Alice Rothchild is a physician, activist and writer based in Boston. She is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams (Pluto, 2007; 2010) and serves on the regional steering committee for American Jews for a Just Peace. The following blog post is the fifth of several documenting her current work in Palestine as part of the American Jews for a Just Peace – Health and Human Rights Project.
We arrive in the stunningly beautiful port city of Haifa, a muggy heat descending over steep hills winding to the port, towering cranes like gigantic blue flamingos perched along the shore, the over the top Bahai Temple and Gardens shimmering up the terraced mountain at the end of the German Colony area where we are staying. Our first stop today is with a group of dynamic women from Muntada: The Arab Forum for Sexuality, Education and Health, and Aswat, Arabic for ‘Voices’.
Safa Tamish (www.jensaneya.org) is the intense and lively director of Muntada, a community based, feminist group founded in 2000, devoted to working on sexuality and sexual rights for Palestinians in Israel. This started as a project within an Israeli family planning organization, but became independent due to the complex intersections of sexuality, national identity, cultural sensitivity, occupation, and the consequent spoken and unspoken dynamics of power.
I suspect that most readers share the Western view of a repressive patriarchal Palestinian/Arab culture where women are characteristically dominated by their fathers and husbands and sexual issues, let alone queer issues, are off the agenda. We learn quickly that the culture is far from monolithic and there is a tremendous amount of nuance and complexity that needs to be understood.
Safa has a huge dose of chutzpah and creative energy. She describes going into different settings, starting with student councils, working on projects based on listening and respect for the local community, learning from each other. Once there is obvious mutual respect then much is possible.
Working in a Bedouin community, she understood that every mother has to explain to her child the predictable questions about sex, birth, etc. Using non-threatening interactive training, with techniques such as role playing, she never encountered opposition, despite working in conservative villages. In the course of her work with girls in tenth to twelfth grade, she found that almost 90% of the tenth grade girls were engaged and by twelfth grade, many were married. After Safa’s program, none of the girls married while still in school. She believes in community empowerment, done respectfully and quietly.
The projects and conferences grew and by 2006 Muntada became an independent Arab association. She found that Zionist funders had no interest in Arabic projects and Arabic funders had no interest in working with Israelis. The original name was associated with family planning, but due to all the talk about the demographic threat from procreating Palestinians, this name also became political poison. Additionally, contraceptives were already available through the national health insurance. The group also wants to work with Palestinians in the West Bank and Arab world and thus became an independent organization with 28 volunteers. Their first funding came in 2007 through the Global Fund for Women and later other internationals, the European Union, Oxfam, local ministries for social welfare, and the Ministry of Education.
They are now developing culturally sensitive school programs; there are no models in the Arab world, and the western models are sometimes useful but culturally tone deaf. So how does this work in the real world? Safa told us that it is often tough, men are often gender insensitive; they need to be challenged without being imposed upon. The tolerance of the women gets tested and this then challenges the men. Last year, there was a two day training on sexuality in Nablus. All the men sat on one side, all the women on the other, two women were completely covered and two men were sheikhs with long beards. They stated that Sharia Law has all the answers and this project is funded by the west, with a western agenda. Safa thanked them for their comments and began the program unintimidated. The next day they were role playing and she asked the sheikh to explain to his daughter, “What is masturbation?” When he refused, “I cannot do this!” she explained, “But she is your daughter, do you want her to learn this from the internet?” He replied no, blushed, and then finally did the role play. Others in the program reported that this experience has created dramatic changes in the school and the sheikh is now recommending the program to everyone!