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Palestine's first female governor recounts her struggle

Palestine's first female governor, Laila Ghannam, talks to Al-Monitor about her journey in politics and stresses that she owes her success to her supportive family.

When it came to explaining the secret behind her success, Laila Ghannam gave credit to her family — in particular, her father. A supportive family is necessary for the success of women, she told Al-Monitor. "In our family, my father supported our decisions, and he always used to tell us, 'Anyone who does not make mistakes will not learn.'"

The journey of this Palestinian woman to become Palestine's first female governor in January 2010 did not come easily. “I entered university five years after I finished high school because my brothers were arrested by the Israeli occupation,” she said. “Once things calmed down in the family, and one of my brothers came out of prison, I went to university. I was fighting against time, and I managed to get a bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree in 8½ years — a record time.” She studied at Minia University in Egypt and received her doctorate in psychology and counseling.

Before university, Ghannam volunteered for various public organizations, as well as Fatah, the leading Palestinian movement. She said that she never applied for or attempted to become governor — it is not the kind of job one applies for. “Political work requires a given effort and mindset. I belonged to the nation and its institutions and this helped me in the sense that the president chose me for the important position of governor,” she said.

As for her responsibility toward Palestinian women, Ghannam takes a holistic approach. “I have a responsibility when talking about every Palestinian and when carrying the concerns and feelings of the children, the youth, the women and the elderly.” The responsibility for women, though, is double. She said, “I am the first woman to serve as governor; it is my duty to fully represent the Palestinian woman.”

Palestine's highest-ranking female public figure was warmly welcomed in the United States during a series of appearances before natives from her birth town of Deir Dibwan and others in New Jersey, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Ghannam said that her role models are the working people of Palestine. “My role models are my people that cling to hope despite their pain in all sectors.” At the international level, Ghannam said that “Mother Teresa is a role model to me for her dedication and the support she gave to the needy.”

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  Who encouraged you to work in public affairs, which led you to the post of governor?

Ghannam:  The environment that I came from was very supportive. The family is the most supportive for the success of women. In our family, my father supported our decisions, and he always used to tell us, ‘Anyone who does not make mistakes will not learn.’ I entered university five years after I finished high school because my brothers were arrested by the Israeli occupation. My family circumstances were very difficult. It was difficult because of checkpoints, the military occupation and the closure of universities. But during that time I volunteered and was active with the Fatah movement. I also joined various public works, public teaching, as well as social and national work.

Once things calmed down in the family, and one of my brothers came out of prison, I went to university. I was fighting against time, and I managed to get a bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree from Egypt in 8½ years — a record time. My specialization was in the fields of social work, psychological counseling and mental health. I worked in local elections as coordinator of six provinces, and it was a great experience, because field work polishes the human personality.

I took several positions in many different institutions, including with the security at different institutions of the Palestinian National Authority. I wasn’t an employee, but I belonged to the nation and its institutions, and this helped with the president choosing me for the important position of governor.

Al-Monitor:  Who do you consider a role model in your life from your local community or the Arab or international community?

Ghannam:  Anyone who has a successful experience and initiative is a role model to me, from the youngest Palestinian child who continues his path persistently, despite all the obstacles, to the mother of the martyr who endures the parting of her son, to the mother of the prisoner who suffers extremely while she is waiting for her son's or her daughter’s visit. Every Palestinian is a role model and every female prisoner a role model. The female farmer who stands on the side of the road to sell crops to sustain her family is a role model, a student who, despite the financial situation, is working hard, and barely gets his/her living by themselves to complete their study is also a role model, a traffic policeman who stands for long hours and bears different weather conditions for serving the citizens is a role model. My role model is my people, who cling to hope despite their pain in all sectors. At the international level, Mother Teresa is a role model to me for her dedication and the support she gave to the needy.

Al-Monitor:  Do you feel a special responsibility to speak out for women in your role as governor?

Ghannam:  I have a responsibility when talking about every Palestinian and when carrying the concerns and feelings of children, the youth, women and the elderly. Regarding women, the responsibility is double. I am the first woman to serve as governor. It is my duty to fully represent the Palestinian woman, paving the way for those women who come after me who are able and who achieve their outstanding achievements on earth at all levels.

Al-Monitor:  What are some of the biggest misconceptions about women in the Middle East that you encounter in your interactions as mayor? How do you clarify these misconceptions?

Ghannam:  The West sees women of the developing world as a broken wing and as a victims, but during their visits to Palestine they are able to see it with their own eyes. We always focus on women as being an issue and not a victim, and that she is a partner in man’s struggle, construction and decision-making, and her main obstruction is the same obstruction of every Palestinian — the occupation that is sitting on our chests.

Al-Monitor:  How would you describe citizens’ interactions with the first female governor?

Ghannam:  Palestinians are accustomed to women being activists, rebels and decision-makers. A woman is a role model for donations at all levels, and it is not strange to be in a position of governor, especially because I was working with people and was close to them on all social and practical aspects. The experience of being in this position came with confidence from the president and it will remain an experience unless it is repeated, as there are many women who deserve to be in this position. The Palestinian woman is distinct in her giving, stability and patriotism.

Al-Monitor:  Ramallah is the center of all Palestinian authorities. It has an important role. What are the priorities of your business? Is the presence of the presidency in Ramallah and al-Bireh a help or hindrance?

Ghannam:  The existence of representational bodies, the presidency and all official institutions in the province is a major pressure on its infrastructure and increases the burden on the shoulder of the governor, especially since Ramallah and al-Bireh are not only serving the people of the province like other provinces, but they are the station of all provinces, constituting an additional burden. But eventually the integration of partner institutions contributes to the positive outputs.

Al-Monitor:  How would you describe your relationship with men in various leadership positions?

Ghannam:  My relationship with men is complementary rather than competitive. The man is my father and my brother, and my family would not be complete without this integration. Most men in leadership positions interact positively, especially after a period of time after taking office, and have a higher faith in my ability and my activity.

Al-Monitor:  What is the biggest challenge facing the governor of Ramallah and al-Bireh?

Ghannam:  The biggest challenges are the outcomes of the occupation, which robs our land through settlements, the apartheid wall and the daily intrusions into our areas. The other challenge is the economic and service-related burdens stemming from the fact that Ramallah is a center for political and economic activities. This is not to say that we forget the fact that our eternal capital is Jerusalem.

Al-Monitor:  If the Palestinian government retreats or is even resolved, will the role of the office of the governor remain?

Ghannam:  We are part of the national institutions and the governor is the representative of the president. The [purpose] of the governor is to focus on the Palestinian state institutions. The governor would not exist without the president, the head of the pyramid, the government and our national gains of our people who fought our noblest battles and to preserve it. The targeting of the national project by the occupation and its aides can only come from the occupation and its leadership, which come on an Israeli tank. Any dwarfing of the institutions is targeting all Palestinians. This comprises our belonging to the land and its basic elements. The governor is a branch of a root; there isn’t a branch without its origin.

Al-Monitor:  You visited the United States recently. How do you evaluate the interaction with the Palestinian communities and US officials?

Ghannam:  The Palestinian communities throughout the entire world yearn for their homeland, and their interaction with me was very special. These communities are ambassadors for our cause and our people, and my last visit was to celebrate the anniversary of the Palestinian revolution, not to meet US officials. I met only one member of Congress, and the meeting was cordial, within an activity organized by the Palestinian community there.

Al-Monitor:  You issued a strongly worded statement against a councilwoman from Philadelphia, even though she insists that she didn’t withdraw the award given to you. Why did you issue this statement? 

Ghannam:  The statement was not a strongly worded statement — it was factual. I repeated what I said during a meeting with her. I said that the most precious moments for me are the ones in the eyes of the mothers of the martyrs and prisoners, and this is what I repeated in my statement. The pressures placed on Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez by the media and the pro-Israeli lobby reached a crescendo, which made her delete photos taken with me from her official website. Some newspapers picked up her remarks and spread the story that she didn’t know the nature of my job, that she may have been deceived and that she didn’t know that I support the families of the martyrs and that I’m proud of prisoners and their families.

Our response came to set the record straight — no more. We did not answer her in an official letter. We also did not receive anything official from her. It was necessary to emphasize it again, and this is a fact, not just a response to her attitude or to a statement here or there. We invite Councilwoman Sanchez to visit Palestine to see with her own eyes the pain of our people and the violations of the occupation and proclaim the Liberty Bell to mothers of martyrs and prisoners who suffer under occupation and to confirm her support for human rights.

Al-Monitor:  What do you hope to see in the coming years for future generations of women in Palestine?

Ghannam:  Women are active in Palestine. Women were able to obtain nontraditional positions, which were reserved for men, and through their awareness they will continue their path planned in partnership with men. Women will always be at the forefront at all levels, and we will always remember that women wouldn't have reached these positions if not for their outstanding giving and struggle since the start of the revolution, when they were killed, held prisoner and [acted as] the mother, the partner, the activist and the teacher. In brief, the Palestinian woman has been and continues to stand up to all the challenges facing her.

Al-Monitor:  What is your advice to women who would like to be involved in public and political work?

Ghannam:  Palestinian women working in the public field and in politics need to do so, as if they were applying for a job. Political work requires a given effort and mindset. This kind of service requires distinction, thought, education, struggle and the ability to work in different roles. Palestinian women are born from the womb of suffering. They struggle to achieve the impossible and will inevitably be at the forefront of pioneering women, in particular, and national Palestinian women in general.

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