An interview with Sabah Abu Hudeid, head of Baqa’a Women’s Cooperative in the Palestinian Refugee Camp of al-Baqa’a, near Amman, Jordan.

Baqa’a camp, which is 22 kilometres from Amman, is the largest in Jordan. It was founded in 1968 during the second wave of expulsions of Palestinians from the West Bank, the first having been in 1948. After the war of 1967, many of those who had been expelled in 1948 had to flee a second time, this time to Jordan. In 1950, Palestinians from Transjordan had acquired Jordanian citizenship, the object of that decision being to bottle the Palestinian question and to quell the conflict. It was also a way of providing cheap labour in order to help construct the Hashemite Kingdom.

Most jobs and administrative positions were occupied by Palestinians. The prime minister of Jordan, Ibrahim Hashem, was a Palestinian from Nablus. There were Palestinians everywhere at that time: civil servants, workers, teachers; many of them were leftist activists.

Very early on, there were Palestinians all over Jordan. They enabled the development of the kingdom, while the Hashemite tribe were essentially stock breeders, as was their tradition. This, consequently, caused a separation of roles early on, Palestinians being in administration and Hashemites in the military.

Before the Sykes-Picot agreement and up until 1967, there was only one single region in which people felt close. It was not difficult for Palestinians to get and to keep positions of responsibility. Real fraternity existed between the original native tribes and the Palestinians. Jordanians were members of Palestinian political organisations. These elements must have stirred the fear of the Hashemite governments who saw them as a threat to their power. Still, it can be said that Palestinians were making the Jordanian economy work.

After Black September and the massacres of refugees organised by King Hussein, the Palestinian leaders left for Lebanon. Restrictions were imposed on Palestinians; police checks became more serious. The University of Jordan was still essentially made up of Palestinian students, but political and union activities were forbidden. During this period the policy of replacing Palestinians by native Jordanians was launched and Palestinian quotas were set up. “Jordanization” was established at any price, even with slackers and incompetents. This is the policy that is still applied today, whereby Palestinians, on top of these restrictions, are hard hit by unemployment.

It is in this context that the place of women holds all its importance. When the expelled Palestinians first arrived, the women were particularly oriented towards jobs in education and teaching. Schools were free, everyone attended them. From the beginning, it was the only occupation, but also the only way to evolve, to establish cohesion amongst ourselves. In 1950, the goal of the power in place was that all the resources of the country take part in the economic expansion and thus women were to benefit from it. With their high school bachelor degree diploma, women could work in hospitals, find jobs in some of the Gulf countries and especially in Saudi Arabia as teachers. In my case, I got my “bac” in 1967 with high marks and so I, too, could have gone to Saudi Arabia but instead I preferred to stay with my father, a political activist, who was under house-arrest. In 1967, I was one of the first Palestinian women to enrol in university (studies often ended for women after the bachelor degree).

In the camps, networking was significant and taking shape, but nothing specific yet existed for women because of Jordanian refusal. The first organisation devoted to women’s rights was made up of volunteers from the camps.

At the time of the mobilisations, especially before Black September, the situation of women was exemplary. Most of the women activists came out of this period. The situation worsened from 1970-1971 onwards.

Among the activities that developed, it became necessary to fight in order to have the right to play sports and to use the same infrastructures as men, and to provide a library for girls so that they, too, had access to culture. And after just one week, the authorities refused to maintain the library.

The women of the time came back from Saudi Arabia with money but in general brought nothing to the Palestinians in the camps.

It would be necessary to wait until 1989 to finally have the official authorisation to create a real association. A women’s trade union was founded in 1974 but its scope of action was very limited. An association of Arab women also worked in the camps, but essentially to teach embroidery and sewing.

The 1989 reform did away with the ban on independent associations, the objective being to create a network of associations in Jordan for economic improvement. It was then possible to set up an association of women volunteers who in the beginning concentrated on social activities, but little by little became more political, and to further the emancipation of women, through the setting up of “workshops on history”, equally open to youth and to men, in order to help the refugees learn again and retrieve their own history.

This activity began in closed places but its expansion was quickly stopped by the Jordanian authorities.

The Palestinians who lived in the camp managed to keep up a very strong link with their past. They are still highly conscious of their situation as refugees and very attached to their Right of Return.

Before Black September, all the organisations were mobilised towards preparing the Return. The Right of Return, originally a real and compelling right, has turned into a question of principle, as the Palestinian organisations have had to take clandestine refuge. But once the raids and the incursions began, there were always demonstrations in the camps. Today, the Palestinian awareness of the Right of Return is very much alive. Resistance can only be built on education, on dawning awareness, even though all Palestinians are ready and willing to fight for it if necessary. My father, who was part of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, took part in a military operation in the West Bank in 1983. At 70 years of age, he was still ready to take arms. After the reforms of 1989, several Palestinian organisations were institutionalised into Jordanian political organisations. There was a lot of theorising. We actually saw an integration of these organisations into a reform that is called “democratic”.

Your magazine defends the “one state” solution. The question of a single state should also remind us that the majority of Jordanians actually are Palestinians. There are two movements in Jordan, one is democratic and for Palestinians being able to have Jordanian citizenship while still keeping their Right of Return, and the other a police state that refuses Palestinians the rights there are given to native Jordanians.

Today, the situation in the camps is better than that in Lebanon, but still in terrible shambles. The question of education has become the first step of resistance. Palestinians need to re-learn and recapture their history in order to keep their demands alive.

From DIALOGUE REVIEW ( www.dialogue-review.com )