The world is changing for women in Palestine’s West Bank. Once their work was primarily confined to office assignments and teaching positions. But these days, they can choose between rally car racer, Presidential guard and elite commando squads.
In Jericho, at Independence University, which trains recruits in security measures and prepares them for elite divisions, 22 women were hand-picked from the graduating class for the Presidential Guard. Made up of around 2,400 commandos, the Presidential Guard is considered one of the highest honors for graduates from the university.
Despite their numbers being relatively low, the women are still making themselves heard as they strap on black ski masks and repel down multi-story buildings. Their desire to prove themselves in a male-dominated world has led many to take on the highest risks, with little regard for their own personal safety.
A push has been on lately to add more women to the National Security Forces in the West Bank, and even those in charge of gender issues within the unit have acknowledged this recent change in position. The Presidential Guard was first set up by Yasser Arafat but was often accused of infighting and militant extremism. When Mahmoud Abbas took over the West Bank, the U.S. and EU funded training and equipment for the group, whose activities range from anti-terrorism squads to protecting foreign dignitaries.
Nearby in Ramallah, a team of women has commandeered the first ever all-female racing team. With cars donated by the British Consulate in Jerusalem, these women speed around hairpin turns, racing against each other and their male counterparts.
Suna Aweidah is the team captain for this group of eight women, whose ages and lifestyles range considerably. Some have worn hijab under their helmets; others prefer to sport tank tops with their rally pants, long strands of dyed hair billowing behind them. Some of the women are mothers or former beauty pageant winners, some of them Christian and some of them Muslim. Really, what matters to all of them is their love of racing.
In the shadow of an Israeli checkpoint, the women scream around the track with a number of other drivers. In Israel, the racing of motor vehicles is banned due to its dangerous nature, so it’s not uncommon to see Israeli Defense Soldiers craning their necks to get a glimpse of the action.
Although some in Ramallah continue to push back against the all-female racing team, their international support has grown. Documentaries about their journey to the track are underway and marketing materials and merchandise can be purchased from their online stores.
In an interview with Voice of America, team captain Aweidah addressed the social concerns. “Women can do what they want, whenever they want. And there is no sport that is especially for men or especially for women. I think that driving – many of the people think that driving is just for men. I don’t think that. Driving is for women, for men, it’s a sport. And we can compete with men in all kinds of sports.”
For the women training for the Palestinian Presidential Guard, those sentiments are echoed, with many professing their preference to get into the action rather than sit behind a desk. Interestingly enough, the men who are training alongside these women, both in commando units and on the racing tracks, are often their biggest supporters. One man watching women train for the Presidential Guard was quoted as saying, “The way I see them, they are performing no less than us, the guys.”
In Ramallah the head of the Palestinian Motorsports Federation, Khaled Khadoura, has been quoted as saying, “I’m very proud to see our young women today taking an interest in race car driving, and training in order to improve themselves”.
With such positive reinforcement from their colleagues, and a push to employ women like never before, the women of Palestine’s West Bank are set to be the pioneers for a new generation of young girls. These women can rise above the chaos of this turbulent region, and dedicate themselves to a life of following their passions and ideals, wherever it may take them.