Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Shout Behind the Veil

Mohammed Omer

VEILED BUT VISIBLE Arwa Umran, 19, wears a traditional full veil at a Hamas campaign rally, but has no hesitation about stating her political opinions.

Norwegian People's Aid commissioned Mohammed to report in-depth on young peoples' involvement in the Palestinian Parliamentary elections. His article below was posted 24 Jan as the lead article on their website. (

The Shout Behind the Veil
by Mohammed Omer
reporting from the Gaza Strip, Occupied Palestine

"Occupation's bad enough—stop the chaos!"
"Palestinian youth say: stop the violence!"
"Youth demands change now!"

Finally there is something more numerous than bullet holes on the walls of Palestine: political posters. Candidates, slogans, party logos, plus a surprising number of this sudden crop of posters in the Gaza Strip which have been made and put up by student organizations and youth groups. Young people aged 18-25 are 30% of the population in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and are determined to make their voices matter in the 25 January Parliamentary elections. While some posters endorse a specific party, they all have a common theme of "Change—NOW."

Young people in Palestine have faced endless frustration from the paternalistic "old guard" of the Palestinian Authority and its ruling Fatah Party. On many occasions, youth groups petitioned the PNA to allow candidates aged 18-25 to run for the Legislative Council, and were turned down with infuriating diplomacy. "Now, now, children," was the unspoken message, "we know better."

Typical of this unhappy scenario was "Our Voice," a Sharek Youth Forum event in Gaza City funded by Norwegian People's Aid. One of the PNA elders attending was Abdel Aziz Shaheen, a former member of the Legislative Council. When he took questions from the floor, a young man declared, "It's time for some of the older generation of legislators to step aside and make room for our generation in Parliament." Shaheen interrupted him: "That's against the law! Our election law is clear that candidates must be at least 30 years old. And that is actually very progressive. In all the other Arabic states, candidates for office must be at least 40!"

Nonetheless, the election law is also clear that those 18 and over can register to vote. And there are no age limits on campaign volunteers. So in the last two days, the Gaza Strip has been humming with the energy of youth workshops, training sessions, and seminars, all aimed toward training "get out the vote" workers. Indeed, Palestinian young people form the majority of door-to-door "get out the vote" volunteers, some affiliated with non-partisan groups, others working for specific slates of candidates. Fairly equal numbers of young men and women are involved in the effort, the women workers usually adding a full face veil to the usual headscarf to avoid any possible accusations of impropriety.

It is not in the least surprising that young women are fully involved in campaigning. After all, in the past five years of the Intifada, they suffered every bit as much as the young men at the Israeli checkpoints; they were kept from their homes, their schools, their jobs as often as any man. Due to the recent rash of civil disorder in the Gaza Strip, a recent poll showed young voters have an overwhelming interest in local elections. The pollsters cite two reasons: the young people are desperate for positive change, and are unafraid of new situations, including new political parties and brand-new activities like being campaign volunteers.

Some young people will also serve as official election observers. Forty members of the Sharek Youth Forum in Gaza City, aged 18-25, have reported to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights for intensive training to serve as election observers on January 25.

Moheeb Sharek 24, the director of Sharek Youth Forum in Gaza City, pointed out that this was still only a civil and volunteer role. "They can't be candidates," he said. "The youngest person running is a Hamas candidate 29 years old on the Change and Reform slate. And there's one independent candidate who is 35. So our generation will not actually be in Parliament, despite all our appeals for a change in the election laws."

But the importance of the civil and volunteer role cannot be underestimated. Ali Al Nims, 23, the Public Information Officer for the Central Election Commission in Gaza, pointed out that candidates may succeed or fail based on the youth vote. In the last presidential elections, voters aged 18-25 numbered 153,877 in the West Bank and Gaza, 63, 245 women and 90,632 young men. For this week's elections, however, registered voters 18-25 in the West Bank and Gaza are 216,680. Those 50,000-plus new young voters are certainly planning to turn out at the polls this week.

Iman Hamdi, a student from Al Azhar University in Gaza City said, "It's time for all of us students to give our votes to those who deserve them. We have to let the country know we're here, and are determined to have a say in our future." Asked if she's planning to vote, she said, "Of course! I have to! But I haven't made my mind up. I'm hoping to see some debates between opposing parties, so I can better judge their programs."

Arwa Umran, a woman of 19, is campaigning for the Hamas slate. "Thank God I can finally vote," she said. "I will be voting for the Change and Reform Hamas list. They're not about to give away Palestinian rights. There's certainly no way I'd vote for the old system. They negotiated for years with the Israelis and achieved nothing. Their only gift to the people of Palestine was corruption." Her face was veiled, but the voice behind it was brave and decisive.

Of course, some Palestinian young people have given in to the massive frustrations of life under Occupation and are cynical, if not downright apathetic, about the upcoming elections. But this week, a veritable army of their contemporaries will be knocking on their doors, sending text to their mobile phones, and bringing them a very different message: that their vote counts, and every vote will be counted. For years, the youth of Palestine have proven over and over that they are talented, energetic, idealistic and motivated—and so far, the powers-that-be have failed to respond to all that positive energy. On January 25, however, the young voters of Palestine are hoping to change all that and start building a better future for their homeland.


At 5:29 AM, Blogger umkahlil said...

Great stories from Mohammed, Erika. There is such a lack of reportage other than Laila and Mohammed coming out in English from Gaza. And they both are so good providing concrete humanising details that the western media usually ignores re Palestinians. Don't forget to sent them to tom (and the hits on the blog will skyrocket):

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