Interview with Eileen Kuttab, Director, Institute of Women's Studies, Beirzet University, West Bank.
EILEEN KUTTAB, Director of the Institute of Women's Studies, Beirzet University in the West Bank, is a feminist, sociologist and crusader for the Palestinian cause. She was in Delhi recently to attend the India Social Forum.
Excerpts from an interview she gave Frontline on the challenges facing the women's movement in her country.
You spoke about the need to forge alliances to defeat militarism and imperialist globalisation. What kind of a role can women play in the anti-war movement given the situation in Palestine today and the world over?
As women, we have to be anti-war for various reasons - not only because our husbands and sons would get killed but also because of the concerns that affect working women. Nearly 67 per cent of Palestinian people are below the poverty line. Women who were employed in the public sector no longer have their jobs. There are two kinds of militarism now. About Palestine, in particular, we had the Oslo Accord, one of the objectives of which was regional globalisation. But the Accord was built on only 18 per cent of the Palestinian State; it was not exactly an Accord. It failed as the second Intifada erupted. We realised that the Accord was a disaster and that armed struggle is also a right. The emphasis on armed struggle has been described as terrorism. And the terrorism by the Israelis is called democracy.
These two paradigms have had a very negative impact on local militarism and global terrorism. One of the major tasks of the women's movement is to transform the democratic resistance into a more secular resistance. The Palestinian experience of the 1970s and the 1980s did achieve that but failed due to internal reasons. The complex of so many political fragmentations has somewhat relegated class issues to the background. The Palestinian Authority, with its romantic notion of the peace process, built into our minds the idea that things are much better.
But the Iraqi experience has expanded our consciousness. The Oslo Accord broke the Palestinian resistance by diverting it from being a global issue to a bilateral one - between Palestine and Israel. There have been attempts in certain sections of the American media to indicate that it was not Hamas but Al Qaeda that was behind the resistance. This is an attempt to extend the definition of terrorism and leaving it open for any kind of militarist intervention.
Yes, an anti-war global movement is important. We dreamt of India as a great democracy building bridges between people. But it may be difficult with the kind of exploitation here. It has made me realise that we have to put the Palestine issue on the Indian agenda, for it has been marginalised.
How do women's issues fit into all this? Do you see your concerns being reflected at the ISF?
We don't believe in a global "sisterhood". This term is used by the Americans. Women are not one class. I see that there are too many NGOs [non governmental organisations] doing too much work but with not much focus.
There is hardly any discussion here on what is happening globally. International issues become important on such a platform. We have to use these platforms to forge common struggles, nationally and internationally. This [ISF] was a forum where the Palestinian issue could have been raised but the nature of the forum was too fragmented.
You mentioned in your plenary speech that the Palestinian women's movement had strong identifications with the resistance in 1987, in that it was able to reflect people's aspirations. One of the changes that took place after Oslo was its transformation into an elite movement. How do you deal with this situation?
Although we face an emergency kind of a situation with the Israelis reinvading most of the areas, there is no unity in the women's movement. Owing to the fragmentation of politics as well as accompanying militarisation, there have been some setbacks. The NGOisation and the funding following the Oslo Accord resulted in what we call professional women's organisations. Most of them have transformed themselves into societies. We talk about these things critically.
We support women's activism but argue that it should not become a substitute for our participation in the national movement. Resistance has become a class issue. Not all women have the same interests. The national agenda has got affected. Now women's groups have more to do with advocacy, women's rights and domestic violence. Where is their involvement in the national struggle? As scholars we reject this approach of viewing women's intervention in a narrow sense.How do you resolve the conflicts?
Well, we have attempted to put the refugee women issue on the agenda viewing women's rights as refugee rights. The same applies to women prisoners. One cannot talk about women's rights in isolation when homes are getting bulldozed and bombed.
We try to promote women's rights as part of a national struggle for our rights. Hence we talk of women's rights at the level of political parties and political organisations.
You mentioned earlier that women are not one class and that class issues cannot be ignored. How do you raise class issues in an atmosphere of growing elitism?.
In the first Intifada, class was not such a big issue. Now it is a must. We have to talk about class. The majority of Palestinian women are poor and uneducated. Too many women are struggling for survival negotiating the hills and the mountains. They have limited their own mobility for practical reasons. We cannot ask these women to come for a meeting in such circumstances. We are trying to push these issues in a manner that does not break the women's movement. There are sophisticated formulas.
Do you think that the women's movement is affected by the Hamas' victory in the elections this year? You mentioned in your plenary speech that since the first Intifada in 1987, the women's movement made it clear that its struggle was not only against Israeli oppression but also against patriarchy.
A new leadership is going to be created, which will be more secular. We had it in the 1970s but militarisation imposed a new situation on us. People voted the Hamas for political reasons. The representatives from the women's movement met the Minister for Women (who is a woman herself) and told her that there should be a constant dialogue between them and the government. We were clear that there could be no going back on our gains.
They [Hamas] also know that if they make us abide by Islamic tenets and not by secular ones, it won't be accepted and they stand to lose support. They have not touched the social agenda as yet, maybe there is political pressure. While our struggle continues, it is for the people of Palestine to decide what model they are looking for - an Arab or an Islamic or a democratic state.