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Gender and occupation in Palestine
In focussing on the lives of Palestinian women, the documentary film Marageeh (Swings) offers a gendered critique of a society under occupation, writes Amira Howeidy
As faltering prisoner-swap negotiations between Israel and Hamas continue, there is more talk about their impact on both sides than mention of the prisoners themselves. And of the 1400 Palestinians held in Israeli jails the 119 women detainees are, if anything, more invisible than their male counterparts.
In the rubble of Gaza’s misery, at the weekly funerals of Palestinians routinely killed by the Israeli occupation army, there seems little room within the struggle for independence, and the agony that has been occupied Palestine for 58 years, for any focus on specific sectors of society, women included.
Marageeh (Swings), a Spanish-produced 98- minute documentary directed by Egyptian filmmaker Basel Ramsis, manages, among much else, to buck that trend.
It tells the stories of dozens of Palestinian women from all walks of life living inside Israel, in the Occupied Territories, refugee camps and the Negev desert. Through these stories we are given a glimpse into the world of Palestinian women. It is a world, as the film makes clear, that encompasses life under a racist occupation as well as a variety of clashing identities. Palestinian women may often find themselves a minority with a minority, facing high unemployment rates and a host of gender issues.
Latifa Mohamed, one of the 119 Palestinian women in Israeli prisons, is serving a 35-year prison sentence. Among the many tales Marageeh relates, through Latifa’s sister who lives in Balata refugee camp in Nablus, is the not-so-heroic flip side of Latifa’s story: following his wife’s imprisonment, Latifa’s husband moved to Jordan where he took a second wife.
Then there are Palestinian women, like Ragaa Zoghbi, who don’t live in refugee camps, have not been imprisoned and who have Israeli identities. Zoghbi recounts how, as an 11-year-old girl, she witnessed the appointment of Golda Meier as Israel’s first female prime minister.
"I thought, wow, women are human beings and can be prime ministers. So I went home and told my family that when I grew up I wanted to be prime minister."
Unaware that Meier herself had said that Palestinians "do not exist", Zoghbi was shocked when her parents broke the news: she could not, and would never be able to be prime minister because, despite her Israeli passport, she is an Arab and a Palestinian.
Denise Assad, also a 1948-Palestinian, speaks of a different dilemma. She is an Arab Christian who holds an Israeli passport which makes her a minority in Israel and within the predominantly Muslim Palestinian society. "These identities I have do not coexist peacefully with one another," she says.
Marageeh attempts to provide the widest possible cross-section of Palestinian women and the result, inevitably, is a majority of poor and lower-middle class veiled women living under dire conditions. One female activist, Asmaa Ikhbaria, claims that unemployment rates among Palestinian women are as high as 87 per cent, largely because Israel imports Asian agricultural workers to avoid having to hire Palestinians.
"The majority of women face oppression, live in fear and poverty and are subject to wide-ranging abuse," she says.
Examples are plenty. Umm Muhanad, a plump and veiled Palestinian in Akaba Jabr refugee camp south of Jericho, says she tried to commit suicide when her life with a violent husband became unbearable. She did not succeed, and her husband never knew she tried to kill herself. The same woman has nightmares about her dead father.
"At my age he still scares me. I was always silent around him because I was too afraid to say the wrong thing."
Another younger veiled woman complains that "honour" is applied "only" to girls. "Does anyone ever talk about this in respect to men?" she asks rhetorically.
In a woman’s workshop in Al-Hasinia village (unrecognised by Israel), Upper Galilee, yet another young woman asks if society is ready to face its own hypocrisy. "When a boy turns 15 he is told he can do whatever he wants. Can a girl do the same? Can she say I love this man and want to go out with him?"
It is at this point that the powerful voice of Egyptian diva Umm Kulthoum roars, "give me my freedom, release my hands, I gave everything and have nothing left to give" and the camera switches to Israel’s massive cement Apartheid Wall, a reminder, perhaps, that occupation is the real oppressor even in a male- dominated society.
Marageeh’s director Ramsis, an unassuming 33- year-old, uses ironic juxtapositions to convey his point. When the voice of Palestinian singer Reem Bana chants about a bird flying "on the land of free Palestine" we see images of Israeli tanks, soldiers, flags and the apartheid wall. Finally the camera zooms in on an Israeli monitoring blimp flying over Gaza.
The documentary also exposes racism within Palestinian society. Rose and Reem Amer, black Palestinian sisters from Kfar Qassem, 20 km East Tel Aviv, tell how Palestinians treat them differently because of their skin colour. It is why they are both still single, among the vast majority of black Palestinian women above 30 who are unmarried. In their own words, they suffer from "occupation and racism within our own community".
The stories, says the documentary’s director, are not meant to deliver a specific message but to honestly reflect the lives of Palestinian women.
But why a documentary about women in Palestine?
"The Palestinian question has always been a very important one for me," Ramsis — who was politically active in Egypt before moving to Spain eight years ago — told Al-Ahram Weekly, "and I felt I could make a sincere film."
Not that the path was easy. Before flying to Tel Aviv for the first time last May, Ramsis had repeated nightmares about his trip, battling the "psychological barriers" he felt towards Israel. Nor did the Israelis let him down. On his way to Tel Aviv he transited in Brussels where he was interrogated by Mossad for four hours. He was stripped naked and a special monitor was passed over his body to make sure he wasn’t "hiding" anything "inside". His camera was confiscated and only returned to him after his arrival in Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv.
Throughout his 35-day-stay in Israel and the occupied territories, the Shabak (Israeli intelligence and internal security service) followed him around. When he finished filming, he had to smuggle his camera and film outside Israel to avoid harassment at Ben Gurion airport again before flying back to Spain.
"Although I have a Spanish passport my Arab name and the fact I was born in Cairo makes me an enemy in Israel’s eyes," said Ramsis.
Was it worth it?
"Yes" he replies. "Very few non-Palestinian Arab filmmakers have been inside the occupied territories although there’s a lot of work to be done there. I went not wearing a normalisation cap or believing the lie that Israeli is a democracy but to understand the Palestinians and talk to them."
Marageeh (Swings) will be screened at the Press Syndicate on Abdel-Khalek Tharwat Street, Cairo, on 11 November at 7:00pm.
Al-Ahram Weekly Online