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From Crisis to Possibility

Grassroots Palestinian Women’s Leadership in COVID-19

By Rafah Anabtawy

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown the reality of gender-based violence in a way that we cannot ignore. We at Kayan have seen that women have been overlooked on all levels, which exacerbates gender-based violence caused by deeply rooted sexism and patriarchy. COVID-19 has highlighted the weakness of both societies and governments in the fight against gender-based violence, as well as the precarious nature of our achievements so far in the struggle for gender equality. Even in crisis, however, there is still hope. Throughout this past year, we have witnessed the true strength and power of grassroots Palestinian women. Kayan’s grassroots movement centers on 100 women in 12 local women’s groups in Arab Palestinian localities across Israel who have undergone an extensive empowerment process that positions them to be transformative community activists. They are led by Jusur Forum that consists of 25 Palestinian women activist leaders who represent the local groups. Jusur Forum and the local groups organized their communities to lead an emergency response that ensured that no woman was left behind.

A demonstration against gender-based violence.

When the COVID-19 crisis broke out last year, we saw right away that it created a parallel crisis of violence for Palestinian women. We saw an increase of 40 percent in cases of gender-based violence reported to Kayan and other Arab Palestinian feminist organizations in Israel. Pandemic lockdowns severely limited women’s abilities to escape domestic violence by cutting off access to friends or family in other households. Shelters filled up rapidly and faced severe budget and capacity limitations. Although we had hoped that these conditions would wake up the people in power, nobody – not the government, not the police, not the social welfare offices – responded seriously to the situation. Instead, Israeli formal state institutions, such as the Ministry of Welfare and the police, which are responsible by law to fight gender-based violence, were even more reluctant than usual to take women’s safety seriously while they shortsightedly focused only on the COVID-19 response.

Why? The reality of women’s lives is something that Kayan has always known and fought against: Women have always faced gender-based violence of all kinds and across all levels. COVID-19 only enhanced and highlighted the problem. Palestinian women living in Israel navigate a complex sociopolitical environment and encounter overlapping oppressions, as a marginalized minority in a discriminatory Jewish state and as women in a patriarchal society. Society condones violence to control women, and the Israeli state demonstrates a systematic lack of responsibility toward Arab Palestinian citizens. When COVID-19 broke out, women were more likely to be in economically and socially vulnerable groups, such as single mothers and domestic workers. Stereotypical gender roles meant women faced pressure to do additional care work with fewer resources, as entire families stayed home and lost income. As the traditional caretakers, women also bore most of the emotional and psychological burden of the crisis. Economic stress contributed to increased levels of domestic violence and emotional abuse, while many women could not leave for varying reasons, including lack of shelter openings, financial resources, and familial and social support, as well as societal norms that silence women.

Jusur forum.

Although the situation was dire, we saw the power of the grassroots. Palestinian women activists and leaders in their communities have stepped up to the challenge and shown remarkable leadership and initiative. The crisis was a turning point for grassroots women, who already had a strong, empowered, and deeply connected network in place. It was the right moment to invest more in supporting them to quickly organize themselves to perform community needs assessments, build and expand partnerships, and lead a gender-sensitive emergency response. Especially in a time of crisis, making a difference in women’s lives could not happen without a bottom-up approach, as it is clear that no one else is able to have a holistic, gender-sensitive point of view. They positioned themselves as trusted resources, raising awareness about the parallel crisis of violence and ensuring that women were informed and encouraged to take advantage of available resources, such as Kayan’s support hotline. Crucially, grassroots connections reached women who would otherwise not have had access to information or resources – society’s so-called “invisible women,” including single mothers, domestic workers, elderly women, and women with disabilities.

In our opinion, the key to our successful response was the fact that grassroots women are deeply rooted in their communities and are able to perceive nuances that organizations cannot discern from the outside. Most organizational research done on the topic of women in COVID-19 neglected to include women’s own points of view on the crisis, did not acknowledge the power of community-based social activism, and failed to highlight women’s personal voices and stories. In contrast, grassroots women’s activism ensured that vulnerable groups did not remain invisible and that women would not suffer alone in silence. Though this year of crisis has been difficult, grassroots Palestinian women’s leadership inspires us to hope for a more just and equal future for all women.

  • Rafah Anabtawy is the general director of Kayan Feminist Organization, which was established in Haifa in 1998 by Palestinian feminist activists to advance the status of Palestinian women in Israel and end gender-based discrimination. For 20 years, one of Kayan’s key projects has been addressing and preventing gender-based violence through a grassroots, community-based approach. For more information, please visit http://kayanfeminist.org.

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