This Saturday, the West Bank city of Hebron will hold its first municipal elections in over three and a half decades. While this is critical for Hebron’s people, what makes these elections remarkable is the first all-women list to ever run in Palestinian politics.
The independent bloc, named “In Participation, We Can,” is made up of 11 middle-class women, spanning backgrounds in journalism, engineering, business, and more. Maysoun Qawasmi, the leader and woman behind the list, hopes to lay a foundation that will strengthen women’s voices in government and in Palestinian society as a whole. “I am running for the election to win,” she said. “I’m coming to change my society, in the best way, in a positive way, to send a message that women can do lots of things as decision makers.”
When asked about the issues that women in Palestinian society face, Qawasmi said that they are the same issues women face all around the world: lack of education, domestic violence, health care, pressure from male guardians, and additional effects of patriarchy. Qawasmi advocates for more women in government because female leaders understand women’s needs better than men. Girls in Hebron are not allowed to play in the local sports stadium for more than a few hours a week; most of the time it is dedicated to men. Qawasmi wants her daughter to be able to “live like a normal girl.”
She nonetheless said the biggest issue faced by Palestinian women is the occupation. In Hebron, Israeli settlers occupy the main thoroughfare and commonly attack Palestinians. Fearing such attacks, combined with limits on movement due to checkpoints and curfews, pregnant women have faced difficulty getting to hospitals to deliver their babies.
While the Palestinian Legislative Council has a quota system that mandates a certain amount of women to hold political positions, Qawasmi explained that most party lists take the minimum number of women required and expect them to follow male leaders’ orders. Other party lists, she said, don’t bring strong, feminist women on board. She’s seeking to do something about it.
For two years, Qawasmi mulled a list of independent women, and put her plan into action just last month. In five days, Qawasmi successfully got 11 women on board, prepared all the grueling paperwork, and registered the first all-female list.
Her main goal is to work with the people, says Qawasmi: “If you want to make a change, include the people in the street in your decision making. Open the doors.” She hopes to implement a plan where there would be large public meetings each month, and where each member of the municipal council would have three hours a day open to the public. This way, she contended, politicians can be accountable to the people they represent—in other words, practice democratic representation how it is supposed to work. “Those people make us win,” she said, explaining that they should play a role in decision-making by their elected representatives.
Qawasmi’s family history may be an asset, as her father, Fahd Al-Qawasmi, was elected mayor of Hebron in 1976. He was exiled by the Israeli military in 1980. The current mayor, Zoher Esaili, was appointed by Fatah to prevent Hamas, the Islamist group in control of Gaza, from winning control over the city. Hamas is boycotting the upcoming elections due to disagreements with Fatah. Without Hamas in the race, Qawasmi is competing with Fatah and independent candidates. Lacking options, many expect Fatah to win. But Qawasmi is offering an independent alternative for those that are looking for a change from the status quo.
Managing expectations, Qawasmi anticipates her bloc will only win a few seats, which could leave her without much real sway in the council. Still, she has her own solution: “I will return to the street and tell the people to come with me against the decision in the municipality.”
Taking to the streets wouldn’t be anything new for Qawasmi. She is a long-time activist who holds empowerment trainings for women and youth, and has been active against the occupation and settlements. Once elected, Qawasmi wants to expand her service to include working for the handicapped, dealing with water shortages, opening more schools, making the local sports stadium accessible to girls and women, and most importantly, sharing the public in decision-making. Once these races are over, she hopes to run for Mayor.
Will the women’s bloc succeed in what it hopes to accomplish? Will it win seats in the elections, provide a real voice for women, and make a large impact on gender equality in Hebron? Only time will tell. But Qawasmi believes she has already achieved victory: she has made a presence and changed how many people in Hebron view women in politics. She has already given women in Hebron something they have never had—political legitimacy.