The Susiya Struggle and the Role of Women

Described by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism as a marvellous set of millennial Jewish ruins, Susiya village remains a stronghold for local Palestinians determined to remain on their rightful land.

The village’s Arab origins are identifiable back to 1830 and the Ottoman Empire. However, ever since the second Oslo agreement establishing full Israeli control over some Palestinian lands in the West Bank (called Area C), Susiya and numerous other villages have been considered “illegal constructions”.

Since 1986, the inhabitants of Susiya (now living on their agricultural lands, in tents) faced five expulsions following the destruction orders of their houses and proprieties allowing them shelter (two of such orders were issued in 2001),. On May 4th 2015, Israel’s High Court of Justice gave the army a ‘green light’ to demolish the Palestinian village and forcibly transfer its residents out of Area C. Drastic measures such as demolition orders have been implemented against the supposedly illegal century-old buildings of Susiya, but nothing, yet, has been started against the Israeli settlements built in 1983. Area C appears to be the stage of a “systematic forced removal of ethnic or religious groups from a given territory by a more powerful ethnic group,” which is the specific definition of ethnic cleansing.

By doing so, Israel certainly is going against international humanitarian law and its own obligation. As the West Bank occupying power, Israel is required to care for the needs and well-being of the civilians living in the occupied territory.

The violation of the protection right enjoyed by the Palestinian locals is especially blatant given the active support provided by Israeli authorities for construction and expansion of Israeli settlements in the area -- also criminal under both international and Israeli law.

Despite being the rightful owners of the land, the residents of Susiya have been constrained from building by Israeli authorities’ constant refusal of building permits. Lacking solutions, individuals are dragged into illegality, and state criminality wears the mask of law enforcement.

Meanwhile, the latest demolition has not been carried out yet, due to the struggle of the local residents, with the help of civil society organizations such as Rabbis for Human Rights.

The situation in Susiya village is desperate but it appears, in the broader context of the Palestinian gender-discriminated society, that women are even more particularly affected as victims of the Israeli occupation.

Palestinian women are the poorest among the poor, mainly because of gender discrimination in getting a job, their low wages and the fact that a large number of them work without pay.

Women in Palestinian society

Palestinian Basic Law Article 25 contends that “Work is the right of every citizen, as well as a duty and honour. The Palestinian National Authority seeks to provide work for every citizen who is capable of it”. Despite a legal framework supposedly implementing gender equality, the actual participation of Palestinian women in the labor force is the lowest among nearby Arab countries, according to the last Gender Clearing House report, 14% of Palestinian women participate in the labor force in comparison with males (67% of them). This percentage reaches 36% in Jordan, 38% in Syria, 40% in Lebanon and 46% in Egypt.

This discrimination is influenced by both Israeli policies and Palestinian society. As for the Israeli influence, women are the first victims of the discrimination that every Palestinian faces under the Israeli colonial policy: As job opportunities decrease, women are the first to lose jobs and the last to get them, if available. Those obstacles particularly hinder the agricultural areas and notably concern restrictions of movement, land and water resources confiscation.

As for Palestinian society, the culture is dictated by masculine narratives and concepts. It is the man’s duty to ensure the financial wealth of his household while leaving domestic chores and childcare to the woman.

Women are involved in the work force but the Gender Clearing House survey indicates that the rate of unemployment among them increases the higher their level of education. Women are present at different levels of employment but their rate decreases in upper management and decision-making levels, while it increases in middle and low levels.

As for wages - woman are paid less. The assumption is that they accomplish less work due to maternity leave and that men provide their wages to their family, while women keep it for themselves. In this context, the informal sector, notably production of food and clothing, is often a solution.

photo credit: Flash90

Domestic chores and childcare are left to the woman. Photo: Patricia Cordell

The Women of Susiya

In the particularly harsh context of Area C, despite all odds, the women of Susiya have taken, if not the lead, a key position in the struggle for the liberation of their village and by doing so the liberation of women in Palestine. It took them six months of struggle, but the women’s cooperative of Susiya, including 12 other nearby villages such as Yata and al Majur, was finally recognized by Israeli state authorities in January, 2015.

As explained by the women of the cooperative, two fundamental reasons nourish this initiative. First was to increase their involvement in the means of productions so as to make themselves heard in the public sphere and so, increase their political weight in the area. This cooperative is, in the present context, truly a resilient act against the constant discrimination that women face. To challenge their assigned role within a rigid society is even seen, by some people, as a direct insult to good habits and customs of the traditional Palestinian society.

As explained by one of the women, “A lot of cultures think that women don't have their rights here., We wanted to prove otherwise by creating this association.

The second reason is for the villages to gain leverage with retailers and merchants who have been taking advantage of village fragility and the locals’ precarious situation to purchase goods at ridiculously low prices, not allowing producers to make relevant profits out of their particularly harsh work.

photo credit: Flash90

“At Susiya, we wanted to prove that women have rights!” Photo: Patricia Cordell

“Men support us in every way. The women are free here”

Willing to face the direct obstacles that women face in the Palestinian society and more particularly within the South Hebron hills, the cooperative is carrying out different activities such as workshops for embroidery and hand-designed objects, decorated with fine Palestinian traditional motifs that contribute to the preservation of the local culture in the area.

Despite the profits, the real success of the cooperative lies in the women’s empowerment. This association, gathering together more than 12 villages, provides a framework for women’s solidarity despite the Israeli strategy concerning West Bank segmentation and fragmentation. By sharing the production sphere with men, woman gain social recognition.

The men support us in every way. The women are free here.” From being respected on the field, they also gained legitimacy on the political plan. In fact, women get to be involved in decision making for the villages’ future.

Beyond political and social rights, women benefit from their cooperative by liberating themselves from frustrations, social violence and restrictions. By reaching purpose and meaning through a greater involvement into their own society, they gain self-esteem and confidence.

Palestine and its crippled economy, particularly needs the participation of women. The opportunity for them to do so is, however, mostly limited by local social behaviours.

These social norms cannot be challenged, in our specific case, by student movements, intellectuals or political activists. This initiative didn't start in Jerusalem or Ramallah, but from the most deprived and ancestral sphere of the Palestinian society, a tiny agricultural village in South Hebron hills, setting the example for the liberation and resistance of every Palestinian, both man or woman.