The Manifold Burdens of Palestinian Female Prisoners

By Miri -
During Israel's assault on Gaza in 2008 and 2009 a large group of Israeli activists was arrested for blocking the entrance to a military airport north of Tel Aviv. I was one of them. At the end of our first court hearing the judge decided to send us to jail for a couple of days in order to gain more time for "further investigations". The group consisted of both young women and men, but while the men were all jailed together in one prison, the women were scattered among three different facilities. I was lucky and ended up with four more girls in one cell in Neve Tirza prison. Since we were here for "political reasons" the prison service kept us separate from the other prisoners, "for our own safety", as they said. Throughout the two days we therefore barely saw daylight and for most of the time were kept in our cell, separated from the rest, who were convicted criminal offenders. However, most of the other detainees that we conversed with through the small barred window in our cell door seemed primarily curious, if not sympathetic; "we saw you on TV", they told us, provided us with cigarettes and even took care of our vegan diet. One of them secretly gave us a letter, describing the ill treatment that the prisoners, including herself, had to endure from the prison service.
On the second day a new prisoner arrived, who, like us was kept separated in a cell of her own. Trying to converse with her through the cell doors and across the hallway, we found out that she was a young Palestinian woman from Bethlehem, barely 18 years old. I do not remember the exact circumstances of her arrest, other than "political reasons", but I clearly do recall the strength and pride in her young voice, as well as the fact that she had not seen a lawyer yet and that no one had told her anything about the exact terms of her imprisonment. We noted down a phone number she gave us, so we could call her family and tell them that they should not worry and that she was doing fine. We did as she told us but eventually failed to follow up on her case and never figured out what had happened to her.

The fate of this young woman is probably not too different from the approximate 10,000 Palestinian women who were arrested and/or detained under Israeli military rule since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. Currently there are 13 Palestinian women jailed in Israeli prisons. 

For a long time human rights organisations have been reporting on the bad conditions and the ill treatment of Palestinian prisoners in general. Although the number of women prisoners is considerably lower, it should be recognised that their needs, especially in the realm of health care, are different from men's and that their well being is therefore more at risk. According to CEDAW - the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, female prisoners have the right to special, cultural and gender sensitive attention, yet those needs continue to be neglected and their rights do not cease to be violated by the Israeli Prison Service (IPS). 

According to Addameer, the Palestinian Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Israeli prisons
lack a gender-sensitive approach and, as such, women prisoners often suffer from harsh imprisonment conditions, including medical negligence; denial of education; denial of family visits; including for mothers with young children; solitary confinement; overcrowded cells that are often filled with insects and dirt; and lack of natural light. Personal health and hygiene needs are rarely addressed by prison authorities, even in cases involving the detention of pregnant women.
Woman holding the photo of her imprisoned sister, Hebron, 2005
According to various reports pregnant detainees do not enjoy any preferential treatment in terms of diet, living space or transfers to hospitals. Many former inmates who gave birth under arrest reported that they were shackled to their beds until entering the delivery room and were chained again only minutes after the delivery. After giving birth, most mothers together with their newborn children were directly transferred back to their prison cells, where both suffered from overcrowded conditions, poor hygiene and lack of exposure to the outside world. In addition to that many new mothers are denied their basic right to have their husbands or other family members by their sides during or after delivery. In general most Palestinian women are held in one of two prions which are located outside of the West Bank (or Gaza), and their families therefore have to apply for special permits in order to visit them, which are commonly denied to them on the grounds of "security reasons". 

Unsurprisingly, women's cultural and religious rights are hardly respected in Israeli prisons. Palestinian Muslim women are forced to wear prison uniforms with short short sleeves, and are frequently forced to remove their head cover even in the presence of male guards. Much worse, many former inmates report about verbal and physical sexual harassment and abuse through the IPS. Among other things, female prisoners are subjected to humiliating and often punitive strip searches, including intrusive internal body searches, which, according to Addameer, under circumstances amount to torture. Threats of rape and sexually degrading insults made by prison personnel also in the presence of family members constitute a systematic practice and its effects on a woman's emotional state, also after her release, cannot be underestimated.

Palestinian society remains an inherently patriarchal one, and the question of female honour still constitutes a mainstay of the moral and social order. Since prison is commonly associated with rape and sexual harassment, a woman's arrest to many thus signifies the loss of her family's honour. 
According to Palestinian sociologist Huneida Ghanem there is a double standard in Palestinian society which on the national level glorifies the female prisoner to no lesser extent than her male counterpart, while on the local level, she is decried as someone who has transgressed the sphere proper to her. One of Ghanem's interview partners confirms this by stating that 
When a woman from town is imprisoned, we go express our sympathy to her parents, or congratulate them on her release. It is a social obligation, but deep inside, we see nothing honorable or deserving respect in the behavior of such women. 
As a consequence many women who are not married when going to prison usually face enormous difficulties in finding a suitable husband upon their release. “Men prefer girls who do not get involved in politics or 'turn themselves into men'“, another interview partner of Ghanem states.

University students in solidarity with Hana al Shalabi, Gaza City, 2012
Many local organisations dedicated to the advancement of women's rights attempt to change those prevalent attitudes in Palestinian society. Using slogans, such as "land before honour" they express their support for female prisoners and celebrate the participation of women in the struggle against the occupation.

Notwithstanding the manifold burdens that female prisoners face, they keep on resisting their unfair treatment and the poor conditions of Israeli prisons. Already during the First Intifada female prisoners started collective hunger strikes and coordinated external demonstrations and sit-ins with former prisoners and various activist groups across Palestine and beyond. Most recently Hana al Shalabi went on hunger strike for 43 days in order to protest her unlawful administrative detention and the ill treatment in Israeli prisons. Shalabi, who originally comes from a village in the West Bank, was eventually released under the condition that she would spend the next three years in exile in Gaza, a notion regarded as a “compromise” by Israel, but basically constituting a continuation of her imprisonment.


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