Academics and Research / Magazine

Beyond the Veil

Rebecca Otis

Rebecca Otis is struck by the fact that Palestinian women are determined to remain central to the public discourse while improving their own futures. And by doing so, they’re breaking down societal fears about empowered women. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

As a second-grader, Rebecca Otis first encountered the slender volume that would ultimately inspire her dissertation.

The book was The Diary of Anne Frank. Otis’ dissertation is Palestinian Women: Mothers, Martyrs and Agents of Political Change.

The former, one of the most widely read books in the world, chronicles the day-to-day life of a Jewish teenager hiding, along with her family, from the Nazis. She met her destiny in Bergen- Belsen, a concentration camp that claimed the lives of an estimated 50,000 inmates.

The latter — born out of Otis’ time spent living in a Palestinian refugee camp — examines the resourcefulness of modern-day Palestinian women contending with the Israeli occupation and with the realities of an increasingly fundamentalist society. In the face of these challenges, Otis contends, Palestinian women are claiming authorship over their own destinies.

“I have always been drawn to the human side of what it means to be socially and politically dispossessed,” says Otis, a PhD candidate at DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

She grew up in Richmond, Va., the capital of the Confederacy. In a city that keeps memories of the Civil War fresh, Otis — who is of Christian and Jewish ancestry — learned about Europe’s troubled history around the family hearth.

“I grew up knowing the story of Jewish oppression and dispossession,” she explains, noting that Frank’s diary, given to her by a Holocaust survivor, loomed large in her grade-school imagination and became a fixture on her bedside table. “I empathized with Anne Frank so much that my mother threatened to take me to therapy,” she says.

If Frank’s fate stoked Otis’ sense of injustice, the day-to-day existence of Palestinian women gives her much to cheer. Despite fighting what she calls two systems of oppression — “the political oppression that comes with being born Palestinian and that is aggravated by the Israeli occupation, and the social oppression associated with being born female in a patriarchal society under siege” — Palestinian women are way ahead of their Muslim sisters in much of the Middle East. Not only are they at the forefront of the struggle for nationhood, Otis says, they are fully engaged in a battle for gender equality.

And that, says Nader Hashemi, assistant professor at the Josef Korbel School and one of Otis’ dissertation advisers, may surprise many observers of the Middle East. In her research, he explains, Otis challenges conventional assumptions by showing that the women of a fundamentalist Islamic movement are not sitting quietly behind the veil.

“This seems counterintuitive to a lot of people,” he says, noting that Otis ventures where few other Western scholars have cared to go. Most typically examine these questions from the top down, rather than from the bottom up: inside Palestinian homes and refugee camps.

In addition, many Western scholars gravitate away from religious groups and “tend to instinctually and philosophically identify with secular political groups in the Middle East,” Hashemi says. “Anyone who enters this subject area enters with a lot of ideological baggage.”

Otis left her baggage at the entrance to Azzeh, a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem. That’s where her field research began.


Into the Azzeh refugee camp

Otis enrolled at what was then DU’s Graduate School of International Studies in 2001. “My first day of graduate school was Sept. 11,” she recalls. “I was in Jack Donnelly’s class Introduction to International Politics.”

She had intended to focus on human rights issues and international security, with a geographic emphasis on Greece and Turkey. A research trip to Cyprus made her rethink her plans.

“I felt as though I needed to go even further east,” she recalls. With that in mind, she enrolled at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to study Arabic.

There, she became increasingly aware of the full weight and political ramifications of her Jewish identity. Studying alongside Israeli Arabs, she also became curious about their views. “I never let my Jewishness interfere with my ability to connect with people of other faiths,” she says. “I made friends and I made contacts, and I was invited to tea.”

The following year, she journeyed to Bethlehem in the West Bank, volunteering with a Christian group and living with a Muslim family in the Azzeh refugee camp. Her hosts assumed she was Christian, and she didn’t reveal her Jewish heritage. She soon was regarded as an honored guest and a member of the family.

“I pretty much spent my time with women. We danced, we cooked,” she remembers, noting that she learned the ins and outs of how women raise and educate their children with minimal resources. “I really left my identity and became absorbed.”

Part of that absorption involved impassioned exchanges about politics and gender—exchanges that became the genesis for years of subsequent fieldwork.

“I had many interesting conversations about what it means to be a Palestinian woman and a Palestinian mother,” she says. Her new friends assumed her American life was characterized by wealth and privilege, but they didn’t resent her circumstances. Nor did they ask her for anything.

Rather, she says, “They just wanted me to tell their story.”

When she began her research, Otis says, “I had an idea of studying women’s political behavior. I abruptly learned that everything is political. That was the story. Everything is political, including where you buy your eggplant.”

Do you buy from a Hamas vendor or from one with a cousin affiliated with Fatah? Do you do business with Muslims or Christians?

The choice to have children is no less political. From the very beginning, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been characterized by a demographic race, with each side attempting to ensure existence through population growth. That makes the womb ground zero in the battle for statehood. It makes bearing children an act of defiance.

Otis illustrates this point with an anecdote culled from her time in Azzeh, where Palestinians still rankle about a 1969 statement from Golda Meir, then prime minister of Israel. “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people … they did not exist,” Meir said.

To which one of Otis’ friends retorts: “That Meir woman, I tell her, ‘I have 10 children. I exist.’”

Because women raise, as well as conceive and carry children, Otis says, they are “symbolic vessels of Palestinian identity.” In other words, nurturing and raising children is “a way of assuring the future and continuity of their own people.”

That’s not to suggest that the decision to have children is purely political. “A large family is a sign of prestige,” Otis explains, “and children are adored. They are the center of society.” Like mothers in many other stressed societies, Palestinian women devote much of their energy to addressing logistical questions: How do we eat? How do we survive? How do we make sure our children are educated as well as possible?

Motherhood also offers women a way to achieve heroine status and parity with men within the struggle for nationhood. While men bear arms, women bear the children who will continue the struggle.

In the last decade, Otis says, many women have sought to contribute to the nationalist struggle by embracing a form of militancy typically reserved for men. Spurred by the failure of the Camp David peace summit in 2000, a number of Palestinian women opted to become suicide bombers.

“It is commonly thought that the women who undertake these missions are political pawns, victims of the machinations of their male handlers, emotionally unstable or religious zealots of some sort,” Otis explains. “But my research found that this is simply not true. For many years Palestinian women demanded that the male leadership of the Palestinian nationalist movement give them a more significant role in the more violent aspects of the struggle.”

For this, they had a role model from the world stage: Leila Khaled, renowned for her part in the 1969 hijacking of a TWA flight.

“I saw her image spray-painted on concrete walls almost everywhere I went in the West Bank,” Otis recalls. “Khaled really is the poster girl of secular female Palestinian militancy from a time long before the rise of the Palestinian Islamist movement.”

With Khaled as their inspiration, some Palestinian women have clamored to participate in the highly skilled and dangerous aspects of resistance. In addition, Otis says, “the small handful of Palestinian women who have volunteered for and committed the suicide bombing acts have done so under a wide range of personal reasons, but there also seems to be a compulsion for them to demonstrate to the male leadership that women are politically active and committed citizens of their nationalist struggle, however violent and destructive it can be to themselves and their victims.”


Working for gender equality

In addition to their roles within the nationalist struggle, Palestinian women also are working for gender equality.

By that, Otis explains, they mean the right to go out into the street, to choose their own husbands and professions, to divorce and acquire custody of children.

They pursue equality through a number of personal acts — by driving, by taking university classes, and by organizing through a number of women’s and political groups. During her several stays in the Azzeh camp, Otis saw how these groups operate firsthand, attending their meetings and sometimes volunteering at their offices.

As Hashemi notes, such in-the-trenches experience gave her insight other scholars simply don’t get. He credits Otis with having the emotional maturity to conduct this kind of immersive research while maintaining objectivity.

Reviewing her time in the West Bank, Otis is struck by the fact that Palestinian women are determined to remain central to the public discourse while improving their own futures. Women are leading political groups, they’re attending classes at Islamic universities, they’re reporting the news. And by doing so, they’re breaking down societal fears about empowered women.

“Granted, they are dressed in veils and head coverings, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a brain,” Otis says.

To illustrate their world in all its complexity, Otis recounts a story about catching a ride with a friend. Veiled and robed, with high heels peeking out from underneath her hem, she zipped through traffic with confidence and verve. Otis asked her if she shared the car with her spouse.

“My husband doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift,” she told Otis.

That anecdote may not lend itself to statistical analysis, but it does symbolize the modern Palestinian women who populate Otis’ dissertation. “I have found that Palestinian women are successfully ahead of their sisters in Arab and Muslim countries,” Otis says. “They are more literate, educated and aware of their democratic rights as women and citizens.”

And as Otis sees it, that’s a story that needs to be told.

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