse than 1948.


LARB Contributor

Mya Guarnieri is a Jerusalem-based journalist and writer. A regular contributor to Al Jazeera English and the United Nations' news agency IRIN, her articles and commentary have also appeared in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Le Monde Diplomatique and dozens of other international outlets including Outlook India (India's Newsweek subsidiary), Haaretz, The Jewish Daily Forward, Maan News Agency, Electronic Intifada, Common Ground News Service, Mondoweiss, Zeek, Daily News Egypt, and The Khaleej Times. Additionally, her short stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine and The Kenyon Review Online. She blogs at +972.


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