Najwa Ahmed Bataha is a middle-aged mother of three and grandmother of two from the village of Battir near Bethlehem. She is one of only 5% of Palestinian women who own land in the occupied Palestinian territories (PCBS 1999). Part of the reason for women’s low percentage of land ownership in Palestine are laws that accord lesser inheritance rights to women than to men. However, significant factors are also many women’s lack of knowledge of the legal inheritance rights that they do have and social pressure for women not to act upon their inheritance rights. This is where educating women–and persuading their communities–comes in. According to Najwa, the issue “is not just knowing the information; it is believing in the right.”
For the past fourteen months, Najwa has participated in a project on women’s inheritance rights run by MCC partner the YMCA Women’s Training Program (WTP). There is evident passion in her voice as she tells us about her work to educate her fellow Palestinian women and their communities about women’s inheritance rights. She shares how she has seen many women in her village denied their inheritance rights when their fathers pass away. Women usually don’t ask their families for the share accorded to them by the Islamic law that governs such matters for Muslims in Palestine, and their families don’t often offer them a share. In other cases, Najwa shares, women are pressured by their families to sign over their inheritance to their brothers within days of the father’s death, even though Islamic law stipulates a mourning period during which women cannot sign away their inheritance rights.
After participating in an initial YMCA WTP training on women’s inheritance rights, Najwa promptly sought to organize a training of her own in Battir, where she has been active in the local women’s council for the past ten years. Despite inviting the village council and talking individually to many women, only two women showed up for the first training she tried to organize. When she followed up to see why more women didn’t attend, one said she was afraid of the stigma of being seen as asserting rights against her family. That is, a married woman is traditionally considered to become part of her husband’s extended family, and thus to have a share in whatever inheritance he receives. As a result, families of origin can resent what they see as married sisters taking away from their brothers’ ability to provide for the family of origin. Najwa relates that for many women, the fear of alienation from their parents and siblings is too strong for them to seek out independent property rights.
However, Najwa’s husband and father, who is still living, support the work she is doing. Her father has already spoken to his family about dividing his property among his one son and eight daughters, and he has given Najwa power of attorney over his property. In his mind, ensuring that his daughters will receive a part of what he leaves behind is one way that he can provide security and independence for them, even if they should face marital troubles down the line. Significantly, Najwa also enjoys the support of local religious leaders, who affirm the inheritance rights women have in Islamic law. For her part, Najwa is encouraged by the progress she sees in neighboring communities on support for women’s inheritance rights, even if she has faced obstacles in her own community so far. She recently helped her sister-in-law ask for her inheritance, even though this reduced Najwa’s husband’s share. She has also referred one neighbor whose husband could pass away soon to a YMCA lawyer, and she remains determined to help any woman in her own village who wants to learn about and assert her inheritance rights.
Mai Jarrar, director of the YMCA WTP, explains that the organization’s rationale for choosing to focus on women’s inheritance rights at this time, among many other important issues, was seeing a window of opportunity. While many issues would require petitioning the Palestinian Authority or the Israeli occupation authorities for legal reform in order for women to see significant improvement, the WTP’s staff identified inheritance as one area where women’s status could improve substantially if the current legal code were only practiced across Palestinian society.
Indeed, Mai and her staff have now seen many women in villages across the West Bank open conversations with their families about inheritance rights for the first time, and program participants such as Najwa are becoming advocates for women’s inheritance rights in small and large communities. Through enthusiasm, dedication, and patience, these women are slowly but steadily bringing about greater economic agency for their peers. They also encourage us from outside Palestine to approach entrenched attitudes with tact and perseverance wherever women continue to struggle for equal status and rights, in North America, the Middle East, and around the world.