Women Play Role in Hamas Strength at Polls The Islamist Hamas group is gaining ground against the ruling Fatah movement ahead of Palestinian elections Wednesday. Hamas' popularity has grown in part due to the increasingly prominent role of its female candidates, who are reaching out to conservative Palestinian women.
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Women Play Role in Hamas Strength at Polls

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Women Play Role in Hamas Strength at Polls

Women Play Role in Hamas Strength at Polls

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip head to the polls tomorrow to vote in parliamentary elections that could reshape the Palestinian political landscape. Polls show the Islamist group Hamas gaining ground against the ruling Fatah movement. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports that the popularity of Hamas has grown, in part, because of its charities and the increasingly prominent role of its female candidates as they reach out to conservative Palestinian women.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Hamas has 13 female candidates running for Parliament. Jamila Shantay (ph) is one of them. At this Hamas campaign forum in Dara Bula (ph) in central Gaza, Shantay works to convince 60 women, packed into a room next to a mosque, to vote Hamas. She promises support for female prisoners in Israel, support for disabled women and she promises jobs.

Ms. JAMILA SHANTAY (Parliament Candidate, Hamas): (through translator) Hamas will make agreements with our countries to provide work for Palestinian women. We have lots of women who are well educated with graduate degrees and we'll provide enough child care centers for your family.

WESTERVELT: On relations with Israel, Shantay stresses the usual Hamas platform. She doesn't recognize the Jewish state and no cooperation or direct talks, she says, except perhaps under certain conditions through a third party. Armed resistance, she says, will continue.

Ms. SHANTAY: We are going to Parliament and we will stay carry our gun. Why? Because we are occupied. Our land is occupied.

WESTERVELT: But on the campaign trail with women, Shantay talks more about Hamas's charitable network than about fighting Israel. She reminds voters about the education, healthcare and other social services that Hamas has been providing in the Palestinian territories for years. A professor at Gaza's Islamic University, Shantay grew up and still lives in the Gebalia refugee camp in northern Gaza. She's never run for any elected position. The 48 year old says she's confident she'll win tomorrow and hopes to serve as something of a role model for other women in Hamas.

Ms. SHANTAY: I feel that I own the ability to do many things. For the woman, for the child. We are going to prove that the Palestinian woman, she is able to do many things inside the Parliament as an educated woman, as the mother of the marital.

WESTERVELT: But secular women in Gaza, particularly younger, educated ones, are not interested in being mothers of the martyrs. Many are alarmed at what Hamas's ascendancy might mean for everyday freedoms. 20 year old Bachmel Hadad (ph) is a student at Al-aqsa University in Gaza. She says she admires Hamas's charitable work, but she's frightened that Hamas will try to impose strict Islamic law throughout Gaza.

Ms. BACHMEL HADAD(Student): (through translator) What is worrying me is Hamas. If Hamas is going to rule, then it will rule according to the (unintelligible) law there will be attractions on the movement than on the freedom of the woman while in Fatah there would be much more freedom for the woman. That's why I'm not going to vote for Hamas.

WESTERVELT: Young men, too, worry. 23 year-old Mohammed Darwish (ph) a Palestinian security worker, sits and smokes on a street corner stoop, his hair slicked back with wavy curls in the front. He says he's nervous a Hamas-led Parliament would prove a threat to basic liberties. From the kind of music he likes to his style of dress.

Mr. MOHAMMED DARWISH (Palestinian Security Worker): (through translator) Then I would not be able to cut this kind of haircut. The type of our wedding, the way we celebrate, they would force us not to do it. Freedom, open-minded, talking to people.

WESTERVELT: I put my trust in Fatah, Darwish says, adding despite problems, Fatah's done a lot for the country. Fatah is banking on that kind of devil-you-know support tomorrow when Palestinians head to the polls.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza.

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