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    Friday, February 03, 2006

    The Women of Hamas; The Women of the United States

    I encourage you to read this article in the NYT on the women of Hamas:

    Now in surprise control of Palestinians politics, Hamas can boast that women hold 6 of the party's 74 seats in parliament — giving the women of the radical group, guided in all ways by their understanding of Islam, a new and unaccustomed public role.

    I just wanted to give a quick comparison. In the United States women are substantially, but not so substantially, better represented in Congress, at 15.1% in contrast to Hamas Parliament's 8.1%.

    "We are going to lead factories, we are going to lead farmers," said Jamila al-Shanty, 48, a professor at the Islamic University here who won a seat in parliament. "We are going to spread out through society. We are going to show the people of the world that the practice of Islam in regards to women is not well known."

    If Ms. Shanty's prediction is true, the role of women will certainly not be along the secular Western lines followed largely, and with real strides for women, under decades of leadership by Yasir Arafat's now defeated Fatah faction. The model will be Islam: women in Hamas wear head scarves and follow strict rules for social segregation from men.

    Reading this made me think a lot about how each patriarchal culture has particular boundaries for its women. The women of Hamas may serve in office, but must wear head scarves that the men don't. While I think the head scarf-miniskirt analogy that people like to make is a little squicky (though I don't entirely disagree with it), I don't think it's off to compare some of the boundaries American women face. In particular, women are not allowed to serve on the front lines, whereas we're all aware of female suicide bombers. Certainly, these female suicide bombers are not official members of the Palestinian Armed Forces, but, now that Hamas is in power, it's not hard to see what these women did as in service of the state.

    A major difference, of course, is that the wearing of the head scarf is imposed upon all women, while military service, much less infantry service, is not of particular interest (or necessity?) to the great majority of American women. But both examples levy a prejudice against women as law.

    And one of their role models — one of the few women in Hamas well known before the election — has a pedigree particularly troubling to many in Israel and the outside world.

    She is Mariam Farhat, the mother of three Hamas supporters killed by Israelis. She bade one son goodbye in a homemade videotape before he stormed an Israeli settlement, killing five people, then being shot dead. She said later, in a much-publicized quotation, that she wished she had 100 sons to sacrifice that way. Known as the "mother of martyrs," she was seen in a campaign video toting a gun.

    I am fascinated by Farhat, a personality that simply could not exist publicly in the United States. Let's compare her, as the most prominent mother of young men killed in battle, with our most prominent war mother, Cindy Sheehan.

    Farhat does not have to act a contrast with the violence of her sons. She is not a only proud of her sons, but herself a symbol of violence, strapped with a gun. Sheehan, on the other hand, is the only recognizable mother of a soldier in the US and is not only protesting the war in Iraq or the way the war is carried out, but is for "peace". Would we have it any other way?

    What would we do with a woman like Farhat? Could a woman like Farhat exist in the United States? Even the proudest of pro-Iraq mothers could never say something like, "I wish I had 100 sons to sacrifice," for the cause. (I'm willing to concede that the "cause" of the war in Iraq has less personal relevance for the American soldiers, in general, than does the cause of Hamas to its bombers.) In the United States, a "good mother" sacrifices her child reluctantly. And she doesn't fight herself.

    Sheehan is not silent, she is a public figure. She even got herself arrested. And Farhat hasn't quite put her money where her mouth is, personally; the woman is not herself a suicide bomber. But what they symbolize about motherhood, and therefore womanhood, is undeniable.

    Now, like Farhat, Sheehan is not adored by all, but by a subset of people who are in agreement with her politics; neither can be viewed as uncontroversial icons, but their relevance, at their respective levels of prominence, is telling.

    I don't want to equate or place on some sort of scale the different oppressions faced by American women and women in Hamas, but the article was definitely food for thought.


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