Friday, April 28, 2006


Beirzeit University: Student Elections and Institute of Women's Studies

I travelled to Beirzeit to meet up with Bassima one of the people in charge of the Institute of Women's Studies at University. When we got there I was surprised to see such a strong political atmosphere on Campus. I had arrived right in the middle of the student elections. Like the elections that I saw in January (see posts "Real Democracy in the Middle East (no it is not Israel)" and "An amazing election day!") for more info. Bierzeit university was covered with flags, banners and leaflets for the various faction.

When I was on LaTrobe University in Melbourne a campus with about 16,000 undergraduate students the SRC elections rarely resulted in more then 1,000 votes (6.25%). Yet Beirzeit, a campus with 5,446 undergraduates students able to vote had 4,441 people voting (81.5%).

Student Block # of votes # of seats
Martyr Yasser Arafat - 1,947 - 23
Islamic Loyalists - 1,853 - 22
Islamic Group - 132 - 1
United Students' Pole - 265 - 3
Students' Platform - 151 - 2

I am guessing the Martyr Yasser Arafat group is a student front for either Fateh or Al-Aqusa Martyr's. If that is the case that would be interesting because when we spoke to Bassima she informed us that the Islamists had won the last two campus elections in a row. Bierzeit University however used to be a major centre for leftist activity in Palestine. When asked about the decline of the left factions in Palestine, Bassima like many others acknowledged the external problems but felt they were an excuse and that the real reason was the left had ceased to organise people at a grass roots level. Whilst groups like Hamas were actually talking to people and taking up the space that should be occupied by the left. She said "Hamas is going into the local communities and talking to women about the importance of the role women can play in their own Islamic sense."

On the role of women since the Hamas election, Bassima said "a lot is on hold and remains uncertain." specifically she talked about things that the women's movement was in the process of reform such as raising the marriage age to 18 (from 16) and making it so that women no longer required their husband or fathers permission to get Passports etc. Whilst the new parliament has more women then ever before, the new Hamas government has only one female minister the minister for women's affairs. Bassima told us that the new minister for Women's affairs was from Saudi Arabia and there she studied Sharia Law, so her hopes of progressive change coming from there weren't high.

Bassima said she didn't feel that this rise of Islamic forces relates to historical Palestinian culture. Whilst now the majority of Birzeit's women students where the hijab, "back when [Bassima] was an undergraduate at Birzeit, it was rare that you could see a women wearing a headscarf."

The institute for women's studies puts out a lot of research on development issues however it didn't appear that political in terms of its outlook and most of the research the texts they provided us from the institute (I am still working through it) appears to be very much aimed at NGO style development research rather then social activism.

Unfortunately we only had less then an hour to talk with Bassima so we weren't able to cover everything in as much detail as we would have liked. We talked about the women's movement broadly and Bassima like most other people talked about trying to get women economically independent by providing them with training and trying to get women into university courses (particularly 'non-traditional areas'). This is incredibly important in providing the material basis for women to be independent of their husbands or their family members control. However the issues of social relations seems on the backburner for now. Bassima said that there were different initiatives organised by different women's groups tied to Political factions but unfortunately we didn't have time to go into those.

The Women's Institute has several hundred students and has a higher ratio of men involved then many women's and gender studies courses in Australia (a ratio of about 7:3 rather then 10:1). However Bassima sees that as less of a reflection of interest in gender issues or feminism (which like in Australia is often viewed at as a dirty word). Rather it is a reflection of an interest in working in NGO's (one of the only ways Palestinians can make money) given that Gendering services seems to be popular amongst international NGO's these days.

The department for all its progressive ideals cannot really talk about areas central to women's studies departments in Australia such as homosexuality, on this issue Bassima just said that it was taboo and that she has "a friend who had to leave for Brazil, so he could be open about his sexuality".

Bassima said it is "important for the women's movement to be an integral part of the anti-occupation struggle and you can't have freedom for women without freedom for Palestine, and you can't have freedom for Palestine without freedom for women."

[I borrowed a friends camera and took photo's of the election however because Israel searches your bag at the airport the photo's were posted and we are still waiting on them. I will attach some of them to this entry when we get them]

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