Suheir Farraj is the executive director of TAM (Tanmiyet wa iAalam al Mar’ah) or Women, Media and Development, a Palestinian NGO that founded in 2004 to empower women through the use of media as a development tool. Their goal is to promote gender mainstreaming and change the image of women in Palestinian society by incorporating gender issues, human rights and democracy concepts in media production. Suheir and Mariam have worked extensively with former female prisoners and former female child prisoners.
Mariam has been arrested many times – 7 even prior to December 1987 outbreak of the first Intifada. In 1988 she was interrogated by Israeli authorities for 35 days and then placed in administrative detention for 6 months. Mariam was one of the first women to be put in administrative detention When I asked where she had been imprisoned, Suheir joked that "Mariam has visited all the prisons!" Suheir was herself imprisoned at Ramleh for 40 days in April 1987. I went to talk to them about what happens to Palestinian women when they are released from Israeli prison and attempt to return to the lives, families and communities from which they were taken.
In the West there is often a stigma attached to former prisoners and I wanted to see if this is the same in Palestinian society, particularly in relation to women prisoners. Here Suheir and Mariam have differing opinions. "They are highly respected," says Mariam, "they are admired because of what it means to be arrested – it’s about politics." The proof of this, according to Mariam, is in the numbers – more women have been arrested since the first Intifada and women have become more involved in politics and resistance since the first Intifada. For Suheir, the image is slightly different. Women prisoners are respected in general, for what they represent, but on a personal level they are not as respected. When I ask why she simply replies that their families and communities "don’t know how to deal with them."
Palestinian women who have been imprisoned face multiple problems following their release. Some aren’t able to marry; others cannot go to school and get an education. It is very difficult for women to find work – a problem already faced by many Palestinians but which is compounded by having been imprisoned. Suheir tells me that it is more difficult for girls to marry once they reach their mid twenties under normal circumstances, but for women who have been in prison it is even harder because men may wonder if the woman has been raped, or perhaps she was an activist, or maybe she is "too strong a woman". For those women who are already married it can be difficult to have normal relations with their husbands once they return. According.to Suheir, “many women keep what happened to them hidden from their families until many years later.”
Perhaps the most worrying problem, though, is that there are no facilities or programs to help Palestinian women prisoners once they are released. There are no social workers in the prisons to help them prior to release or to work with their families to prepare them. The women come out of prison where, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Detainees and Ex-Detainees, they all faced physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their interrogators and prison guards, depressed and lacking trust. Mariam tells me that it is easier for women who were political before their imprisonment to cope once they are released because it is a part of their life. For Suheir and Mariam, being arrested is a part of their lives, it is part of how they were raised. Their brother, they tell me, was killed during the first Intifada and their father was deported to Lebanon, where he was killed.
Both Suheir and Mariam agree that the situation is more difficult for traditional women and their families than for those who are secular-political. Traditional families are often more protective of women. "If a family won’t even let the girl sleep away from home for one night, asks Suheir, “then how will they be able to cope with her being arrested" This is why, she claims, the Israelis target women – they use them as "tools" against the men in their families. According to Addameer Prisoners’ Rights and Support Group (www.addameer.org), it is becoming a more common practice for Israelis to arrest Palestinian women as a means of putting pressure on their husbands. They cite the case of Asma’ Abu el-Hayja, a 40 year old woman suffering from brain cancer who was arrested and given an administrative detention order for six months in order to pressure her husband, who was also being held. On 21st January 2003, the wife of the General Secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,. Ablaa’ Saadat, was arrested and given four months administrative detention. She was told by an interrogator that her arrest was merely a demonstration that ’they’ can do whatever they want.
My final questions for Mariam and Suheir concerned the peace process and the role that the issue of prisoners should play. "Nobody speaks about the women prisoners, Mariam noted. “It is not a subject in the process. The Israelis release people sometimes, but it is just a political gesture". She, as well as many other Palestinians, feels that no one truly addresses the wider issue of political prisoners and this is one of the contributory causes to the lack of respect for the peace process or the negotiations. "I would support the peace process" Mariam says "if there was a proper discussion of all the issues," meaning healthcare inside the prisons, family visits and some measure of accountability on the part of Israel. For the moment, however, this remains elusive.
I asked Suheir what the Israeli refusal to release all political prisoners does to the Palestinians’ confidence in their own leadership, and her answer is, I fear, shared by a great many Palestinians: "I have lost all trust in our leaders." The problem, for Suheir, is that the Palestinian leadership does not have real power. They have nothing with which to negotiate. “There is”, Suheir relates, “the idea that Palestinians should begin to take Israeli prisoners so we will have something with which to negotiate. Many Palestinians see the recent prisoner exchange between Israel and Hizbullah and feel that Israel is not interested in a peaceful process – they respond to violence and power.” This”, adds Suheir,, “is why society is becoming more violent.”