Women of the intifadah. For many females, roles are changing radically and rapidly. THE WEST BANK
A PIERCING wail can be heard above frantic shouts and screams coming from the souk in the West Bank city of Nablus. An anguished woman touches her hand over the wound of her dead son and uncontrollably curses the Israeli soldiers who shot him.
On another day a 12-year-old girl is pushed into a filthy, humid jail cell.
It's the same kind of cell where a 65-year-old woman sits begging for medical attention.
It's the same kind of cell that houses a woman in her eighth month of pregnancy, who is wasting away from inedible food.
These are some of the Palestinian women of the intifadah (uprising).
And when they're not harassed by Israeli soldiers, many are being ``shackled'' by the attitudes of their own husbands, fathers, and brothers.
But an irony of the intifadah is that those ``shackles'' are actually being loosened as a result of Israel's heavy-handed policy.
Traditional village women, once sequestered at home, are now out visiting bereaved families and joining sit-ins.
Women, once docile in the face of any authority, attack Israeli soldiers in an effort to retrieve their arrested children. Illiterate women, mothers of 6, 10, and even 15 children, are avidly discussing politics.
Although life for some is a preoccupation with the last relative jailed, beaten, or threatened with deportation because of the uprising, it is also a heady time.
Emrateb, 40, whose chubby body is fully dressed in the cover-up robes of Muslim women, says, ``We are frightened. We have no security. But we are happy.''
Her pale face is as smooth and unlined as a China doll's, and she has led the supervised, house-bound life of most village women.
But now, and gesturing with small hands that don't betray the years of physical labor, she says, ``I want more freedom. I want to have a say in the family.''
If she gets that say, it will be to guarantee that her three-year-old daughter receives an education and, unlike her mother, the right to choose her own husband.
Amal Wahdan, 30, did not wait to be given the right to choose her husband. She took it.
She also believed that a college education was her right as much as challenging Israeli authority was her obligation.
That ``obligation'' has brought harassment, prison, town arrest, and torture. In casual Western clothes, she sits in the offices of the Palestinian Federation of Women's Action Committees, a women's social and political organization.
With no sign of rancor, she spreads her arms to show the size of the stuffy cell where she spent 25 days in solitary confinement after being accused of distributing illegal materials.
Asked if she is a member of the outlawed Palestine Liberation Organization, she smiles. ``I recognize the PLO just as everyone does.''
Discussing her time in prison, she comments, ``To keep my mind I sang, played word games, and made jewelry out of olive pits.'' With a steady gaze and an even voice, she describes nights when her body was contorted by ropes that bound her hands and feet.
She says, ``My four-year-old daughter came to visit me. She stood behind the bars and said, `Mommy, Daddy's being sent away to Lebanon.'''
Amal's husband is in jail while appealing a deportation order that charges him as being a leader of the intifadah. It is the final blow to a family whose personal lives have been put on hold. Amal says, ``I can't remember being a normal little family. We've never taken a picnic or a family trip.
``For my children, life has meant tear gas, soldiers, and visits to prisons.''
Stroking her two-year-old son's black hair, she says sadly, ``He's never even had a birthday party.''
If there haven't been parties and family reunions, there also haven't been family battles over Amal's independence. Unlike some other Palestinian women, she has not been cowed into submission.
She remarks, ``We've never even had a discussion about how the house is run. Whoever has the time cooks and changes diapers.''
With a look of an enfant terrible, she continues, ``When my mother sees my husband washing dishes, she laughs at him. And then she tells me that I'm an awful wife.''
As much as Emrateb says she admires people who fight for a Palestinian state, she would probably agree that, in her opinion, Amal is a terrible wife.
``I'm shocked that there are women who don't do their housework,'' she says. ``If they work, they should do their housework at night.''
Nonetheless, she beams when her three-year-old daughter announces that she wants to be a lawyer when she grows up.
With pride, Emrateb says, ``I got that idea from the intifadah. Because of all the arrests, we've needed lawyers.''
Marwia, a Christian who lives in Bethlehem, has also gotten many ideas from the intifadah.
After serving tea to a roomful of male relatives, she sits down in her brilliant pink dress and bounces her two-year-old niece on her lap. She is teaching her the popular chant, ``PLO ... Israel No.''
Marwia feels that children must learn young that they have to fight the Israelis for their rights. She says that her people are oppressed, and that they want their freedom.
When asked about women's rights, she pauses and with a blank expression asks, ``What's that?'' Even those who know what women's rights are are often restrained from acting. A radical at one of the women's organizations nervously gives her phone number, but requests that a man never call her, because it would create problems with her brother. Young women often apply for jobs with their fathers in tow.
Joliet Dabbikey, director of an East Jerusalem institute for the mentally retarded, says, ``They both sit there for the interview, and when you ask the girl a question, the father answers.''
When the uprising is over, it's not clear who will be giving the answers. There have been subtle changes for women over the last 20 years and a few dramatic ones within the last year.
Political awareness is even reflected in the outward trappings of clothing. Women carry bags of kaffiyeh (the headdress worn by Arabs as protection from dust and heat), which is a symbol of the intifadah, for others to wear around their necks at Palestinian demonstrations.
As in the heyday of the Iranian revolution, some nonreligious Muslim women have taken to wearing traditional clothes as a sign of their loyalty to the revolutionary zeal. And those who dress in Western clothes keep the outfits simple, befitting this time of painful national struggle.
But if women are to be left with more than fashion statements for their participation in the intifadah, they are going to have to move quickly.
Amal says, ``If we don't make women aware of their rights now, they could be sent home again when the intifadah is over.''