Alas, I cannot believe our final week has arrived. Where did twelve weeks go?! I speak on behalf of us all here at Birzeit in saying what an unforgettable experience it has been. But before I bring out the tissues, let me tell you about two of this week’s events which have been of particular significance for me.
Firstly, some of the R2E volunteers did a workshop with the students from the Birzeit English Dept entitled ‘The Perils of Being a Woman’. The purpose of the workshop was to stimulate a debate amongst the students, international volunteers included, about how woman suffer globally and locally. Coming from a very Westernised liberal background and having resided in a conservative community for 3 months I was intrigued to find out what Palestinian women really thought about the status quo – for this purpose we took the sexist step of banning all boys!
|Check out Sarah Beddington's work which was |
shown at Birzeit University Museum back in March
Topics we discussed included what it is to be a woman, how women are oppressed, ways in which we wish women had more freedom and views on the sexualisation of women. Fortunately, we had a variety of stances both liberal and conservative as well as a very special guest - a mother! It was great to get the opinions of someone who had experienced both motherhood and womanhood.
The workshop was incredibly thought provoking, and it was interesting to see the ways in which religion and geography can affect people’s views. I found the girls who lived on the other side of the Wall in East Jerusalem to be more liberal and those living in the West Bank to be more conservative in both their views on gender as well as their attire. I was curious to find out their thoughts on the Hijab and other Islamic dress such as the abaya, to which I received an array of responses. For example some people chose to wear the Hijab as an assertion of their identity against the Occupation. Others said they wore it because it was their way or showing reverence to Allah but aside from this they were not strict about any other religious duties and hence they chose to dress in a westernised way. I think the most interesting response about religious dress however was from a Muslim girl who chooses to dress modestly but without conveying religious symbolism. Her argument was that whilst Mohammad did say that Muslim woman should cover up everything except for their hands and face, she found the face to be one of the most seductive parts, perhaps more so then other body part and thus did not follow the logic of concealment.
Secondly, we accompanied the national R2E volunteers to Hebron. Here we visited Qurtuba school which resides in the Jewish settlement Beit Hadassah. Qurtuba school lies on Shuhada street, a once busy thoroughfare and now a ghost town, with a military checkpoint restricting Palestinians' access to this part of the city. Israeli forces fenced off the school's stairs with barbed wire in 2002 and now the only route to the school is an almost derelict path up a steep hill. "Gas the Arabs" has been scrawled on a door near the school and next to the school gates, a mural of a girl holding a book, painted by a French activist, has been covered by racist graffiti. Within the school there is a gallery which shows Israeli soldiers and settlers assaulting teachers and students. International volunteers escort children to and from school as a protective measure, but pupils and teachers are still frequently harassed and assaulted on their way to the school, which has previously been vandalised and set on fire.
The R2E team went to gather documentation of this abhorrent suffering. We filmed interviews with children asking them about their experiences and why they thought the Occupation was so ruthless in its tactics. Children spoke of being chased by dogs and settlers; of how the soldiers intimidated the small children to the extent that they refused to attend class and how they would prevent teachers and pupils from entering school for days on end. It was harrowing to hear such injustice first hand, particularly from children as young as 5. The national volunteers did a fantastic job in explaining to the children that intimidation was all part of the Occupation’s plan to try and close the school down in order to claim the school as part of the settlement. Such an explanation seemed to click with the children and it was amazing to see the determination in their faces – they would not allow the settlers to win!
The volunteers further helped the children paint over the racist graffiti replacing it with beautiful Palestinian imagery. The most memorable action for me was a volunteer who spray painted over the Star of David, which had been tagged up as a means of insult, replacing it with a map of Palestine. I found this really powerful. The visit to Qurtuba demonstrated for me the importance of the Right to Education campaign and how integral its work is within Palestine. It truly is a symbol of hope.
But now we must bid you farewell, we hope you have enjoyed reading about our time here. It has been such a privilege working with the Right to Education campaign and seeing the fantastic work they do. We hope we have made some impact whilst being here and are both passionate and dedicated in continuing their fantastic work back in the UK.
As we now spend our last few days indulging in all things Palestinian (maqluba and kanafe we shall miss you dearly!) we leave you in the very capable hands of the next cohort.
Palestine we thank you, it has been an honour.