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After marathon is cancelled, will Gaza's women speak out?

On March 5, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which works with Palestinian refugees, announced it was cancelling its third international marathon in Gaza in mid-April. The race was called off due to the decision of the Hamas leaders in Gaza not to allow women to participate.

The woman in me was deeply relieved at UNRWA’s decision – as a statement to Hamas that such chauvinism cannot be supported by international bodies. The marathon runner in me was crushed, for all those who registered and trained. Roughly one month before, most runners would have been completing their 25-30km training runs – a huge commitment, involving long hours of determination and stamina.

As a political analyst, I was struck by the strange wording of the UNRWA announcement, which referred to the ban on women’s participation by “the authorities.” UNRWA seemed to be consciously avoiding the word “Hamas,” as if not using the name limits Hamas presence in reality. If so, it’s not a great strategy; denying the existence of a group that seeks legitimacy will probably just spur its insistence on recognition.

Further, the response by a Hamas spokesperson quoted in the New York Times was a clear political message:

Taher al-Nounou, a spokesman for the Hamas government, said in a text message that his government had informed the United Nations agency that the marathon should respect “some regulations related to the Palestinian people’s traditions and customs.”

Hamas thus claims to represent the Palestinian people’s “traditions and customs,” not just their political aspirations. But genuine traditions and customs should not have to be “regulated” by a government, especially if it’s not a government event; the statement is therefore a rather self-conscious assertion, or creation of identity. According to the New York Times, roughly 250 women from Gaza were registered to run who apparently do not subscribe to Hamas’ version of Palestinian customs and traditions, not to mention their families and supporters, or, for that matter, the men who registered knowing women would be participating but were unfazed.

As an activist, I groaned imagining the inevitable right-wing and even some left-wing voices in Israel saying: ‘See? They oppress women.’ The argument will then be used to justify strange and unrelated points: ‘So why do people think Israel is the bad guy? How can the Palestinians be peace partners?’ I only had to think this for it to come true, as I began hearing such comments within hours after the decision.

These arguments are truly dim-witted.  So Palestinian society has leaders who suppress women, and that’s an excuse to give up on resolving the conflict? That absolves Israel for its policies? Imagine for a moment that the group under scrutiny was, let’s say, women. There are bad women out there who abuse children, who steal and even kill, or lead their countries astray as politicians. Hopefully nobody would conclude that this is a reason to cease advancing women’s rights, equality and justice. Nor would any sane person conclude that those wrongs exonerate men from the myriad wrongs and violence they inflict on women.

Then finally, the optimist in me wondered if this is the kind of thing that will help galvanize Palestinian civil society and activists to assert their version of Palestinian social and political identity. The Palestinian human rights group Al Mezan released a statement expressing “shock” and “condemnation” of the reasons for the cancellation, clarifying that discriminating against women is a violation of the Palestinian Basic Law. The group called on the “government in Gaza to allow UNRWA to organize the marathon and remove all barriers that could hinder its organization.”

Mona Shawa, a researcher and head of the woman’s unit at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, spoke publicly against the decision. Interviewed by phone for +972 Magazine, she said: “As a human rights activist and a women’s rights activist, we are against it and [the decision] surprised us.”

When asked if the exclusion of women does in fact represent Palestinian society as Hamas claimed, she responded: “I don’t think it’s like this – Gaza has varieties. I’m a Muslim woman and I don’t wear the hijab, it is not that all of the people should be this way – it’s really disappointing.” She indicated that the incident has created a stir in the local media.

Has Hamas has pushed its agenda one step too far regarding women? Shawa saw the marathon issue in light of other similar attempts – and the opposition such measures inevitably spark:

“It’s a bad sign of how they think that women should be. We are afraid that their ideology will become that of the whole society. We have liberal people, we have liberal Muslims, and every kind, as in any society, but who says this ideology is the society of Gaza? First they tried to prevent women from smoking sheesha (popular water pipes for tobacco) and then they went back on it, then they asked all female lawyers to be covered in court – sometimes they do this and then “delete” it. But there is really an argument inside society about all these things. We have human rights organizations, women’s organizations. On this and many issues, we raise arguments and criticism.”


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    1. directrob

      “She indicated that the incident has created a stir in the media in the local media”

      One media too many. I guess she wanted to say “in the local media”.

      The UNRWA formulated it the right way, the international press had no problem picking it up and identifying Hamas. If you do something spectacular you can be soft spoken.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Thanks for the catch – corrected.

      Reply to Comment
    3. I’m not sure I agree with the decision to cancel the marathon. Cancelling it is one way of expressing disapproval, but it might have been better if it had gone ahead and women runners had simply defied the ban…

      Reply to Comment
    4. Vicky – Interesting point, but the key word is “simply.” How many women would risk it? And regardless, can UNRWA really take responsibility for accepting such a ban even if a protest was held? Or if UNRWA accepted it and then called on women to defy it – that’s certainly beyond its mandate. I like your idea and I think women and men should hold a protest run on the planned day regardless; but I still support UNRWA’s decision.

      Reply to Comment
      • I didn’t mean for UNRWA to call for defiance. That would only lead to the inevitable knee-jerk reaction of ‘oh, you’re imposing western values on our women’, a backlash that a lot of feminists in Palestine have to contend with. However, saying, “We can’t in principle bar athletes from any sporting event and it’s open to whoever wants to race,” would have left it open to women runners and male supporters who want to protest – or just to take part in sport.

        I have some friends in Gaza who are interested in running a marathon of their own now, as a protest. This is certainly an interesting development as they are probably the least sporty people I’ve ever met. Hamas may have unwittingly inspired some sort of health kick. 🙂

        Reply to Comment
    5. Kolumn9

      Israel is not facing a European society in this conflict. Things like this demonstrate this reality and can be legitimately used as an argument to undermine the position that all societies are basically the same and Israelis are being racist or irrational in ascribing to Palestinian society desires and characteristics different from those commonly ascribed to European societies.

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      • andrew r

        Yeah Kolumn, some people need to be locked in a cage until they catch up with the modern world. Take this backward bunch for example:

        “At the beginning of the nineteenth century the majority of ___ in the _____ were still living in an environment essentially patriarchal in structure, steeped in centuries-old customs, isolated from the Western world. Administered almost entirely by a religious hierarchy in an environment of arranged marriages, the concept of love was confined to the loved shared between parents and children, members of the family, husband and wife.”

        You probably know what the blanks are already. I suspect Zionists really hate the Palestinians because in many ways they resemble the ancestors they are trying to live down.


        Reply to Comment
      • Firstly, Israel isn’t a European society either (I know of nowhere in Europe where a bus line could expect to get away with being sex-segregated, for example) and even if it were, ‘European society’ hardly translates as ‘guaranteed haven for women’s rights’ either. Secondly, militarism and misogyny feed into and reinforce one another, so it makes no sense to support an egregious display of the former (siege, occupation) on the pretext of opposing the latter.

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    6. klang

      why should there be a marathon
      I dont see having a marathon a good reason for martyrdom

      Reply to Comment
    7. Dave Boxthorn

      I love the idea of a Marathon in Gaza. The original Marathon run was by a Greek informing the Athenians of their great victory over the invading Imperialist forces of Iran at the plains of Marathon.

      Of course no one at 972+ mentions this fact because the Iranians are just so wonderful and eternally peaceful.

      Reply to Comment
      • JG

        So there was an imperialistic state of Iran back thenin Marathon? Good to know.
        Where do you get your historic visions from, corn-flake packets?
        But I know who’s the imperialistic state for the Gazans.

        Reply to Comment
    8. Such tight (and objectively rather silly) social control may be related to economic distribution in Gaza. Much of this distribution is not facilitated by cash, I’ve read, making appropriate ideological behavior a potential badge for access. The marathon women’s ban is a signal of control for its own sake, as much directed against the women as opponents in the probably constant battles over legitimacy. This is not meant to disparage the banned women–just to say they are pawns in more than one game.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Greg, I’m not sure if I get your economic point, but I definitely think there’s something to the idea of control for control’s sake – makes sense.

      Reply to Comment
      • I’ve read that the UN sees much of Gaza under a barter economy. When the fiction of money is removed, other means will be (even more) employed to distribute scarcity. One such means is membership, label. Being the correct kind of person can make a difference in access. Competitions for purer labels can result. Decrying the presence of women (“they might be faster than me and I will be forced to watch their backs!”) becomes a label for purity–to both enhance the speaker and shut other views (out of fear) down. Social control becomes a way of moving goods.

        Reply to Comment
    10. The Trespasser

      >These arguments are truly dim-witted. So Palestinian society has leaders who suppress women, and that’s an excuse to give up on resolving the conflict?

      Yes, until Palestinians change their leaders.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Piotr Berman

      I am a bit curious what exactly was the clash of “customs”. I guess that Hamas is Sunni fundamentalist in a “moderate” sense, they are not Salafists and they view Salafis as backward. So their restrictions on dress are similar as in Iran.

      Iran is not an oasis of liberalism but they have women’s athletics, here are photos from Doha games
      I would not like to run dress like that but this is clearly possible.

      Sawalha from West Bank was dressed similarly in London 2012.

      Thus I am curious if “regulations” of Hamas ban women in short or women running in any tight fitting dress?

      Reply to Comment
      • Leen

        Just a clarification on Sawalha, the Olympics team was run and managed by Jibreel Rajoub who we know is a very staunch Fatah member. There is no way this is related to Hamas.
        The Olympic Palestinian team had an array of different members, some wore the hijabs, others have not (take a good look at the Palestine Team photo and you’d see some were and some were not).
        Sawalha wears the hijab which is completely her choice and all women who do are dressed similar. My aunt was on the olympics team and the uniforms was left entirely up to her, the only guidelines she followed were the official Olympics codes. The rest were up to the discretion of the players and accommodating their needs, such as the need to accomodate the fact they were a hijab.

        Reply to Comment
      • Leen

        Woops, I misinterpreted your post completely.

        I think Hamas is trying to remain its hold on power. There is a good chance that if elections are up, they will lose the Gaza Strip.

        Reply to Comment
    12. Piotr – it seems the ban was complete and not conditional on appropriate dress; comments on UNRWA’s page indicated that women were planning to run covered in any case.

      Reply to Comment
      • Piotr Berman

        Then it seems that they went bonkers.

        The syndrom of “strictness” can strip a religion of all positive values and make it into a bunch of arbitrary rules (or worse). And it can affect Marxism, patriotism and so on, so I would not pile on Islam here but on a particular moronic decision.

        By the way, according to Wiki, most of Japanese follow two religions in the same time, Shinto and Buddhism, while in Israel there is a similar pair, Judaism and national security. Both of them suffer from bouts of strictness.

        Reply to Comment
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