Ramallah: At 35, Leila Ghanem is the first woman to become a Palestinian governor, the latest in a group of trailblazing women leaders who are slowly winning acceptance in this traditional society.
Ghanem, a former intelligence agent, joins a cluster of women in senior positions in the West Bank district of Ramallah, a political and economic hub known for its relatively liberal social attitudes, where she was appointed governor earlier this year. The mayor of the district`s main city is a woman, as are four ministers in the Palestinian Cabinet, two Islamic court judges and the head of a Palestinian financial oversight agency.
Ghanem is a woman of few words who is proud of her reputation as a no-nonsense official.
"There`ll be people who`ll say I`m pretending to be tough to prove herself," Ghanem said. "But you have to be firm all the time — but you have to know when to be tough, and when to ease up."
As governor, Ghanem`s role crisscrosses between ribbon cutting at project openings and resolving disputes between warring tribes in this deeply clannish society. She also has a say over security matters, including Abbas` ongoing crackdown on his Hamas rivals.
On Thursday, Ghanem sidestepped what would have been her biggest political pitfall yet: the planned unveiling of a Ramallah traffic circle named in honour of a female fighter who led a 1978 bus hijacking in Israel that killed 38 people. The woman, Dalal Mughrabi, was killed in the attack.
At the last moment, the ceremony — which faced vociferous opposition from Israel — was indefinitely postponed. Naming the site after Mughrabi appears to have been a local initiative, but as governor, Ghanem is ultimately responsible and said she supports the idea. "We honour our martyrs," she said.
An official in Ghanem`s office said the cancellation was "due to pressure”, but declined to elaborate. The official refused to be identified because he was discussing a confidential matter.
Ghanem`s appointment as governor is part of a conscious effort by Abbas and his Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, to promote women into senior positions, said Abbas aide Salman Saidam. The rise of women leaders in the West Bank, run by Abbas` secular Fatah party, contrast with a deepening conservatism in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, where the Islamic militants promote some of their female activists but also impose a strict brand of Islam that restricts women.
Still, equality remains a distant dream in the West Bank.
Men dominate most senior positions and women only occupy 15 percent of the Palestinian work force. While they make up 55 percent of public servants, most hold junior positions in traditional professions like teaching and nursing.