Issues of human rights and liberties in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the transitional period are gaining importance and dominating debate among Palestinians. The status of women, especially in light of the existence of a strong Islamic opposition movement, is of special significance.
Following is an interview with Hanan Riyan Bakri of the Women's Social and Legal Counseling Center, the only center of its kind, based in East Jerusalem.
Bakri, a devout Moslem and an expert in Islamic Law, spends most of her time traveling throughout the Occupied Territories lecturing to Palestinian women about their rights. She provides them with advice from the vantage point of the existing civil law, Islamic laws and practices that are in use by West Bank courts. As part of her work in the Women's Counseling Center, Bakri is also involved in advising Palestinian women who are victims of domestic violence.

Daoud Kuttab: How would you describe the status of Palestinian women today? What have they accomplished and what are the challenges facing them?
Hanan Riyan Bakri: When we examine the current position of Palestinian women, we must take into account not only the political difficulties which they have encountered, but also the various political and social oppressions they have endured. In facing up to these problems, we notice that Palestinian women have suffered greatly both from laws enforced against them, and from the economic and political situation. Despite all this, the Palestinian woman nowadays is generally strong, enjoys a high level of political consciousness, and is steadfast in her beliefs. This resilience was noticeable during the Intifada, in the resistance of Palestinian women to the Israeli occupation, when they had to take responsibility for the home as a result of death or imprisonment of the breadwinner. During all this period, Palestinian women whether poor or rich, placed the education of their children as a top priority. It is true that the ratio of education among males is higher than that among females. Society favors education for males primarily as a result of the economic situation. Since in many cases families are unable to educate both girls and boys, they give priority to the son because it is expected that he would help his parents, whereas the daughters might get married. Naturally, this is not always the case, and many women have accomplished high levels of education and professionalism despite all these obstacles.
During the years of the Intifada we noticed an increase in divorce as well as in early marriages. This has caused some damage to the progress of Palestinian women.
Today women are looking for ways to improve their lot, and one of these is the law. So if you look at the Jordanian laws being enforced against women by the Israeli occupation forces, you will find that the status of the West Bank woman has not improved because Israel has not amended existing laws in the West Bank pertaining to women, even though these laws have been amended in Jordan. The Israelis keep saying that they have amended the law to allow women to vote, but other laws have yet to be changed.

Why do you think there is interest these days in women's law?

We are in a transitional period leading towards independence and statehood. For so many years we as Palestinians and not just as women, have not enjoyed the opportunity of having our own system, our laws, our leaders, and our own state. Naturally, with an opportunity like this ahead, we would like to get rid of the old laws as part of the injustices we have experienced, and to open a new chapter. In this regard, we are excited about having our laws that reflect our aspirations and fit the needs of this age.

Many people are raising the Algerian example as a cause of concern for Palestinian women. Does this new revival in women's rights reflect a fear that Palestinian women under independence would be forced back as has happened in Algiers?

I believe that Palestinian women and men have a much broader horizon. It is possible that there are some similarities, but I think that our women have been much more involved in practical affairs, and have not allowed various obstacles to impede them. Religion, for example, has never been a hindrance for women's advancement. Islam does not forbid women to work or study. Participation in elections is not against Islam, for in the time of the Prophet, women participated in voting for confidence in the Prophet. What has kept our women backward has been bad customs and traditions, as well as the unjust laws which we have inherited from the colonialists.

What kind of injustice towards women do the existing laws contain?

For example, there is no law that guarantees equal pay for equal work. If we had such a law, our women wouldn't suffer the gross injustices which they experience at work. In many of our institutions and work places, men are paid twice as much as women, even if they have the same qualifications.

There are fears by Palestinian women of the Islamic fundamentalist trend in our society. Is this fear legitimate or not?

I don't believe there is ample reason for this fear. The present Islamic personal laws allow a woman to make a condition in her marriage contract regarding her right to work. If an injustice is committed, a woman has the right to ask for a divorce.
In this respect there are four important areas of concern: first, if these fundamentalist movements are in fact Islamic, then they should not oppose women, and women should not fear them. But if these movements are not adhering to the teachings of Islam, then that is another problem. No one can, for example, stop women from studying, since the Prophet spoke clearly about the need for education from birth to death, and there are many verses supporting education for females.
Second, there is nothing in Islam that forbids women to work. Indeed, the 19th clause of marriage certificates gives women an opportunity to put conditions for their marriage, stressing the demand for women to work.
Third, elections are also permitted in Islam.
Fourth, in some Islamic sectors a woman can become a judge, in other words, she can take high political jobs and participate in the political process.
So, if these movements are defending the Islamic religion, then they can't stop women from education, work or elections. The only place where Islam imposes conditions is on women's attire, and this is a personal issue that is left to the individual woman. Anyway the hijab (Islamic women's head cover) should not impede any woman from doing whatever she wants.

But don't you think the atmosphere created by the Islamic fundamentalist movements creates conditions that will impede the progress of women and their attainment of their rights?

These movements take a public stand in the political sphere more than in the general social sphere. They are clearer in their opposition to the peace process with Israel than on social issues or issues regarding women.

What is your opinion about the need for civil laws regarding personal status issues, rather than the existing religious laws?

As a religious person I believe that religion is something special to the individual. We are Oriental people with our own traditions and religion, whether Christians or Moslems. Palestinian Christians respect Islam and Moslems respect the Christian religion. We are a small tightly-knit society. It is difficult to impose civil law on issues of personal status to the whole society. I don't deny that there are special cases of injustice, and that we would need civil law in order to correct some of them. At the present time and during the coming transitional period, I don't think that it is appropriate to make any dramatic changes. You can't make such an overnight change for an Oriental society.

What suggestions do you have to correct some of the injustices?

Again I say we can't change the Sharia (Islamic law) for personal status because this will create a major crisis and chaos, since most of our society is conservative and religious. My belief, however, is that we should use the opportunities existing in Islam to try and interpret existing laws in a way that is more appropriate to the present age. For example, in 1967, the Sharia Appeals' Court approved child support to working mothers. This was a major triumph.
In another area, divorce, we have seen a change for the better. While the present law demands child support for one year only in cases of arbitration, in Jordan this is five years, and since our Islamic courts are directly connected to Jordan (unlike the civil courts), this has applied to us. I am hoping that we can even extend this to ten years. So as a Moslem, I hope that Islamic personal law can be amended to fit our present needs in order to lessen areas in which it is hostile to us.
We also have problems with traditions. For example, while Islamic law allows the woman half the inheritance of a man, in most cases women give up that right to the males. So what we are struggling for at the present time is not for the law to change so that women get the same share as men, but for the woman to be able to keep that which is hers, even if it is less than a full share.

Why doesn't the individual have the right to choose whether a marriage is approved by a religious court or a civil court?

I think that there is room for improvement, for example, in the area of mixed marriages, if a Christian marries a Moslem and does not want to be recognized by a religious court, he should be allowed to use civil courts.

What about the problem of adoption?
This is indeed a problem, because in Islam adoption is prohibited. Though people can raise a child, they can't claim it, and the child can't enjoy the rights of a legitimate one.

What about violence against women?
As far as our Center is concerned, we are first and foremost interested in counseling women about their rights within the existing laws. We have discovered that many Palestinian women simply didn't know their rights as expressed in pertinent laws. We advise women to insist on taking advantage of their right to state certain conditions during signing the marriage certificate, such as insisting on working, choosing the city of residence, having the right to divorce and helping her family with part of her salary. A woman can also demand, as a legal condition, that her husband not re-marry without divorcing her.

Some complain that Islam allows men to physically discipline their wives. How do you deal with people who use this pretext?
In Islam, it is forbidden to beat the woman or to do anything that will leave marks on her face or parts of her body. Islam permits the slapping on the shoulders with a light brush as a form of discipline. Existing civil law orders that a husband go to jail only if the wife has a medical report that says she needs ten days to recuperate. If there is no medical report for more than ten days, nothing happens to the assailant.

What about the Islamic court. How does it respond to cases of violence against women?

Islamic courts will grant a woman divorce if she submits a medical report, and can show that she doesn't feel secure with her husband.

But in Palestinian society few cases actually reach the courts.

There are often economic reasons for this. In many cases the woman is financially dependent on her husband, and because of family and societal reasons, women often avoid the courts.