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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Zahira Kamal

The Long Pursuit of Women's Rights in a Land Between Islam and Israel

November 29, 1998|Ann Brenoff | Ann Brenoff is an assistant editor on the Op-Ed page of The Times

Women in Saudi Arabia today may not drive cars or be alone with men who are not immediate relatives. Amnesty International says women in this Arab nation are at risk of being detained and accused of immoral behavior merely for walking alone or not wearing a head scarf. Iraqi women may not appear in public unveiled. In Iran, earlier this year, three women were arrested on charges that they had voluntary sexual relations outside marriage. The penalty they faced: being stoned to death.

With much of the Arab world falling deeper under Islamic control and clamping down on women's rights, it's easy to assume that all Arab women are veiled and silent. The idea of an active women's liberation movement existing within Arab nations seems incongruous. Yet such a movement exists within the Palestinian community, and Zahira Kamal is a principal force behind it.

Kamal, the director of gender planning and development for the Palestinian National Authority and a member of the Palestinian Parliament, works for the empowerment of Palestinian women on a broad basis in an environment often hostile to women. Palestinian society is still patriarchal, with women usually relegated to child-rearing and homemaking. Early marriage is the norm, there are no domestic-violence laws and girls frequently have no schooling beyond elementary grades.

All of which makes Kamal's rise in this society that much more extraordinary.

Kamal fought her first battle for gender equality at age 16. Upon graduating from high school and being told that her family's limited savings were reserved for her younger brothers' education, she threatened a hunger strike and convinced her father to let her attend a university in Cairo. After graduating with a double major, she returned to Jerusalem and taught physics. Soon, she became involved in the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and women's rights.

Ever outspoken, Kamal was imprisoned by the Israelis for six months in 1979 for protesting the Camp David agreements. But she served as a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid peace conference in 1991 and in 1992 secretly traveled to Tunis with other prominent Palestinians to meet with the Palestine Liberation Organization, in defiance of an Israeli ban on contacts with the PLO. Twenty years ago, she established the Palestinian Federation of Women's Action Committee, an act that led to her "preventative imprisonment" (town arrest) for six years, the longest such arrest ever imposed on a woman.

Kamal, 53, has never married, instead devoting her life to improving the lot of Palestinian women by fighting for laws against domestic violence and for improved educational opportunities and the establishment of a mandatory minimum marriage age.

She spoke to The Times during a recent visit to Los Angeles, where she was honored by American Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a group that helps sponsor a pilot village north of Tel Aviv where Jews and Palestinians live peacefully together.

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Question: You've devoted your career to the advancement of Palestinian women and fought for gender equality. What signs do you see that the emerging Palestinian state is going to treat women any differently than the rest of the Arab world does?

Answer: As a woman who is active in politics and in woman issues, I know that rights are not given easily. There is always a struggle; even in the United States there is a struggle. Palestinian women are working and watching the emergence of our state with open eyes. Yes, we are part of the Arab world, but the difference is that the Palestinian state is now first developing, and we have the experience of the other Arab countries to examine. And we have the chance to be something different, because women are part of this state from its establishment.

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Q: Islam's influence in much of the Arab world appears to be growing. How would you characterize what is going on regarding the treatment of women?

A: We can't put the Arab world in one bloc. There are a lot of differences between countries. Some have very developed laws [benefiting women] compared with other Arab countries. Some places have active [women's rights] movements. In Egypt, there are very active women who speak out. In Lebanon, it is even more organized.

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Q: Do you think Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has been a good friend to women, even though he regularly defers taking action on women's issues--domestic violence laws, for one--seemingly out of regard for traditionalists?

A: Yes, by and large Arafat has supported women's issues. But at the same time, you must remember that change does not come just from one single person; it takes a collective effort to make the change. During the Palestinian revolution, women were treated as equal partners. But it is true, just like in any Western country, when it it comes to the more prestigious and higher-ranking positions, the men want to keep them. The discrimination comes at that level. . . .

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