HEBRON, West Bank – A new group running for municipal elections in Hebron is offering residents an alternative to politics as usual in the conservative West Bank city: Women at the helm, instead of men.
The all-female list, which is called "By Participating, We Can," is gearing up for next month's vote with a campaign that aims both to win at the polls and to convince voters that women can lead just as well as men.
"Men here traditionally want their women to stay at home, and when they allow them to go out to work, they send them to do traditional jobs like teaching," said Maysoun Qawasmi, the 43-year-old group leader, who entered the race this week. "But we want them to go further, to work like men in all possible jobs they can."
The group is fielding 11 previously independent candidates for the Oct. 20 vote. Should the bloc succeed in garnering significant public support, the women hope to ultimately unite and form an official political party.
But the women are well aware of the challenges they face in conservative Palestinian society, and the chances of an all-woman ticket performing well at the polls — for now at least — appear slim.
Qawasmi said the candidates are campaigning door-to-door to attract what they see as their natural electorate — fellow women. If elected, Qawasmi promises to open women-only facilities, like a sports club — an idea that has faced opposition by religiously conservative Muslims in Hebron who believe it is immodest for women to play sports.
She predicts her group could nab three out of the Hebron council's 15 seats, and she has ambitious hopes that after the vote, when the council chooses the mayor, she will be selected for the post.
A journalist for the Palestinian news agency Wafa, Qawasmi also holds training sessions to empower Palestinian women in the West Bank. She wears a hijab, or headscarf, but also dons pants and a blouse, and describes herself as secular.
At a recent meeting at Qawasmi's Hebron home, the group's members took turns sharing their personal stories of success. Liyana Abu Asheh, 28, said she worked as a civil engineer, stunning locals by helping pave the streets, and now runs her own private business. Asma Deis, 38 and recently widowed, said she's opening a small cleaning materials factory on her own to support her five children.
"Women can make the impossible possible," Deis said.
While Qawasmi's bloc is unique in its composition, women have long been politically active in Palestinian politics, and some hold office in the government run by the Palestinian Authority. There are six female ministers in the 24-member Cabinet of Western-backed Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. In the 132-member Palestinian legislative council, there are 17 female lawmakers.
But other indicators show that women in Palestinian society have largely retained traditional roles. Only 16 percent of women in the West Bank are employed, and in Hebron the number drops to 10 percent. If the women's bloc were to win seats, it would likely challenge taboos in Hebron and beyond.
These elections are the first in the city of 200,000 since 1976. Local polls held elsewhere in 2005 were cancelled in Hebron, and current mayor Zoher Esaili was installed by Fatah in a bid to prevent its rival Hamas, an Islamist group which has broad support in the city, from winning the post.
Hamas and Fatah had a violent falling out in 2007, and now separately govern the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively.
Qawasmi's group is up against a Fatah list and independents. Hamas is likely to sit out the vote pending reconciliation with Fatah, which could slightly increase Qawasmi's chances.
Highlighting the challenge the party faces before the vote, even female Hebron residents were skeptical of the all-woman group.
"It's a daring step. I'm proud of them, but to be practical I will vote for another party headed by a man," said Rawya Sarsour, a first-year university student.
Construction worker Ali Nathshe was blunt about his opposition: "They will fail."
Even if the group doesn't make it into the council, Qawasmi believes her campaign will still emerge victorious by showing that women can indeed lead just as well as men.
"We will open the door for women in Hebron to struggle for their rights," Qawasmi said.