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Engendering Compensation: Making Refugee Women Count!

Prepared for the Expert and Advisory Services Fund International Development Research Centre

by Nahla Abdo

March 2000 - Ottawa

5. A Gender Perspective on Palestinian Refugees
In order to understand the life experiences of Palestinian women refugees and appreciate their specific conditions, needs, and aspirations, a brief history of women’s life experiences prior to the creation of their status as refugees is in order. Before 1948, Palestine was an overwhelmingly agrarian society. Social and gender relations were organized around a system of production and reproduction known as the village or Hamula system. Around this system, cultivation, land redistribution and inheritance were organized and internal village conflicts were resolved. The important role played by the village/Hamula in organizing Palestinian social relations of production is evidenced throughout the literature on Palestine, where the village/Hamula is considered as the basic unit of the society. It is for this reason we find experts on compensation, such as Abu-Sitta, considering the village/Hamula as "the best unit of Palestinian society, on which the whole compensation system might be established".

Notwithstanding the significance of the village/Hamula in the social structure of Palestinian society, accepting it at face-value for compensation considerations is quite problematic, for the village/Hamula system was a hierarchical system based on gender, age and class differentiation. During the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th century, the village/Hamula began to acquire different characteristics as the Palestinian economy was being transformed from a relatively self-sufficient economy into a market economy involving the production of commodities for sale. The introduction of private property laws began with the Ottoman Land Law of 1858. Later, the Land Reforms of 1872 aimed at curtailing the role of the Head of the Hamula through individual land registration, and by increasing direct Ottoman supervision over the extraction of surplus production.

The laws relating to private property placed tremendous pressure on the Fallaheen (peasants). While only a minority of the Fallaheen responded to these changes by registering their land and acquiring the Tabu (i.e., registration) papers, the majority adopted more stringent means to maintain control over the land they traditionally inherited and tilled. The most important aspect of such measures came in the responses of the Fallaheen and was expressed in prohibiting land parcelization and in the retaining of the tract of land as one piece for more efficient use. Such measures have resulted in the emergence of two forms of social discrimination; gender discrimination and class discrimination. Moreover, the popular notion that, as Muslims, the Palestinians have followed the Shari’a, which included all members of the family, including women, in the inheritance system, does not stand up to a reality check.

Women were excluded, or at least discouraged from inheritance in order to keep the land within the agnatic based family structure. Women’s share was often added to that of the Head of the Hamula. The exclusion of women from inheritance was reinforced by other socially and culturally constructed norms and traditions such as endogamous marriage, particularly the marrying of first cousins, which itself was promoted as a means to solidify the economic and political power of the head of Hamula - keeping land under close control. Class discrimination became embedded within the Hamula system and was expressed in the adoption of a system of inheritance known as Primogeniture, in which control over the land after the death of the ‘father’ remains in the hand of the elder son. Again, this was done to avoid parcelization. Yet, over the generations to follow, this discrimination resulted in the creation of ownership and landlessness between brothers and within the same family/Hamula.

Despite the important role played by the Fallahat (women peasants) in the production process as direct agricultural producers, the patriarchal norms and values constructed by the traditional Palestinian peasant society marginalized the value of women’s work and contributions. The marginalization and further de-valuation of women’s work increased with the emergence of a new ideological and cultural dimension, namely the encounter between European (Jewish), foreign culture and the indigenous, basically traditional and conservative Arab culture. The impact of this encounter was epitomized in 1948.

Thus, socially and culturally constructed norms within Palestinian society have resulted in women’s marginalization and consequent exclusion from landed property, despite their productive role and contributions. Women were not equal members of their society, nor did they enjoy equal rights within the Hamula. While more research on women and landed property is needed, data collected on wealthy families from Jabal Nablus support this claim. In her Women, Property and Islam. Palestinian Experiences 1920-1990, Annelle Moors argues that women forfeited their rights in favor of ‘social and cultural capital’. Women’s social and cultural capital refers to their education and their position within their natal families. By not claiming property rights and keeping land within her natal family, a woman can maintain a strong position after marriage. If marriage breaks down she can rely on her "father’s" house for shelter or refuge.

It is important to note however, that the absence of land deeds or registration papers as a proof (or lack) of ownership, must not, by any means, be construed as an actual absence of individual peasant possession of land. It must be remembered that peasants throughout the world, including Feudal Europe, often operated in ways that were culturally and historically specific and not by terms later invented by the liberal or capitalist system of commodification. In so far as most Palestinian peasants were concerned, the land was their rightful possession by tillage and inheritance from one generation to the next. Their deeds and entitlement to the land were more meaningful to them as customary relations, rather than as official papers imposed on them by a foreign colonial powers.

Notwithstanding the significance of the Hamula in the social structure of Palestinian society, accepting it at face-value for compensation considerations is problematic, for the Hamula system was a hierarchical system based on gender, age and class differentiation.

The marginalization and further exclusion of Palestinian women refugees from the productive and public spheres was further enhanced after 1948. As camp dwellers, whether in Palestine or in the host countries, Palestinian refugees lost access to land as their major means of survival. They, instead, became dependent on UNRWA for their basic needs. While life experiences of camp refugees have varied according to the political and economic conditions under which they found themselves, there are some common experiences which most camp women have shared. These experiences concern their very life conditions, rights, roles, and access to the public sphere, particularly with regards to labour and education.

One such commonality that characterises most refugee camps is the phenomenon of the feminization of poverty, which is the product of the feminization of the camp household. Palestinian refugee camp women, whether in Palestine or in host countries, have often found themselves without the traditional male bread-winner or ‘head-of-family’. The economic reasons that forced many men to leave the camp to seek employment as migrant laborers - whether in Israel, in the Gulf, or elsewhere in the diaspora - in addition to the political circumstances that resulted in men leaving the camp to join the PLO or be taken prisoner by Israel, have constructed a special social reality for women. Women were often left alone to attend to the family, assuming the roles of providers for children, the sick and the elderly, socializers and social and cultural reproducers. These roles were further complicated by the high fertility rates among Palestinians as well as the culturally constructed norms that privilege men’s education over that of women. Moreover, unlike boys, girls are often withdrawn from schools or even denied education because they are needed as additional hands (labour power) to help in maintaining and reproducing the household.

Early marriage, whether for economic, social or cultural reasons, has also influenced women’s lack of educational, labour and other opportunities. The tribal notion of "al Mara’ Imma Jabirha aw Qabirha" (marrying her off or her death) or that of "Min Beit Abuha la-Beit Jouzha" (from her father’s house to that of her husband), are commonly used notions expressing the future life prospects of Arab women. Neither education, nor public participation in the wage-labour force, are generally seen as important factors in the development of women. Palestinian refugees, while influenced by this culture, have also had to face additional political constraints such as restricted movement from the camps, particularly in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

Unlike other Palestinian women, camp refugee dwellers have been placed under particular national/cultural pressures as mothers with a specific national mission. As Rosemary Sayigh has observed, one of the primary roles camp women have played is that of reproducers and transmitters of the old culture and the lost national identity. This role has strengthened Palestinian national identity and opened further spaces for male public/political participation. Yet, at the same time, it has led to the further marginalization of refugee women as it has prioritized national concerns over gender rights, pushing women further away from the public productive sphere and into the domestic realm. In other words, the particular role that refugee women play as socializers and reproducers of the new generation with a specific cultural and national identity is a job that requires labour time and mental and physical effort, yet is often un-rewarded and unremunerated.

There is no doubt that Palestinian women have experienced refugee status differently than their male partners at all levels of the public sphere. They have been discriminated against and often marginalized in the labour force, in education, in political representation as well as in the private sphere. As for the latter, it is important to note that the combination of economic difficulties, overcrowding, social frustration and moral degradation among camp residents have resulted in various forms of domestic violence with women and female children bearing the brunt of this violence. Research on domestic violence, particularly against women in Gaza refugee camps has shown an increase in physical, mental, psychological and sexual violence against women. The Women’s Empowerment Project of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program has documented a sharp rise in cases of violence against women, including incest rape.

There is no doubt that Palestinian women have experienced refugee status differently than their male counterparts at all levels of the public sphere.

They have been discriminated against and marginalized in the labour force, in education, in political representation as well as in the private sphere.

The differential experiences of Palestinian refugee women and men, which are enhanced due to their refugee status, are not likely to be solved if gender issues are not addressed in negotiating the future status or citizenship rights of refugee women. Economic, political, legal and social/cultural discrimination against Palestinian women in almost all Arab countries, as well as in Israel, is not likely to change without special attention being paid to the issue.

The restrictions of movement that characterises women’s lives in refugee camps (be it legal restrictions imposed by the host state, e.g., Lebanon which excludes Palestinian refugees from civil/citizenship rights, or Gaza and the West Bank) has drastically reduced women’s labour and educational potentials. However, the situation is not much better for those who manage to find employment. Some refugee women are employed in the informal labour sector, either as domestic workers or in the sub-contracting system, labouring for the Israeli market, while in their own camps working conditions are deplorable and exploitation is triple. Here again, while the ontological status of these women, i.e., being refugees, contributes to their exploitation, their gender identity, being women intensifies their exploitation in the labour process. It is not surprising, therefore, that calculating losses of labour or potential labour would vary if gender considerations were taken into account.

A gender-based analysis to the study of Palestinian refugees demonstrates the differential experiences of males and females and underscores the gender specific character of the socio-economic, political and cultural lives of refugees.

So far, three major areas for compensation have been revisited from a gender perspective: land/property inheritance and women’s traditional exclusion thereof; the increase in women’s marginalization in the productive and reproductive spheres as a result of their refugee status; and the further deterioration of their status in the educational system, also re-enforced by their status as refugees.

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