Zahira Kamal

Ann Brenoff is an assistant editor on the Op-Ed page of The Times

Women in Saudi Arabia today may not drive cars or be alone with men who are not immediate relatives. Amnesty International says women in this Arab nation are at risk of being detained and accused of immoral behavior merely for walking alone or not wearing a head scarf. Iraqi women may not appear in public unveiled. In Iran, earlier this year, three women were arrested on charges that they had voluntary sexual relations outside marriage. The penalty they faced: being stoned to death.

With much of the Arab world falling deeper under Islamic control and clamping down on women's rights, it's easy to assume that all Arab women are veiled and silent. The idea of an active women's liberation movement existing within Arab nations seems incongruous. Yet such a movement exists within the Palestinian community, and Zahira Kamal is a principal force behind it.

Kamal, the director of gender planning and development for the Palestinian National Authority and a member of the Palestinian Parliament, works for the empowerment of Palestinian women on a broad basis in an environment often hostile to women. Palestinian society is still patriarchal, with women usually relegated to child-rearing and homemaking. Early marriage is the norm, there are no domestic-violence laws and girls frequently have no schooling beyond elementary grades.

All of which makes Kamal's rise in this society that much more extraordinary.

Kamal fought her first battle for gender equality at age 16. Upon graduating from high school and being told that her family's limited savings were reserved for her younger brothers' education, she threatened a hunger strike and convinced her father to let her attend a university in Cairo. After graduating with a double major, she returned to Jerusalem and taught physics. Soon, she became involved in the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and women's rights.

Ever outspoken, Kamal was imprisoned by the Israelis for six months in 1979 for protesting the Camp David agreements. But she served as a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid peace conference in 1991 and in 1992 secretly traveled to Tunis with other prominent Palestinians to meet with the Palestine Liberation Organization, in defiance of an Israeli ban on contacts with the PLO. Twenty years ago, she established the Palestinian Federation of Women's Action Committee, an act that led to her "preventative imprisonment" (town arrest) for six years, the longest such arrest ever imposed on a woman.

Kamal, 53, has never married, instead devoting her life to improving the lot of Palestinian women by fighting for laws against domestic violence and for improved educational opportunities and the establishment of a mandatory minimum marriage age.

She spoke to The Times during a recent visit to Los Angeles, where she was honored by American Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a group that helps sponsor a pilot village north of Tel Aviv where Jews and Palestinians live peacefully together.

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Question: You've devoted your career to the advancement of Palestinian women and fought for gender equality. What signs do you see that the emerging Palestinian state is going to treat women any differently than the rest of the Arab world does?

Answer: As a woman who is active in politics and in woman issues, I know that rights are not given easily. There is always a struggle; even in the United States there is a struggle. Palestinian women are working and watching the emergence of our state with open eyes. Yes, we are part of the Arab world, but the difference is that the Palestinian state is now first developing, and we have the experience of the other Arab countries to examine. And we have the chance to be something different, because women are part of this state from its establishment.

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Q: Islam's influence in much of the Arab world appears to be growing. How would you characterize what is going on regarding the treatment of women?

A: We can't put the Arab world in one bloc. There are a lot of differences between countries. Some have very developed laws [benefiting women] compared with other Arab countries. Some places have active [women's rights] movements. In Egypt, there are very active women who speak out. In Lebanon, it is even more organized.

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Q: Do you think Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has been a good friend to women, even though he regularly defers taking action on women's issues--domestic violence laws, for one--seemingly out of regard for traditionalists?

A: Yes, by and large Arafat has supported women's issues. But at the same time, you must remember that change does not come just from one single person; it takes a collective effort to make the change. During the Palestinian revolution, women were treated as equal partners. But it is true, just like in any Western country, when it it comes to the more prestigious and higher-ranking positions, the men want to keep them. The discrimination comes at that level. . . .

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Q: Some of the steps taken by the Palestinian Authority seem regressive. For example, when the Palestinian Authority took over Gaza, it would not allow male teachers to teach female students.

A: There was a big misinterpretation about this action. Actually, I was one of those who supported it. When Egyptians ruled Gaza, almost all the headmasters of schools were men, because they believed that men had better [disciplinary] control over the children. In order to promote more women and give them better positions in education, this measure created a greater demand for women headmasters. . . . The action was designed . . . to make it possible for women to be promoted. . . .

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Q: While we're on the topic of education, there is a large gap in the illiteracy rates between Palestinian men and women: 23% for women and 8.5% for men. What is the Palestinian Authority doing about it?

A: The illiteracy rate is highest among women over 45. And we acknowledge that there was a time when this sector of women was deprived of education. Now, we also have a problem of early marriage with girls between the ages of 14 to 17. Most of the dropouts from school come in that period.

There is a big educational campaign now against early marriage. This campaign comes through the legislative system, which didn't forbid early marriage totally but determined that anyone under 18 needed special permission from a judge to marry.

We also want the minister of education to open classes in all villages. Our schools are segregated, boys separate from girls. In some villages, there are no secondary schools for girls, and they must go to another village if they want to continue their schooling. In our culture, some people are afraid to allow such a movement of women, afraid of something happening to them, harming them. Also because of the economic situation: We have big families, and if they want to send the girls out to another village that means an expense.

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Q: Isn't the prevailing attitude that women don't need much education because what's expected is that they'll get married early, have large families and keep house?

A: It is changing a little. I think the big change happens when women have work opportunities. Without work opportunities, families won't invest in education. Education is like any other investment. They want to see after you are educated what you're giving the family. After boys are educated, they work and support the family.

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Q: You were once quoted as saying that your fight for gender equality had three obstacles: the Israelis, the Islamists and the traditionalists. Ultimately, which is the greatest obstacle?

A: The Israelis. Because of the occupation, it's very difficult to work for social rights, because national rights come first. All the people in the country can gather around national rights, but when we talk about social rights, it is perhaps traditions that need to be changed.

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Q: Some suggest that the intifada brought about a disintegration of the Palestinian family structure--that when you arm children, it's harder for parents to control them, and the balance of power shifts to the child. Would you agree?

A: The children were not armed; they were armed by the stones. Yes, children got a little power, and there was some challenge to the traditional patriarchal system. There was some breakdown of values and principles. Children were in the street, and the street was raising them. Now, they are back in schools. . . .

We have now a generation, the generation of intifada. With all that the intifada had been on the political issue, which is positive, on the social issue, it is negative. They are less educated, more illiterate. . . .

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Q: At one point, you were a peace rejectionist. You were arrested for protesting the Camp David accord. What made you change your mind?

A: It is not that I've changed my mind. It is that there is a change in how I see the means to reach the independence I was struggling for, for the political rights of my country and its self-determination. It was a time of nationalism, Arab nationalism. With Camp David, Egypt was trying to control the Palestinians and decide--instead of us--what was best for us. We were not part of the Camp David accord. The Palestinians are the only ones who have the right to decide their future. That's why I was rejecting Camp David, but perhaps Camp David is much better than Oslo.

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Q: It's been said that in signing the Wye Memorandum in October, the only thing the Israelis and Palestinians agreed to do was what they had already agreed to do. Do you have hope it will work?

A: This agreement is not an agreement. I call it a timetable for the arrangements. It was necessary because [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is not willing to give back anything. He looks for excuses to not . . . implement the agreement. He blames us for what they call terrorist acts against Israel, even though the Palestinians didn't have control over all the land of West Bank and Gaza. How can we control a person going there if we don't have control of the land?

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Q: It was clear watching the Wye signing ceremony that Arafat and Netanyahu are repulsed by each other. Assuming they reflect the feelings of their constituencies, can a lasting peace occur?

A: Netanyahu boasted with pride in one of his speeches that he would not touch Arafat's hand . . . and he appoints someone like Ariel Sharon to negotiate peace! They want peace, they want security, they want the control of the land, but they don't want to give up anything.

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Q: So how will you get along?

A: By changing this.

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Q: By changing what?

A: The Israeli government. If Israelis really want to have security and peace, they have to have a government that is willing to coexist with the Palestinians. A government that's headed by Netanyahu is not a government that can be believed or work for coexistence.

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