Womanness in Israel/Palestine

Before I arrived in Israel/Palestine, I wasn’t more concerned about the possibility of experiencing harassment from men due to my gender more than I am on a daily basis in the United States. I was also confident knowing that I would be traveling with a group that was nearly all woman, as we could rely on each other for support and backup if necessary. I’m happy to be able to say that I had no negative experiences during my three weeks in Israel/Palestine as a result of sexual harassment, violence, or anything of the sort. Everyone I met was incredibly polite and kind—arguably more so than in the United States, particularly in Palestinian spaces—and though a woman on the street took me aside in Tel Aviv and warned me to “be careful” of men while I was there, I experienced no reasons to exercise more than a reasonable amount of daily caution and awareness when it came to gender.

One thing that I did find interesting were the gender roles in the family that I stayed with in Sakhnin. My host mom, Fatme, is pursuing her degree in English education, and her husband works as a painter; their young son is seven years old. In the evenings, my fellow classmate and I would help Fatme cook dinner, which was a wonderful opportunity both to learn cooking skills and to get to know one another better. We’d also set the table and help clear it when the five of us had finished eating. I found it very irritating that neither Fatme’s son nor her husband elected to help with the after-dinner clear up, particularly that’s something I’ve seen many times in many spaces, including the United States. This is to say that by no means is male entitlement to female labor unique to Sakhnin/Palestinian culture, and it wasn’t that I was shocked by it so much that I felt very aware of my gender—as I have many times before in a comparable situation—as I helped tidy up around two men who did not seem to consider that they had the opportunity to help their wife and mother if it had occurred to them.

Ultimately, Israel/Palestine is a completely safe place—in my experience—to be a woman. The men I met spoke to me with kindness and shook my hand, and I had the wonderful opportunity to meet with many members of Fatme’s extended family, which included brothers and sisters and their families. One night, for Iftar, we gathered at her mother’s house and my classmate and I asked different members different questions while Fatme translated for us. It was intriguing to hear the perspectives that her siblings had regarding the occupation, the government, and their own daily lives and experiences. I got the impression that women are highly respected in the Sakhnin community and have many of the same opportunities that men do. I was grateful to be able to participate in that community for two short weeks and experience life there.

Queerness in Israel/Palestine

I knew upon arrival in Israel/Palestine that queerness was not something that I would be advertising during my stay there. Both countries are relatively conservative, or at least have many conservative spaces, and being open about my bisexuality
wasn’t something I felt comfortable doing. I expected that this wouldn’t be an issue, and ultimately it wasn’t—I never really felt the need to discuss my dating life with people I met casually along the trip, as you might imagine. What I didn’t expect, though, is how uncomfortable I would feel in the deeply heteronormative spaces I entered.

In Sakhnin in particular, I got the impression that kids get married relatively early, (for my standards) generally between the ages of 18 to 23 or so. Many of our peers there were already married or engaged, something that was somewhat jarring given that many of us as American college students are interested in marriage anytime soon. I noted a somewhat over-romanticized (again, from my perspective) atmosphere surrounding dating at the college in Sakhnin. Women had their fiancees or boyfriends’ numbers labeled as “The One <3” in their cell phones, and planning weddings seemed like a pretty big deal. I couldn’t help but consider what it must be like to be a queer person in this community, where I imagine that most people feel an intense social pressure to marry and start a family rather early on in life. It made me realize how heteronormative some spaces can be comparatively speaking, the University of Michigan is an incredibly queer-friendly and open place.

Queerness never came up in any context for me during my time in Sakhnin, but I did have several conversations about marriage with a couple of my female peers. They seemed to consider it a given, and they asked me when I planned on getting married, a question that I somewhat deflected as I don’t intend to get married at any point in the future. I valued one friend’s particular perspective when I mentioned that I felt it was important to know someone quite well before marriage; she said “it takes a long time to know someone, and generally you can’t know everything about them at all, so it makes sense to get married early and start that process.” This conversation helped me understand the culture surrounding marriage in Sakhnin a bit better, and it made me feel a bit more comfortable despite the heavy-heteronormativity of the place. In retrospect, I think not mentioning my sexuality was the right decision, and I value what I learned from listening to my peers and their thoughts regarding relationships and marriage. 

Post-Trip Thoughts

Now that it’s been about a week since my program ended, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the trip and what it meant to me. I learned so much during my three weeks in Israel/Palestine, and I imagine I’ll continue to glean lessons and information from my time there as I continue to process my experiences through journaling and talking to friends with family. This was by no means an easy trip, and I didn’t expect it to be—I knew that entering spaces that belonged to both an occupying and an occupied people would be challenging. I was pushed to step out of my comfort zone multiple times on this trip, and I think I’ve grown a lot as a person as a result of those moments.

The term “cognitive dissonance” was thrown around a lot on my trip by my fellow students and me, and I didn’t really know what that was like until our program ended and I spent two days in Tel Aviv with some of my peers. We went to the city intending to spend as little money as possible and to seek out Palestinian-owned businesses as we didn’t want to stop supporting our Palestinian friends upon entering a primarily Israeli city. I was thoroughly unprepared for what I found in Tel Aviv, which was a queer-friendly, artsy city full of amazing art and hipster bars and restaurants and heavily-tattooed people walking the streets. I loved the city’s atmosphere, and I felt very comfortable there—queue the cognitive dissonance. What this experience taught me, though, is that it’s important to hold multiple truths at once. It’s possible to enjoy the city of Tel Aviv while actively speaking out against the occupation—in fact, I imagine if I’d spoken to any locals about it, some of them would have agreed with me. I’m grateful I had the chance to go to the city and be in that space for several days before I left the country.

I intend to carry what I learned on this trip with me wherever I go in the future. I feel much more prepared to engage in conversations with people about the conflict, and I look forward to sharing my experiences with my peers. I also learned an unexpected amount about intergroup relations simply from traveling with 16 other people for three weeks and having regular large and small group conversations. The communication skills we developed with each other during our time together were valuable to me, and I think that they will serve me well in the future. I’ve continued to learn from this trip in the week since it ended, and I think I’ll continue to learn from it in coming months, and potentially even years. I’m grateful to have had the incredible opportunity to learn alongside amazing people in a unique, challenging, and in many ways beautiful place like Israel/Palestine.