Voices of Hope

The Collaborative Power of Women in the Middle East

By Debby Denehy

Women standing at a checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank
Women standing at a checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank display signs in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.

“To find solutions, we need to begin with those in harm's way, those who have the most at stake and want little more than peace in which to raise their families.”

Dr. Jessica Kimmel, UIW professor of education

Six-thousand miles separate UIW from the area known as The Holy Land, but there is no distance between us as people. That's Dr. Jessica Kimmel's belief and the basis of six years of research on the influence of women in war-torn countries.

Kimmel, professor in UIW's Dreeben School of Education and self-proclaimed peace advocate, teaches her graduate students that cooperation and collaboration between women can make a difference in the social and political arenas of the world.

Her grant research in the Middle East has taken her to Israel and Palestine where she has interviewed Jewish, Christian and Muslim women to understand how their values are learned and sustained through generations. She focuses on their stories.

“It is there that I have found the basis for a renewal of hope that is not found in public policies or in the voices amplified in public media. To hear these [women's] voices and their attendant activities is to gain an understanding of the possibilities for tomorrow's children,“ says Kimmel.

Kimmel (center) hosted by the Nazareth Women's Group, a part of the Interfaith Encounter Association of Jerusalem.

Take for instance, Ruth, a young Palestinian woman and victim of political unrest. Disagreement between Palestine and Israel has caused borders to close, denying travel to and from both regions. She courageously supports a Palestinian women's development association because: “We have no jobs in Bethlehem. There's almost 40 percent unemployment [in Palestine] because of border closings, so we employ the women to make their traditional embroidery for us to sell. The money the women make with their handicrafts is all the money the family may get.”

And Josie, a Palestinian biologist and professor, has expressed professional challenges. Since 1998 when tensions between the regions heightened, all travel became tightly controlled. “I cannot go back to France to get my degree certification,” she said. “We cannot get ahead economically because the closures of our borders keep us locked up physically.”

And women are often forced to leave their families and cross dangerous ground to complete an education. Palestinian nurses in training at Bethlehem University had difficulty getting to school every day. The crossings were too hazardous and waiting in line sometimes took four hours each way. So faculty of the School of Nursing and Health Professions worked out a solution. They condensed classes into one long weekend so students could arrive Thursday morning and return Sunday night. During those four days, faculty taught, students studied and classes were held late into the nights.

Kimmel brought back pieces of Palestinian embroidery to the Women's Global Connection to sell and sent profits back to the Palestinian women.
Kimmel brought back pieces of Palestinian embroidery to the Women's Global Connection to sell and sent profits back to the Palestinian women.

Arrangements were made with area families to house students safely. This way, students crossed the border only twice each week and could spend more time at home with their families.

Other stories involve Israeli women passing food across borders to Palestine inside ambulances because emergency vehicles were the only means of getting sustenance to families in need. Kimmel also tells of The Machsom Watch, a group of women who stand watch at borders every morning to ensure Israeli soldiers let people pass safely. The women comment and courteously intervene if guards harass persons trying to cross into Israel. Being there seems to help.

This behavior isn't natural for most Palestinian women who have grown up in a culture of subservience, but circumstances have drawn them outward, fueling the need to voice opinions and effect change to preserve their families and their futures.

Kimmel feels these emerging voices of women constitute a resource for constructing a different mode of discourse for a more peaceful and lasting resolution to the world's problems. She believes these women have power through peaceful activities to collaborate on the needs of the community and to influence the work of the state in ways that remain “under the radar” of popular narrative.

It all began for Kimmel when religious studies professor Sr. Martha Ann Kirk --- a woman Kimmel says has influenced her more than all others --- was taking a group of students to Israel and Palestine in 2001. Kimmel decided to go along. She wrote an application for a Title V Travel Grant to study women and the culture of “war”, how they managed, how they raised their children in such a challenging atmosphere, how they kept the culture of the family together.

A stone building in Jerusalem with bougainvillea, lavender, and blooming bushes, reminiscent of San Antonio and South Texas.

“We visited three months prior to Sept. 11, 2001,” says Kimmel,“ and the anti-American mood was not as apparent then. I learned about the Muslim culture, how the Muslim and Christian women worked together in Palestine, and how the Palestinian women worked with the Israeli women when they could.” After 9/11 and conflicts escalated between the U.S. and Middle East, people became more guarded and less forthcoming. At the same time, many women were willing to share their experience so that others could learn.

Of her colleague, Kirk says: “Her fantastic enthusiasm for life energizes me. People find healing and clarity in sharing their lives. She's not just doing research, she's giving people the opportunity to grow in wisdom and find healing in the sharing of their personal stories.”

Kimmel admits she's not an activist and maintains “the heart and soul of an academic” who believes her job is to research ideas and history, communicate findings and trust in human nature. In the last five years, she has witnessed the power of women organizing to effect change. She attended an international women's conference of The Women in Black in Jerusalem in 2005 and joined more than 800 women from all over the world to discuss peace efforts and share personal stories. These women are a verbal and visual presence, reminding politicians there is another dimension to the issues.

Having lived among British women who spoke of how World War II influenced what they were teaching their children, Kimmel began seeking information in challenging contemporary situations long ago. She earned her BA in English and history and a master's degree in English at Trinity University, then headed to Texas A&M for a PhD in Education. When she came to Incarnate Word College to study for Texas Teacher Certification, she fell in love with the campus, faculty, and students. After a brief stint teaching high school, she came to UIW to stay -- for 17 years and counting.

In 2004, UIW faculty bestowed Kimmel with its prestigious 2004-05 Moody Professorship, awarded to an outstanding educator and humanitarian. This year, her colleagues nominated her as the 2007 Piper Professor for exceptional dedication in her field. She has been fortunate to secure faculty development and grant funding for her research travels and credits the university with strong support of her work.

Dr. Jessica Kimmel

Kimmel's family inspires her too. Her husband, Dr. Lawrence Kimmel, is a philosophy professor at Trinity University. Their four children, three sons and one daughter, “are all educated, gainfully employed, and living independently,” says Kimmel.

She adds, “My time at UIW has been one of the most important times in my life. I cannot imagine a better place to work, teach, learn, and do research. I believe that research is part of teaching…it keeps faculty learning and testing out ideas. I use the stories of these women in my classes, and my students have corresponded with Middle Eastern women through the Women's Global Connection website.”

Asked how this work has changed her, she replied, ”So much that it will take a book to explain it! (She's writing one.) Most of all, I have increased my faith in human beings to be protective of other human beings. I also see that many people do indeed learn from the past.” These women have decided to effect change, and one way Kimmel has seen this is in teaching their children peaceful values to encourage an end to violence, despite the violence that surrounds them. Kimmel and Kirk are planning their next visit to the Middle East on May 18 and expect to stay several weeks. This will be trip number six for Kimmel.

And what will become of the women she's met? She expects “some to be elected to office, some to keep on leading in Israel, and some to emigrate to the U.S. Most will not give up.”

Just visit a corner in Jerusalem every Friday afternoon and see. At a major intersection, women and men gather holding signs about ending the conflict in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. No one says anything --- they just stand there with signs. One woman who comes every week is 94 years old. She is Italian by birth, Jewish by religion and stands for the basic value of acceptance of others. The woman brings her friend who is 86 years old to help her cross the streets. “How does that affect world peace?” asks Kimmel. “I am not sure,” she says, “but it sure affects me."

“She's not just doing research, she's giving people the opportunity to grow in wisdom and find healing in the sharing of their personal stories.”

Sr. Martha Ann Kirk