Charlotte Littlewood, Founding Director of, and coordinator of women’s projects in Palestine for, Become The Voice project, a PhD candidate specialising in Islamist extremism in the UK, and a former government counter-extremism coordinator
A new wave of Islamist extremism is gripping the West Bank as it braces for its first election since 2006. As the Palestinian Authority (PA) becomes sensitive to community concerns, so Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT) — the global Islamist group — is using the opportunity to make demands on the PA to revoke the Convention to End Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), shut down women’s rights organisations, and ban feminist education in schools.
Thousands have attended meetings and held protests to discuss and oppose the “problem” of CEDAW, an international bill of rights for women that has been ratified by 189 states, including Palestine in 2014. The official Hizb-ut-Tahrir website makes the claim that CEDAW is a “Western conspiracy against the Islamic family unit”, a common accusation laid against progressive human rights work. And an accusation ahead of protests held in January is that women’s organisations are to blame for femicides in the West Bank stating: “Women’s rights organisations are responsible for killing women by inciting them to rebellion”.
Femicide is a huge problem in the West Bank. In 2018, Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling based in Hebron recorded 23 femicides. Femicides in Palestine are based on a culture of honour. Women are considered to carry the family honour and, if they disgrace this by acting in a way not deemed appropriate for a woman, they must be punished to re-establish the families’ reputation. “Too many blind eyes in the Palestinian community have been turned for too long to this barbarity”, remarked Sahar al-Kawasmeh, director of women’s rights organisation Roles For Social Change Association (ADWAR).
Honour culture infamously saw the horrific killing of Israa Ghareeb last summer that sparked protests across the Middle East and Europe. The fatal attack saw Palestinian youth come together and, by collectively paying their respects to Israa, make a stand against “honour” crime. Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh made a strong statement: “We must strengthen the system of protecting Palestinian women”.
The united community and political response to the killing of Israa gave hope to Palestinian women that the tide may be turning on defending women’s rights in the region. Men at a march in Ramallah remarked, “this maybe the shock the society needed to bring about legal and societal change to better protect women”.
There was no whisper of Israa being to blame for her own killing, but this is exactly what HuT believes. By saying women’s rights organisations are killing women in Palestine, they are arguing that the feminist ideology underpinning such groups is inspiring “dishonourable” behaviour amongst women that, according to their Islamist and culturally extreme ideals, must be punished with death.
In this vein the group has demanded the closure of all women’s organisations and their affiliates in Palestine, that women working for women’s organisations leave their jobs, and that employees of women’s organisations (or their representatives) stop teaching in schools. These demands come with an implicit threat.
After this display of political support from women’s rights over the summer, it is now scarily absent. In the midst of the current protests, on 24 December, the Palestinian judge, Mahmoud al-Habbash asserted, “We will not practice any words or actions that … transcend the values of our society, its culture and religion”. He continued: “Even if Palestine signed the [CEDAW] agreement on combating discrimination against women, based on the values of our true religion, our national heritage, and our constitution … we will not touch any act that touches our principles or our values”.
FATAH, the dominant faction within the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) that controls the PA’s governing institutions on the West Bank, has gone further, stating: “Our allegiance is to our religion, shari’a, and values … [W]e believe that the signing of this Treaty [by the PA] was done due to special political considerations as to assure us a recognised place in the United Nations.”
The West Bank is no stranger to extremist groups taking advantage of political unrest to the disadvantage of women. Since the first intifada women’s rights organisations have recorded a regression in women’s rights. Muhammad, director of the Palestinian Family Planned Parenthood Association in Hebron, says: “During the first Intifada in 1987 instability and lack of political leadership allowed political Islam to enter.”
Rateeba Alaedin, who works for the Sharek youth forum and alongside the UN, added: “They arrived so fast and influenced our communities so quickly, we now have a huge problem pushing against their version of Islam and the negative effect it is having on our society: early marriages, hijabs being worn by children and forced on women, women staying in the home and our laws and politics becoming controlled by religion. This is not our Islam.”
With continued political unrest and a looming election, conditions not dissimilar to the Arab spring, the Islamists like HuT once again have ample opportunity to advance their agenda and assert themselves over the community. Ground gained for women in the summer could so easily be lost, as was the experience for women’s rights during the First Intifada. It is time now for a bold PA, not the cowardice we are seeing. It’s a dangerous time for women.