“Do you teach about this at your university? Do you teach about our lives here?” asks Fatma Nawaja as she prepares for a meeting of the Rural Women Association.
“I’m not qualified to teach about your lives. I can make a few photographs, perhaps of baking . . .
or the pigeon roost.”
“But I would rather photograph your meeting.”
On March 15, 2016, eleven women converge on a tent in Susiya from four scattered villages in the South Hebron Hills. They are determined, Fatma says, to develop the necessary financial and educational resources to achieve autonomy. As she uses the word, “Autonomy” means individual advancement toward a collective aim. An autonomous woman is able to take responsibility in the family and contribute to its support.
Working together, the women have instituted workshops, school activities and summer camps, but their most important achievement may be that they are meeting at all.
The association is a new idea and it is not easy to arrange the meetings. Were transportation available, more members from more villages could attend. Today the group comes from four of them: Susiya, Al Mufaqarah and Umm al-Khair, all tent villages, and at-Tuwani, home to the high school and two NGOs. The treasurer of the group, Naima, is from the Beduin village Umm al-Khair. Support for the group comes from small annual dues and donations.
Of these towns (and several others), at-Tuwani is the only one that can be found on google maps. The “Susiya” on the map is not the village where we are meeting but the Israeli settlement that took part of the village’s land and all of its name. The archaeological site (see “ancient synagogue”) marks the place where the town was located before the residents were expelled in 1986 to create the archaeological park. The former residents constructed a village on some of their remaining farmland between the two locations named “Susiya.” They have been expelled several times from this location also. According to Wikipedia, Umm al-Khair is located at
The Oslo accords placed these villages in “area C,” under Israeli control, and the authorities have refused the residents permission to construct permanent buildings. In the past few months, the civil administration has carried out several demolitions . Since this meeting, too, it has destroyed a number of structures in Um al Khair. I am told that a demolition order is also pending against a memorial erected at the entrance to Susyia in memory of a Palestinian baby burned to death in his home last year by settlers in Duma.
Naima reports on the group’s financial condition
The women discuss the development of their website – it is unfinished but it lists many of their current and planned initiatives. Many of them center on education. English lessons for example are scarce, expensive, and crucial.
School is another topic. They have been helping children who are struggling, but the school needs trained social workers. Recently one of the woman offered a workshop to children to help them recognize explosives so that the children will stop picking them up on the way to school.
Economic issues are another topic. Many of the women engage in crafts.
They sell their wares at fairs and at their embroidery shop in a cave in Susiya. You can see the interior in a previous post here.
A workshop on techniques for making yogurt and machinery and the skills to spin wool professionally come up in conversation. Wool from the sheep in the villages tends to go to waste in the summer.
Dreams and energy fill the room – including the energy without which the meeting would have been next to impossible. The Israeli government sponsors power lines for Israeli settlements; these bypass the Palestinian villages. But an NGO, Community Energy Technology (Comet-ME), has for some years provided renewable technology to these communities and the expertise to maintain it.
COMET’s office is in a pre-existing building but the added roof over the terrace is subject to demolition. Hence their workshops are in caves:
There a staff that includes Israelis and local residents makes solar panels, wind turbines and water filtration systems for tent villages in South Hebron.
The energy also powers television sets in Susiya. There, a mother and her six children can watch Bollywood films at bedtime with their overnight guest after a day that began before dawn.
text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2016