Global Politics

First All-Women's List Seeks to Break Into Palestinian Politics

Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron are gearing up for a municipal election in October. The last time residents of Hebron were able to choose city officials directly was back in 1976. And this time around, voters will have also have a novel choice. One of the candidate lists on the ballot is made up entirely of women.

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Maysoun Qawasmi has been busy with old fashioned politicking, knocking on lots of doors to get her campaign off the ground. On a recent afternoon, she walked into a Hebron appliance shop, held out her hand and began to introduce herself.

Qawasmi is a 43-year-old mother of five whose style of dress pegs her as a middle class Palestinian Muslim. She wears a headscarf, but she doesn't describe herself as religious. She is a journalist and a women's rights activist. So Qawasmi is no stranger to working outside the home. She comes from a well-known Hebron family. But she is new to politics herself.

Qawasmi is leading an independent bloc of candidates, all of them women. And that is a first for Palestinian politics. When she mentioned this to a customer at the appliance shop, the young woman in a green headscarf said she liked what she was hearing.

"I will support a women's list for sure," the young Hebron voter said. "I feel that this society here is male-oriented and whatever institution we are talking about, we need women in order highlight the challenges that women face all the time in their life."

The young man standing behind the counter agreed. Maybe it is time for more women to have some political sway in this city, he said.

But one of the challenges Qawasmi and her running mates face is voter skepticism. That became clear as she walked up and introduced herself to a retiree on the sidewalk outside the shop.

"I do not believe in these elections," he said, reaching his pack of cigarettes.

"Elections are a farce. If our president takes a permit when he wants to move out of his office from the Israelis, how can we express our views freely in the context of an occupation."

Qawasmi told the man that she actually agreed with a lot of what he had to say, and that is partly why she wants to run for city council. At the end of their ten minute chat, he was still not fully convinced. Though he admitted Qawasmi got him thinking about going to vote in October.

Back in her office, Qawasmi explained that her campaign motto is, "Together, we can." People have asked why she borrowed a phrase from Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. It just fits, she said. And because it highlights the need for voters to get involved with the political process after election day.

But Qawasmi said she is trying not to make unrealistic promises.

"I can't [end] the occupation," she said. "I can't [kick] the settlers out."

"We must…work together," she kept repeating.

Qawasmi becomes animated when she speaks about her political goals. She has the un-cynical, can-do vibe of a rookie politician. First, Qawasmi said, she aims to tackle quality of life issues: water, education, electricity and public facilities.

"I told the people, 'I need your help.' Not, 'you need my help.' 'I need your help.' We must have to [share] together to fix our problem[s] in this municipality.' And this is very important."

Even if her list fails in the October election, Qawasmi said she will still be proud of what she and her colleagues have done. They are professional women, without ties to the major Palestinian political factions. Conservative Islamists are speaking out against them. But political scientist Assad Ewaiwi of Hebron University told me they might actually win.

"Maysoun Qawasmi has a strong personality," Ewaiwi said. "And her women's list is likely to capture a couple of seats on the city council. That's partly because the Islamic group Hamas is boycotting this election."

Hamas is popular in Hebron. But a local Hamas leader told me its people cannot risk campaigning openly, because they might be arrested by security forces from the Palestinian Authority or Israel. That political vacuum could provide an opportunity for Qawasmi and her women's list.

The question is: Will voters in Hebron turn their backs on the other political factions, including Fatah, which controls the West Bank? Qawasmi said, absolutely.

"The people have experience with all the part[ies]. And now, this is our chance."

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    Maysoun Qawasmi does a TV interview in her Hebron office. She leads the first list of all women candidates for city council elections. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

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    Candidate for municipal election Maysoun Qawasmi meets a skeptical Hebron voter in the West Bank city. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

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