No gender equality without peace, Israeli feminists say in S.F. visit

Until there is peace in the Middle East, gender equality is impossible, say an Israeli and a Palestinian feminist involved in women's and human rights issues.

When a nation is at war, "all other societal issues are secondary," said Irit Umanit, Jewish director of the Women's Crisis Shelter in Haifa. And women are subjugated by what she calls the male "warrior-soldier."

Both Umanit and Hala Hazzan, a Palestinian educational counselor and volunteer for the Follow-up Committee on Arab Education in Nazareth, are on the front lines in the battle to improve the status of women. Hazzan is involved in furthering educational opportunities for Palestinians in Israel. Umanit assists battered Arab and Jewish women.

Both of their organizations receive funding through the New Israel Fund — an American organization that underwrites Middle East grassroots groups.

Umanit and Hazzan visited the Bay Area recently, sponsored by the NIF and the National Advisory Committee of Jewish Community Relations Councils.

Although the two women come from different backgrounds and only met days before their trip, they share a common perspective. Both believe peace is essential to improving living conditions and status among both Jews and Palestinians in Israel.

To date, women of both cultures maintain a secondary status because "societal issues like equality, education and welfare are secondary to survival," Umanit said.

Palestinian society has not yet gained political independence. An Israeli society dealing with war caters to strengthening the role of the warrior, she said.

Both situations justify "keeping women down," Umanit said.

"Women in Israeli society cater to men. They are second to the warrior-soldier. Arab women's issues are also secondary to the oppression of the people. Their men and soldiers don't come home and treat their wives equally. We share this commonality."

However, where as Palestinian society is often viewed by the West as patriarchal, Israeli culture is seen as modern and liberated. Umanit calls this discrepancy "a myth of gender equality."

Institutions cited as examples of gender equality, like the army and kibbutzim, "only strengthen the traditional roles of women," Umanit said.

"In the kibbutzim women do child care, education, kitchen work, laundry. But now they do it for the whole community rather than just their home."

Meanwhile, Palestinian women battle discrimination on three levels, Hazzan said: "As women, as a national minority and as minority women.

"Basically, we're at the lowest level."

Still, both Hazzan and Umanit are optimistic about the potential for change — especially as the peace process moves forward.

Hazzan points to the upgraded status Palestinian women enjoyed in their own society as a result of the Israeli occupation. Women were accepted as legitimate members of the struggle, she said. As a result, they were considered viable candidates in the recent Palestinian elections, securing three of 88 seats.

"Of course, this isn't enough," Hazzan said. But "Palestinian women in the West Bank and Gaza are more involved in political issues. They organized themselves and took a place [in politics]. They will be the ones to defending human rights."

Hazzan and Umanit agree women in general are the real champions of human rights issues and thus, are most supportive of the peace process.

Umanit says it is because "women speak from the womb. Mean speak from somewhere else.

"Israeli society is all machismo. But it's our sons who get killed and injured. As women, as givers of life, I believe we're more committed to a gentler world."

Hazzan, however, is more analytical.

"There's a connection between all kind of oppressions," she said. "Women feel it [oppression] on their bodies and it makes them sensitive to the issue. Women struggling against inequality cannot accept the oppression of other people.

"Ultimately, this is why women support the peace."