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Activist Encourages Women to Fight for “a Better Place”

Photo by: Kristina Hargraves

Stressing that “rights are not a charity to be given, they are something to be fought for,” Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas, a women’s rights advocate from Palestine, discussed the Palestinian women’s movement while urging Mills women to continue the struggle for equality in a speech made on campus Nov. 9.

Shamas, the director of the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling in Jerusalem, described the various stages of the Palestinian women’s movement from the 1920s to the present day, and said that women “have become involved to address the needs of the society.”

“Society is run by women yet the decisions are not made by women,” she said.

Shamas said the purpose of female mobilization has evolved from aid in the resistance against the British mandate authorizing immigration into the country to social work, political activism, and a struggle to “challenge the patriarchal hierarchy.”

Her involvement in the movement began in the 1960s while Palestinian women were first finding their voice in politics. Since then, Shamas has worked for 14 years within both Palestine and Israel to increase the rights of women while promoting the formation of an independent Palestinian state.

Shamas believes that feminists in Palestine are concerned with how to continue the fight for equality during a time of increased conflict with Israel. According to Shamas, many are asking themselves whether it’s right to fight for individual rights during a time when community rights are being compromised.

She said many activists are decreasing their level of political involvement and returning to social work in order to “preserve the community” while continuing to “let the world hear our stories.”

She stressed the fact that women must never give up the struggle for “a better place for themselves and for others” and said she was pleased to speak at a women’s college because it is one of the few places “where women are searching for the truth, who they are, and what they are going to be in the future.”

Shamas said progress in achieving women’s rights has been slow and based on compromise with the conservative powers. She stated that “religion is a battle that women cannot win” but that ambiguity in religion can be used as a way to expand female rights if carefully analyzed. Many describe Palestine as a forward thinking community due to the “progressive Islamic approach” used by the women’s movement, according to Shamas.

Shamas stressed the need for American women “during this age of globalization” to observe the achievements and struggles of other female groups while continuing to defend their rights at home. She believes that policies are already being introduced in the United States that limit basic rights such as freedom of expression.

A number of students asked Shamas about the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She said that the situation is worsening and that major powers like the U.S. are not doing enough to restrain Israel’s increasing use of force. Shamas said she continues to work closely with Israeli groups due to her belief that “peace is made between peoples, not leaders.”

Students and faculty alike felt they learned something from the talk and were impressed with Shamas. Jose Palafox, an Ethnic Studies professor, commended Shamas for providing new ideas and topics regarding activism.

“I thank you for sharing new ideas,” Palafox said, “for the current time.”

Junior Tina Zaman said Shamas was an excellent speaker who “made things palatable and understandable for the audience.”

Zaman’s only concern was the number of students in attendance. “I wish more people were there because she [discussed things] that we’re so isolated from,” Zaman said.