Betty Soibel
Bimkom NIF Shatil Fellow 2018-2019

Palestinian women put themselves on the map

Over the last year, perhaps as a reaction to the #MeToo era, I’ve become hypervigilant about the “trendiness” of feminism. An avid member of many women’s Facebook groups, I often read posts about how new “#girlpower” or “#strengthinpink” initiatives at their workplaces make them feel infantilized and overly feminized but don’t actually deal with real issues at hand. In the development field, it’s even clearer: campaigns, courses, projects that have buzzwords like “gender, women, or girls empowerment” always garner more attention, but do they truly meet the needs of women in developing countries?

To be clear, I have no beef with anti-gender discrimination work. I am simply worried that the current trendiness of feminism will ultimately overlook the unique struggles, qualities and beauties of the female experience.

This week, the Bimkom team ran a mapathon for the Women’s Committee of Jib al-Deeb, a Palestinian village of some 170 residents southeast of Bethlehem, on the outskirts of Mount Herodian. Similar to over a hundred other villages in Area C, Jib al-Deeb is unrecognized by the Israeli government, meaning it does not appear on mainstream mapping platforms nor is it connected to an electrical grid. Bimkom has been in partnership with the village since 2007, working especially closely in its fight to acquire (and then, keep) a solar panel field, but the current project focuses on mapping the village in order to enhance its recognition and pave the way to sustainable development.

When I originally heard we were meeting with a women’s group at the village, I was excited, cynicism aside. However, only following the workshop did I have a chance to reflect on the extent of the strength and beauty the women of Jib al-Deeb showed us during our visit.

When we drove into the hilltop village, the only people to be seen was a multi-generational mix of women; grandmothers, mothers, and daughters. Everyone waved to one another, plastering kisses on hip riding babies and complementing one another’s colorful hijabs. We gathered together in a clean, sparse room that doubles as the Palestinian Medical Relief Society clinic twice a week, as Bimkom staff explained how they would map their village on Open Streets Map (OSM). Throughout the presentation, babies were passed around, women walked in and out (otherwise, lunch would burn!), snacks were shared. A general atmosphere of familial comfort abounded, especially when an elderly grandmother interrupted the presentation to better understand the technology at play.

Following the presentation, a group of women all gathered around one laptop, craning together to see the outlines of their homes in the aerial photo. Two women, both local university students, took the lead in outlining and marking the buildings, fields, the mosque, store and solar panel field. As I stood across from the desk with the computer and took photos, I couldn’t help but think about how the scene reminded me of famous photos of American presidents surrounded by their cabinet, signing a bill into order. However, instead of white, wealthy men, this was a group of young Palestinian Muslim women making a life for themselves by taking local matters into their own hands. 

The ownership these women took of their community was visible everywhere, from the physical infrastructure to the way they spoke of their role in the town. Every building, yard, and pathway looked like it had been coaxed with love from an unforgiving environment. The row of carefully tended saplings, the mosaics, and the terraced gardens reminded me of my grandmother, who, throughout her difficult life had been able to create beauty even out of the most worn out, broken items. I kept thinking about how in my urban studies classes, well cared for and impoverished had been posed as a paradigm; neighborhoods could be one or the other. But Jib al-Deeb defied that stereotype- a caring hand had obviously planted, painted, maintained, and polished every step, even though the village lacked financial resources.

 To me, the informal beauty of these spaces was directly linked to the strong female leadership of village. It’s what made the town feel different-the built environment reflected the unique experience of the village’s women.  

With motherly hospitality, we were ushered into the home of a founder of the women’s committee. She explained that in 2015, three women in the village decided to create the committee after they felt that, since the men worked outside of the village all day, they did not see the everyday needs of the community. Thus, even amidst communal backlash, they began to participate in municipal meetings and organize with local non-profits, eventually bringing a tailor, a grocery store, a medic, solar panels, and a nearby school to the village.

As they served us homemade bread and traditional cheese, the women all spoke about how even when they had faced hard times, like lack of employment or electrical power, they “always had to stay busy and productive”, knowing it was the only way forward. They spoke with immense pride about how they instilled a value of higher education in their daughters, teaching them that education was the key to progress, no matter the obstacles.

The beauty in this conversation was strengthened by the fact that following our lunch, we visited the art studio of one of the students who, earlier, had mapped so enthusiastically. Her paintings illustrated her experiences working with the mentally disabled and were hauntingly beautiful. Each piece showed how she used her experience as a Palestinian woman from an unrecognized village under Israeli occupation to identify with and empower her patients. Walking out and seeing the field of solar panels her mother had fought for with the Women’s Committee, her artwork felt like a directly connected to how Jib al-Deeb’s women used their talents to strengthen their communities. 

Artwork of Hanin el Wahsh, Jib al-Deeb

When I look back at our visit, my strongest memory is of sitting in the backseat of our car as we drove away and feeling as if I missed the women we had just met. It was such a strange feeling, I remember thinking. Why did I miss them?

It took me up to the writing of this blog to understand why. The experiences, the conviction, the belief in the strength of the female outlook that these women shared with us; these were the stories that I had been told by the women of my family; by my mother and my grandmothers. I missed them because the women of Jib al-Deeb reminded me so strongly of the women who took ownership of their unique wisdom and passed down their respect for the female experience to me.

Inshallah, Bimkom’s continuing partnership with Jib al-Deeb will prove to be an opportunity to infuse urban development with the value of perseverance shared by women all over the world.  

 

About the Author
Betty Soibel is the current Shatil Fellow at Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights, which pursues human rights and democracy in the field of planning. She is a recent graduate of the Urban Studies program at Columbia University ('17) and is interested in how issues of urban development play out on the stage of the greater Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She can be reached at bs2829@columbia.edu.
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