Women’s shadow councils in Palestine
In the conservative, patriarchal society of Palestine, many men still neither want women to participate in politics nor to assume leadership. They believe women should focus on their roles as housewives and mothers. Frequently, male members of local councils only allow their female colleagues to take over tasks they consider "suitable for women".
Male members of local councils also tend to try to exclude female members from decision making and to minimise their influence. Often, council meetings are held at times that are unsuitable for women, for instance in the evenings when women are expected to be at home. Many Palestinian women do not agree with such practices and attitudes.
In order to strengthen the standing of councilwomen, the Palestinian Working Woman Society for Development (PWWSD), which is based in Ramallah in the West Bank, is lending them support through the creation of female shadow councils. The members of shadow councils give advice to the elected councilwomen, and they help them gain a stronger foothold in other ways.
Giving women more say
Since the summer of 2011, PWWSD has been carrying out this project in selected villages of the West Bank with financial support from the Theodor Springmann Foundation. The women have adopted the concept with enthusiasm. In a short time, they established 15 women’s shadow councils. There have even been requests for support from other municipal councils in the West Bank as well as from Jordan. PWWSD plans to establish another 20 shadow councils this year.
Women’s shadow councils emphasise gender issues and women’s needs in municipal affairs. Their members are volunteers plus – in some cases – the elected councilwomen. Together, they aim to ensure the participation of women in decision making and foster ties with their constituents. One goal is to increase the number of women participating in the political and social life of their municipalities. The shadow councils encourage women to become engaged in public affairs with an eye to shaping society in a way that takes into account the gender-specific needs. Generally speaking, women must be made more aware of their rights.
In order for them to be up to their tasks, PWWSD trains the shadow councilwomen in things like negotiating skills, self-confidence communication skills, teamwork, municipal legislation, leadership and assessing community needs.
Each shadow council consists of five to nine women. They are either elected by women in the community or appointed by acclamation by the women. Meetings are held once or twice a month, and more often if needed. Typically, the venue is a local government building or the office of a local women’s organisation. The municipal councilwomen are in some cases officially members of the shadow councils, in other cases they attend its meetings as guests.
In many municipalities, the members of the shadow council participate in municipal council meetings. Unless they are members of the municipal council themselves, the members of the shadow council have no vote, but they advise the municipal council, particularly in regard to the needs of women. Council and shadow council members often cooperate on solving problems. Relevant issues include water supply, sewerage, waste management and street lighting.
In order to represent their constituents well, members of the shadow councils and councilwomen stay in touch with the women of the community as well as with local women’s initiatives, organisations and schools. They seek contact with the local media and political leaders, raising awareness of gender issues. Of course, they raise these issues in council meetings too.
Um Ammar is a member of the shadow council in Beitunia, a village on the outskirts of Ramallah. She says her experience is "wonderful" and "exceptional". The shadow council of Beitunia has organised visits between the council members and local women’s organisations to overcome barriers.
Yasmin Hajiji is a member of the shadow council in Qarawat Bani Zeid in the district of Ramallah. She reports that she is cooperating with council members to find solutions regarding water shortages and garbage problems. There has already been some success. A new network of water pipes has been installed, and new trash containers have been put in place in Qarawat Bani Zeid. To fund these investments, the municipal council and the shadow council joined hands in collecting donations. Progress has also been made regarding the schools. The number of classrooms has increased, and some schoolyards have been improved.
Tight budgets obviously restrict the impact of women’s shadow councils in Palestinian villages. But some things can be done without much money. Examples include the establishment of a children’s playground and a garden in Ni’lin in the district of Ramallah or the planting of trees in Till in the district of Nablus after Israeli settlers destroyed and burned trees. Women in Till, moreover, were trained in food processing and tree harvesting. They learned how to produce seedlings and graft a variety of trees.
The shadow council in Ni’lin has similarly organised training courses for women in tailoring, hairdressing and computer use. It also offers courses on women’s rights. The goal is to strengthen women’s self-confidence and promote their active involvement in social life. For instance, the women’s shadow council has made the municipal council meet during the daytime, facilitating the participation of women. It has also managed to get the council to regularly inform its female members about all projects and plans.
In order to improve the work of the shadow councils, two political forums have been established: one in the district of Ramallah for the central and southern West Bank and one in Nablus for the north. The two forums aim to convene all members of shadow councils in order to share experiences, discuss issues, find solutions and plan joint action.
The two forums serve another purpose too. They are giving women a voice in society and at the political level, thus promoting their involvement. This is particularly important because the shadow councils are involved in municipal affairs. They also take part in political workshops and conferences.
The shadow councils have been raising awareness among many people. They encourage young women to become active in their village as well as at the national level. They encourage members to run in elections at either government level in the future.At first, the leaders of the municipal councils were reluctant to accept the idea of the shadow councils, but many now support the idea. The women’s shadow councils are indeed a good way to boost the self-determination of the Palestinian people. While affiliations to families and political parties still matter more in some settings than competence and qualification, women are now participating to a greater extent in local decision making and community development. That serves the democratisation of society. More active involvement of women means more sustainable development for Palestine.
Reham Alhelsi is a regional planner who works as a programmes director for the Palestinian Working Women Society for Development (PWWSD).
Petra Schöning is a consultant and trainer specialising in the Middle East.