The Impact of the Crisis in Palestine on Masculinity and Gender Relations
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 18.09.2009:
By Ziad Yaish
The impact of armed conflict on people and also the coping strategies adopted by them tend to differ between women and men. In all phases of conflict, gender inequalities are exacerbated. Women, men, and youth suffer from abuses and traumas during periods of conflict, disruption of services, and loss of resources. The impact of these losses is experienced by all sectors of any given society, but it mostly affects women and children.
At the same time, gender inequality remains a priority for non-governmental organisations and donors and has become even more pronounced under the emergency circumstances in Palestine, since women bear more of the social and economic consequences of the Israeli occupation and the resulting deterioration within Palestinian society. Women’s roles and responsibilities within the household have expanded, while their socio-economic position has deteriorated significantly. Furthermore, the opportunities and resources available to improve their situation have decreased. With rising poverty rates, women have adopted various coping strategies aimed at increasing family income through development of the domestic economy.
The increased domestic burden on already physically and emotionally exhausted Palestinian women due to the increasing numbers of injured and disabled family members, the economic crisis, and the role of the primary caretaker at home, in addition to a lack of appropriate services, has resulted in additional stress and worries for women.
Moreover, Palestinian youth, both males and females, who represent the majority of the Palestinian population, have been left with no productive outlets for their energies. Their immediate needs for education, health care, and recreation remain largely unmet, leaving them at a greater risk of stress, domestic violence, and self-destructive behaviour. These crises are likely to widen the existing gender gaps and inequalities within Palestinian society in various spheres including political participation, labour and economy, education, and human rights.
At the same time, women have continued to perform the role of care providers and “shock absorbers” for their traumatised children and unemployed husbands. On the other hand, and due to soaring poverty and unemployment rates, men have not been able to effectively perform their traditional roles as breadwinners. This has elevated their sense of frustration and despair and has led to an increase in the number of cases of domestic and gender-based violence.
A recent survey conducted on the psycho-social consequences of the recent war on Gaza has revealed that an increasing number of young people are taking painkiller drugs that are highly addictive (mainly Tramadol) to alleviate the effects of sad memories and grief. A pharmacist mentioned that around 40 percent of young people in Gaza are taking Tramadol, and they are risking serious negative mental and physical side effects. One young person participating in one of the focus groups indicated that he took Tramadol before coming to the session to remain calm and be able to talk without frustration or nervousness. Moreover, the majority of youth surveyed expressed pessimistic feelings towards their future, and they believed that the future was uncertain and full of risks due to the fear of war. On the other hand, a large number of young people expressed the desire to leave Gaza and immigrate to another country to try to find better life opportunities.
Masculinity in crisis
Men are also affected in all phases of the conflict. One of the most important effects of armed conflict is what has been widely known as “Masculinity in Crisis.” Masculinity, as defined by Connell and Messerschmidt (2005), is a set of social practices and cultural representations connected with being a man. It is understood as the effects of interpretation and definitions placed upon reproductive and sexual capacities of the human body, personalities, and society’s culture and institutions. If these practices and representations are challenged by armed conflict it will negatively affect the whole society, especially women. Therefore, it is essential to provide services for men in conflict as this will ultimately minimise the negative effect of war on the society, which will, in the end, reflect on gender relations. This is true in the case of Palestinian men, where their masculinity is challenged daily at the Israeli checkpoints or during military incursions.
At the same time, women and girls are often socially marginalised in times of crisis and may be subjected to increased exposure to violence, including gender-based violence. According to the most recent data from the Palestinian Perception Poll (unpublished) around one-quarter of the Palestinian population surveyed felt that violence directed at women was acceptable in certain cases. Moreover, women are not always aware of the rights and services afforded to them either in the prevailing system or as per directives from UN resolutions such as Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security that was adopted in October 2000.
Implementing this resolution in the Palestinian context could improve the protection of women and girls. This could be achieved through strengthening the ability of NGOs to integrate 1325 in their organisational plans, in addition to mobilising communities at the grassroots level to protect women from gender-based violence.
What women say about the effect of the crisis on gender relations
The results of a focus group discussion held with thirteen women in the city of Nablus showed that the current crisis is negatively and deeply affecting power relations between women and men. Furthermore, the two main attributes of masculinity, which are the ability to provide and protect are constantly challenged by the Israeli occupation. As stated by the participants, men are having a hard time providing for their families in addition to not being able to protect members of their families from the occupation. At the same time, women bear the responsibility of raising the children, who demand that their needs be met by their mothers. Moreover, the results showed that women rationalised the violence inflicted on them by their husbands, something which might be attributed to the culture, which tolerates violence against women. Being open about gender-based violence is still taboo, as was apparent in the results, whereby women would only talk about verbal abuse without mentioning any other forms of violence. The reason behind this could be that women are concerned that by speaking out they will increase their vulnerability to violence.
The way forward
An analysis addressing critical issues in the Palestinian context must seek to understand and address issues relevant to women, men, and youth in both the public and private family spheres. Whereas the centrality of the Palestinian family in Palestinian society is usually unquestioned, the strains and burdens on families and family members as they attempt to promote welfare, find work, get an education, and bear and raise children in difficult conditions are less often examined. In this context Palestinian women are often characterised as “shock absorbers,” but this capacity is not infinite.
The search for a stable and just peace is not only a political quest; it is the foundation for gender equity and equality. Initiatives for gender equality cannot be successful without strengthening the Palestinian legal system, the capacity of an independent judiciary, and the promotion of the rule of law and human rights in general.
The relationship between political and domestic violence is an important area for further exploration. It is also true that violence against women and domestic violence in Palestinian society share characteristics with global and regional patterns as well. Nevertheless, there is an urgent need to develop national initiatives that protect women and girls from gender-based violence. Furthermore, and as mentioned above, it is essential to advocate for the adoption and implementation of UN Resolution 1325 within the Palestinian context. Finally, it is important to address the needs of Palestinian men given that men’s needs in this conflict are also neglected. This is evident from the fact that no project can be identified so far that is designed to address violence inflicted on men. According to Sylvia Chant and Matthew Gutmann (2002), in this case women may become the main victims, because the exclusion of men from projects will increase hostilities between men and women, as men will block any moves to enhance women’s lives.
Ziad Yaish is a gender and development specialist.
Culture and Free Thought Association (CFTA) and the United Nations Population Fund, “Gaza Crisis: Psycho-social Consequences for Women, Youth and Men,” 2009.
Sylvia Chant and Matthew Gutmann, “‘Men-streaming’ for Gender? Questions for gender and development in the 21st century,” Progress in Development Studies, 2:269, 2002.
R.W. Connell and J. Messerschmidt, “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept,” Gender Society, 19: 829�”59, 2005.
Amani Eljack, “Gender and Armed Conflict: Overview Report,” Bridge: Development-Gender, UNDP, New York, 2003.
UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund [accessed on 15 July 2009], UN Security Council Resolution 1325, http://www.unfpa.org/women/.
TWIP August 2009