More Women On Ballot In West Bank Elections

Palestinians in the West Bank vote in municipal elections on Saturday. Islamist hardliners are boycotting the polls, and there is considerable indifference among the general population. One trend that is sparking interest, however, is the increasing number of women seeking seats on the municipal councils. Sheera Frenkel reports.

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Other news we're following today: Angry protesters have taken to the streets of Beirut, following a huge car bomb explosion there yesterday that killed at least eight people, including a top Lebanese intelligence official. The Lebanese Cabinet held an emergency meeting amid fears the country is being drawn into the war in neighboring Syria. Lebanese politicians accused the Syrian government of assassination, and said the attack was an attempt to provoke unrest in Lebanon. The Syrian government issued a statement condemning the bombing.

Now, to the West Bank, where Palestinians are voting in long-delayed municipal elections. It is the first time in six years that elections have been held in the territory. And a new gender quota requirement means that Palestinian women are a real presence on the ballot. More than 1,000 women are running for office, as we hear from Sheera Frenkel.

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: Wafa Ayesha Hamayel is campaigning in the small shopping center in the Ramallah suburb of Al-Bira.

WAFA AYESHA HAMAYEL: (foreign language spoken)

FRENKEL: She's explaining the importance of voting, to 28-year-old Isra Rabiah. Rabiah laughs and tells her not to worry; she plans on voting for whatever women appear on the ballot.

ISRA RABIAH: (foreign language spoken) (LAUGHTER)

FRENKEL: Hamayel seems pleased with their exchange, and moves on to the next potential voter. Wearing a cheetah-print blouse and matching headscarf - or hijab - she looks every inch the fashionable Palestinian mother of four, on an afternoon errand.

HAMAYEL: Sharing in this democratic process is very important for me. To talk to young people, to women about their role in this very, very important, you know, process.

FRENKEL: She then turns to a woman shopping with her three young children. I'm a mother like you, she says. I will act in your interests.

HAMAYEL: I really want to prove the role of the women in this society. I want to prove to everybody that women can do a lot.

FRENKEL: Hamayel says that her biggest campaign hurdle is not convincing constituents to vote for a woman, but to vote at all. A poll conducted last month by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, found that half of Palestinians did not plan on voting. While some cite an economy in crisis, and a lack of progress in the peace process, as their reasons for boycotting the vote, others say they just don't see any viable candidates.

The Islamist group Hamas is boycotting the elections due to a longstanding dispute with the Fatah movement, which leads the West Bank government. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, where no election is being held. Fatah, meanwhile, has ousted hundreds of its own members from its roster of candidates, for choosing to run as independents.

Forty-seven-year-old Ramallah resident Samar Koutab says she's boycotting the elections.

SAMAR KOUTAB: If I would agree with the elections in principle, then yes, women should participate. But for me, now, it's not men or women. It's about the country; it's about our identity.

FRENKEL: She says she has nothing against women running for office. The problem, she says, is the idea of elections in general.

KOUTAB: I can't see the point in having elections under occupation, first; and because I don't think that we are going anywhere. I can't see any point in going and pretend that we have democracy, and we have the country; we have a state. We don't have any of these.

FRENKEL: Once the Palestinians have their own state, says Koutab, then there will be a real vote.

For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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