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Women step forward in West Bank

As strife constrains men, women venture into jobs and activism.

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The village women who assembled in this hillside hamlet to talk politics came in conservative, drab gowns and head scarves that left only their faces exposed.

But their comments about the approaching municipal elections were anything but traditional. Two said they aspired to become the first female members of their village council. Others, like Nivineh Amr, insisted that only a female candidate would understand the importance of bringing day-care centers and running water to this West Bank town of 3,500.

Amid the devastation wrought by nearly four years of conflict with Israel, a subtle but significant transformation is under way in the lives of many Palestinian women. Normally confined to domestic chores and child care, they're now playing central roles in the survival of families in which husbands have found themselves without work.

The crisis has emboldened women to assert themselves in new realms, from finding part-time work and taking control of family finances to political involvement. The newfound freedoms are even bucking the rising influence of fundamentalist Islam in the public lives of Palestinians.

"Before the intifada," says Mrs. Amr, a mother of seven, "our husbands would come to us and say, 'Vote for this one or vote for that one,' and we weren't concerned with their qualifications or what that person stood for.''

As Israel's military has clamped down on cities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, it has choked off Palestinian activity and sent unemployment soaring. Jobless rates in the West Bank have risen as high as 40 percent. In Gaza, unemployment has surpassed 60 percent.

"Because of the closures, women had to find ways of producing food without going to a market,'' says Subhiyeh Hamdan, a social worker who facilitates the women's support group in Kufr Khalil. As a result, she says, "women have gone back to sewing. Any job that was available they took.''


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