There is a tangible anxiety upon my reception to the Excellence Centre, Hebron. The centre is nervous I will pry too deep into culturally sensitive areas and has already asked that I avoid topics that relate to sex. When I am introduced to a mixed gender class of twenty year olds as the women’s rights advocate from the UK the students are defensive, immediately quipping that they have equality here. This is everything I feared, they view me as the white western woman swooping in and schooling them on their rights. Fortunately, Become The Voice is designed to insure the participants are vocal on the issues they consider to be relevant to them. I ask: ‘What matters to you?’ and then I listen: ‘Meerath!’.
The participants were very vocal about this issue, I had not even considered. It never appeared in the UN’s report on women’s rights issues in Palestine or in any recent public reports. The issue so pertinent to these young Palestinians is something called ‘meerath’, which means inheritance.
In Hebron women may have laws that protect their right to inherit but in reality they are prevented from claiming their inheritance: In some instances they are prevented from taking any inheritance at all and in other cases they are only apportioned a small fraction of the overall inheritance. If women protest or try to seek legal redress for this injustice they put their life at risk. Two women were brutally murdered by their families last week for doing just this.
This very unfamiliar women’s rights issue has since become central to my investigation as to ‘what matters’ to women here in Palestine and will be central to the Become The Voice programme here.
Later that day I visited ADWAR, an NGO intent on achieving legal, social and economic change for women in Palestine, especially Hebron. Sahar, the director of the NGO, lawyer, doctor and recognised women leader gave me an insight into the true horror of the inheritance problem: “Women are barred from pursuing there right socially, economically and institutionally.”
Socially it is considered against the family, culture and religion to press for inheritance where your family has denied you it.
‘I asked for my inheritance from my brothers and they said no. My brothers they have good relations with police and so when I went to the police the police do not respond. I then went to ADWAR for support who helped advocate for my case. My brothers then threatened to kill me and my sons. At this point I gave up, I was too frightened to continue with the fight for my right.’
2016, Women from Baytumar, Hebron
With domestic violence on the rise, seemingly hand in hand with the culture in Palestine becoming more conservative and honour-centred, requesting ones legal right is becoming increasingly dangerous. 37% of married women have been exposed to at least one form of violence by their husbands with less than 1% seeking the help from a social worker, a shelter, a civil-society organization, or the police. Of those who do seek help and end up on the doorstep of the police, less than one-third of those cases will go on to court where justice is not guaranteed.
Economically: legal fees are high and there are few free legal services for women seeking redress. There is only the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling and International Legal Aid. This is an instant barring for most women should they even be able to risk making a claim in the first place. Women are discouraged from working and at work are generally paid less than men. The economic independence of women is deemed unnecessary in a culture where men are considered the bread winners and women the home makers.
Institutionally: the courts are mainly run by men. When a woman is both safe to pursue a claim and has the money to pursue a claim, she then has to overcome intimidation and the often-biased judgements of the court.
Moreover there is no guarantee that her inheritance will be granted to her and there is no punishment for men withholding inheritance.
Finally Sahar, spoke of huge political apathy towards women’s rights. She pushes for legal change and makes frequent requests directly to the President. Sahar often gets the response: ‘This is not our priority right now, our priority is Fatha, Hamas and statehood.’ It would appear women’s rights are going woefully unaddressed, as they are simply not a priority for the Palestinian governate.
Mohammed from IPPF comments:
‘Palestine is too focused outwardly on its relations with Israel that it forgets the rights of its people and does not build a just life for citizens in the here and now.’
Osama Hussein from the Excellence Centre, Hebron adds:
‘We will live our whole life here with attention given entirely to a war whilst other problems are neglected.’
The problem around women’s inheritance (meerath) is multifaceted and relies on social change with regard to the patriarchal, honour centred society; economic change with regard to increasing free legal aid and liberating women economically; and institutional change to make a marked difference for women in their pursuit for equal rights here in Palestine. There is also a distinct apathy towards social and cultural injustices.
Become The Voice will work to highlight these issues and put pressure on the governorate as well as the communities to support the necessary changes required to improve women’s lives here in Palestine.