Updated: Jul 4
Dr. Olfat Mahmoud
On September 8, we interviewed Dr. Olfat Mahmoud in class.
Dr. Olfat Mahmoud is a Palestinian woman and refugee currently residing in Lebanon. As a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Dr. Mahmoud’s family was displaced from their home in a mass exodus of Palestinian Arabs often referred to as “Al Nakba,” or “The Catastrophe.” Because of this, Dr. Mahmoud has dedicated her efforts to advocating for refugees, with an emphasis on Palestinian women. Her professional career includes work as a human rights activist, her foundation of the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organization (PWHO) in 1993, and the publication of her novel Tears for Tarshiha in 2018.
Gender Equality Statistics
Gender Development Index: 0.870 deviation
Gender Inequality Index: not reported
Group Classification: 5, low equality in human development amongst genders
Largest Disparity: access to economic resources
Gender Development Index: 0.892 deviation
Gender Inequality Index: 0.411 (96th out of 162 countries)
Group Classification: 5, low equality in human development amongst genders
Largest Disparity: access to economic resources
Interview with Dr. Olfat Mahmoud (Shortened Transcript)
What did other people think of you growing up when you prioritized your education over traditional female housework?
There is evidence that Palestine has been promoting education more than other Arab countries. Back in the 1940s, when the generations of my parents and grandparents lived in Palestine, they encouraged women's education. When I was younger Palestinians still considered education very important. Then, they used to look at me as a role model in the community: they trusted me. When I was a grown up I studied nursing before I became a psychologist, and I served my people during all the wars and conflicts. They said she's a hero, she is working in the hospital days and nights, she is helping people to survive.’ So actually, they were never against me because I prioritize education over housework. And when they came to my place and found me cooking, more than one asked me ‘Oh, do you also cook?’ They thought that with my academic career I would not have time to work at home. But when they saw me cooking, washing the dishes, doing this and that- they were surprised. Some people think that if a woman is into education, she neglects her house.
Do you think your early educational training played a role or inspired your involvement for change in PWHO (Palestinian Woman Humanitarian Organization)?
When I was younger it was always about women being in the kitchen and men in the sitting room reading a newspaper or watching TV. And our education never was about She can. She is a woman: she can learn, she can study, she can... Always, she's in the kitchen. She is holding a baby. It influenced me, even if it's negative. So, when we work
with boys and girls in our center, in The Woman's Humanitarian Organization, we always try to make boys get involved with what's known as “woman’s work.”
Do you think, according to your own experience, that women have the same opportunities as men in education in Palestine?
Those living in refugee camps are poor. They don't have enough resources, so they prefer to educate boys and not girls. Even if the girl is really clever and she's doing well at school, better than the boy, they always like to invest in boys. Why? Because that is what tradition says. Boys will be responsible for their families, while daughters cannot be. That's what tradition teaches us. They invest in boys so that in the future they help their parents. But, as a matter of fact, nowadays girls take care of their parents more frequently than boys!
This will change in time. I believe we have to change it
What challenges have you specifically experienced as a woman that your male counterparts have not? How did you overcome those challenges?
Parents feared their daughters were not strong enough to be alone. They needed the support of a male member of the family. That was also my case. Nevertheless, I traveled to Britain when I was 19 years old. I wanted to take a nursing course there. Later I went to Australia when I was 21 to take more nursing courses. I was alone there, no one was with me. Eventually my parents recognized that: they were proud of me. My case was extraordinary. I could go alone, I could travel alone. In most cases that is not possible. That is never the case with boys.
So I thought if I had my own daughter, I would not have doubts: she had to get stronger. I would not be afraid about her being alone.
How would you describe marriage and the role of men and women in a Palestinian family?
We still have some traditionally arranged marriages, you know, families negotiating... But we also have very open-minded families, and in this case man and woman can pick each other. I met my husband in Syria and I got married there- even without my parents. We decided to get married and we got married.
Nevertheless, very rarely you will find that a woman gets married without the approval of her family. Men will go and ask to marry the girl.
Traditionally men have been the bread winner. Among Arabs in general men usually go to work, they watch TV, they read the newspaper while women spend their time in the kitchen. Nowadays, that is also changing. They both may contribute to the domestic economy. But it's still a problem. For example, if a woman has a job, man waits until his wife comes home from work to cook for him.
Most traditional families would not allow women to get a job: No, he has to buy you the house and the clothes and everything. So, it differs from one family to another.
Do women accept it?
Yes, but it depends on how the woman is - open minded, progressive, etc.
I am an Arab woman, and I usually share domestic work with my husband. I tried to educate my children in that way. Sooner or later, this will not be extraordinary. I hope it will be sooner than later
How has your family influenced your current beliefs and goals?
When I was a child, we did not have books not even libraries around. You know, we lived in a refugee camp where we only had our tents. No services, no resources at all. So, every night instead of reading a book before going to sleep, it was our grandparents who told us a story.
They told us stories they had experienced. That’s what’s called oral history now. Since I was five or four years old, I asked them questions about our homeland, I am Palestinian but I don't know Palestine... I'm in Lebanon, so why am I not Lebanese? Their answers helped me understand our problem. It was very nice that they never told me those stories with animosity. Those stories helped me understand that I am a survivor. I am a refugee, but I’m not a poor refugee. I'm a strong refugee. I don't want to be a victim, I want to be a survivor. And this is a huge difference, when you’re brought up as a survivor than when you are brought up as a victim. So, my grandparents' daily night story made me a survivor and made me strong. They convinced me about the existence of a peaceful way.
"I don't want to be a victim, I want to be a survivor."
How does a day look like for someone growing up in a refugee camp?
What do you remember about the refugee camp where you lived?
Living in a refugee camp is a very painful experience- very painful. I never had a full night's sleep in winter. We all thought I'm a human being. Why don't I enjoy human beings’ rights? Why am I treated like that? Why should I live in a camp?
Now, let me give you a little bit [of information] about the camp. Refugee camps in Lebanon were established after the ‘48 War. It was a temporary place for Palestinians. But today it's still a temporary place. I was born in Lebanon, and I'm still a refugee. My children were also born in Lebanon: they are still stateless refugees. My granddaughter was born as well, and still she is a refugee. The refugee camp is still considered a temporary solution.
The camp where I lived is called Bourj el-Barajneh camp. It’s located near the airport. It’s in the middle of Beirut. The size of the camp is less than one square kilometer, and now the population is over 45,000.
It started with tents. People lived in tents for between four to eight years. They were told this is only temporary, but eventually we realized that it was going to be longer than what we expected, so we replaced those first tents with mud houses. They were very small. You were lucky if you had two rooms. These new constructions had a metal roof: it was too hot in summer or too cold in winter. Most of these metal roofs had holes, so when it rained the water would come through. Our parents would hang buckets to collect the water, but when the bucket was full, they would wake us up to move from one area to another area to sleep, or to sit, until they empty the buckets and put them back.
Even after huge efforts to improve them, they were never real houses. We never built these houses to be permanent. We had water, but most of the time we did not have electricity and we had to use candles. It was very difficult to cook or to keep our food fresh. It was not very healthy.
Those living in the refugee camp could not work but in the camp, we were foreigners in Lebanon. And the opportunities were very limited to get a job in the camp. Many of those living in the camp depended on what relatives abroad could send them.
Other than that there was nothing else but the tents: no trees, no clubs, no movie theaters, no cafes, no playgrounds for children. Not much to do. There were some TVs. NGOs usually offer opportunities: working in small workshops making handcrafts while talking with other women.
If you are born in a refugee camp, you have no nationality. So if you're born in a refugee camp in Lebanon, you are not Lebanese. If you are born in that refugee camp in Lebanon and your family comes from Palestine, you are not Palestinian.
My family comes from Palestine. I am Palestinian. But I’m a refugee.
I'm not in Palestine. And even, I can’t go there. I'm in Lebanon. I was born in Lebanon. But I'm not Lebanese, so I don't enjoy all the Lebanese public services.
So, we are stuck. My children asked me the same question I asked my parents: what does it mean to be Palestinian? What is Palestine? Where is Palestine?
It is painful. We were kicked out of our country. And this is why we are suffering.
But we have our own homeland- it's in our mind. If you asked me to describe the village where my parents come from, I will be able to describe it. I will describe it, because, as I told you, when I was younger our daily night story was about my village.
Years ago we had the opportunity to watch a video that had been shot in the village where my family comes from. I did not want to watch it. I was afraid because I made my own village here [in my mind] based on what my parents and grandparents told me. I was afraid to see the real village... Years later, there was a show on the Lebanese TV. It was a report from Palestine, what's called Israel now, and they were talking about some people from our hometown who were killed. I began to laugh. My son was next to me. He looked at me and asked me, Mom? Mom are you crazy? You are laughing while people are killed in your village? I answered him: no, no, no, no, no! I was not listening, I was not listening. When they showed the village, they showed our village. I'm not exaggerating, the trees were moving there and I could feel the breeze. I felt like I know that place. Then I realized my grandparents were really excellent in describing it. So, I felt like I knew the place before, or I had been in that place before: that village was the same as that I had in my head. I've never been in that village never, ever, but I felt I knew it.
Lebanon cannot be my homeland. Lebanon is my second homeland, so I have never felt it's my country, it's my homeland. And when you know what you want, and when you know how you feel, and when you know your borders, it's easier for you. You can really deal with the situation much better.
Do you feel that the foreign, Western nation-made refugee camps do a good job of allocating resources and helping refugees?
Actually, I believe my problem as a refugee has not been created only by Israel. It has been created by the international community. It’s a human-being catastrophe whose origin goes back to the moment when they decided to divide Palestine into two countries- two states- and left.
If you make a decision, you should be responsible for the decision you made.
The international community made me a refugee and they made me suffer, so they are responsible for that situation and they should help me until my problem is solved. It is their duty. It should be their duty to support us, because they created this problem.
It is also true, they are interested to help or to support the projects in these areas. But it seems that their decisions are determined by their interest not our needs.
For example, I am a refugee in Lebanon so it is extremely difficult almost impossible to work in Lebanon. Even so, the international community send money to fund vocational training programs. And then they evaluate the program calculating how many people are employed. Come on, we cannot work in Lebanon. So you can't do that.
I think what they are doing is good and I thank them, but they need to ask us, ‘What are your needs as refugees?’
Thank you, Dr Mahmoud. Finally, we have time only for one more question.
Imagine, Dr Mahmoud, that tomorrow you wake up and you find out that you have become the most powerful human being on earth. What is the first thing that you would do with that power?
My goal would be to achieve Justice. We all talk about peace. There are many peace movements and peace talks. But what about Justice? It is very difficult to achieve peace without justice.
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