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.”