When Dana Rwaidy started university two years ago, she never thought she would hold the position of student body president. Most class presidents in the occupied West Bank’s universities are chosen from the senior class, and the vast majority have long been men.
“I was one of 33 people on the list of possible candidates for the student class president from the Fatah movement,” Rwaidy said, referring to her party, which won the majority in her university’s student elections before a president was chosen. “Only two others out of the 33 were women.”
Rwaidy did not ask to be on the mostly-male list, but was instead approached for the position by other male leaders and agreed to be a candidate. However, because of her age and gender, she never really thought she would win, despite her popularity among classmates. But once her party, Fatah, won the election, her party members voted for her to be president.
While student government in the United States is more of an internal affair, in the occupied West Bank the elections are the only democratic bellweather of popular opinion, and are taken seriously both by the local population, and political analysts.
As the Hamas youth movement recently made headlines, winning the Palestinian student government elections in the occupied West Bank’s most popular university for the second year in a row, women in the occupied West Bank also gained a major win in 2016.
Rwaidy is one of three women to have won class president in the most recent elections at the three of the West Bank’s 14 different higher education institutions.
Rwaidy won class president at Ahliya University in Bethlehem city, though she is from the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.
Nawras Abd Addayem, another young woman from the occupied West Bank, won at Salfit’s Al Quds Open University and Bahader Rezqallah won the position at Al Quds Open University in Tulkarem – both districts are considered conservative areas in the West Bank.
All three women won the presidency from within the Fatah’s youth movement.
Following the elections, Fatah quickly commended the young women on their wins, and their own party on its gender diversity.
The party’s youth movement said in a statement that “giving equal opportunities for all members, from both genders, is one of Fateh youth movement’s main priorities.”
It added that is was “proud to see Fateh youth setting the example for all the progressive and social democratic family members in Palestine and the Middle East, in spite of the very difficult moments in Palestine.”
According to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics, the number of female students, and graduates in Palestinian universities surpassed their male counterparts in 2005, at the end of the Second Intifada. Since then, female enrollment has continued to rise at a much higher rate than male enrollment.
During the 2014/2015 school year, there were 81,620 male students enrolled in Palestinian universities, compared to 127,505 female students.
Rwaidy said she was happy to see that women have started to be more represented in higher education, but stressed that Palestine has a history of female leaders, both in the political sphere and in its resistance.
“I don’t feel like my winning presidency is something I should focus on for too long, of course it is a great achievement, but it is just one step in where I am going in life, and there will be much bigger achievements to gain later because there is no restricting how far women can go in this country,” Rwaidy said.
As president, Rwaidy plans to do things differently than her male predecessors. In her opinion, student government has before been exclusionary, with those at the top of the system often seeming unavailable to normal students who aren’t apart of the political process.
“I want to open the whole thing up, I want people to feel comfortable to approach me in the halls and ask questions or make suggestions,” Rwaidy said. “I don’t want to ever seem too important for normal students to talk to, I won’t be president the way some of the others have in the past.”
She also plans to make sure that other parties in the student government have a voice, not just her own.
“It’s important to include everyone,” she said. “I don’t want to run a group that is just speaking for the majority or just speaking for the party that won, I want everyone included and that means all the parties.”
Even though Rwaidy has felt an outpour of support from her peers and community, she has received criticism.
“No one has said anything to my face, but I have heard rumors and whispers circulating campus – some of the more religious students in the university aren’t happy that a woman has won the position of president – but that is just a small percentage, I think for the most part, Palestine is open to gender equality,” Rwaidy said.
To her religious critics, Rwaidy pointed out that one the Muslim prophet Mohammed’s wives was said to have led an army, and another ran a successful spice trading business. She said in her belief, there is nothing un-Islamic or new about women in leadership roles.
She also pointed out Palestinian women in government both in Israel and the occupied West Bank, from the Israeli Knesset, to the Palestinian Legislative Council. Even the Mayor of Bethlehem, where her university is located, is a woman.
Her mentor though, is not a woman in the public eye. Her own mother, who is a social worker in Jerusalem, is at the heart of her inspiration.
“I was taught that women can be anything and my family is very supportive of me, especially my mom and dad,” she said.
Rwaidy carries two phones and stacks of books and papers through the hall as students stop her every few minutes to chat and say hi. She said she is excited to start preparing for the next school year, but is quickly realizing her life is going to change.
“Everyone is excited for summer and making plans for the break, but for me a whole slew of work is just starting, it doesn’t feel like summer,” she laughed. “But it is all worth it, I will be a dedicated student class president and people will see there is no difference between a male or female president, gender is irrelevant.”