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Democracy´s New Face: Radical and Female - Palestinian Mayor Embodies Both Tradition and Change in Middle East (WASHINGTON POST) By Molly Moore BEIT RIMA, West Bank 01/29/05 Page A01)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A45603-2005Jan28.html WASHINGTON POST WASHINGTON POST Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
BEIT RIMA, West Bank -- Fathiya Barghouti Rheime sees herself as the new face of Islam in the democratic Middle East that President Bush so fervently espouses.

She is a 30-year-old high school teacher, mother of a 9-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. She describes herself as a "very religious" Muslim. She wears the hejab, a scarf wrapped tightly over her head. She does not shake hands with men outside of her family.

Two weeks ago, Rheime became the first woman ever elected mayor of a Palestinian community, an achievement that stunned many residents in this traditional, patriarchal society.

"It´s a sign of change, a quantum leap," Rheime said while sitting in her newly painted office with blank white walls and peach draperies. "I´m deeply concerned about transmitting the picture of the active Islamic woman to the world, to wipe away the blemish of the veil."

She won public office with support from voters who do not fit Bush´s conception of democracy in the Middle East: backers of the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, which the U.S. government has designated a terrorist group, and people who consider her jailed husband a patriot because he drove the get-away car in the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in October 2001.

Rheime´s victory exemplifies the contradictions between Western views of democracy and its actual practice in a Middle Eastern environment.

The results of Palestinian municipal elections in the West Bank last month, the first in nine years, revealed a potentially fundamental shift in Palestinian politics. Islamic candidates, most of them members of Hamas who did not openly declare their association for fear of arrest or harassment by Israeli troops, won about 35 percent of all local council races. In Gaza on Thursday, Hamas won elections to control seven of 10 town councils.

Female candidates claimed 52 of 306 open seats in the West Bank -- nearly 17 percent of the elected positions and more than 2 1/2 times the quota that had been reserved for women in an effort to broaden their representation in a male-dominated society.

Like Rheime, many of the winning female candidates drew support from the Islamic movement. Though she ran as an independent for a seat on the council representing the West Bani Zaid Municipality, she was also listed on the Islamic parties´ ticket.

Five other Islamic candidates won seats on the 13-member council in the Dec. 23 vote, including another woman, Raidah Rimawi. One Islamic candidate ran -- and won -- from his Israeli jail cell. Another winning Islamic councilman was arrested at his house by Israeli troops three weeks after the election. Both are being held without charge under administrative detention, according to fellow council members.

The Fatah movement, the dominant Palestinian political party founded by longtime Palestinian leader and icon Yasser Arafat, who died in November, claimed five seats. Only one member of the former all-Fatah council sought reelection. He lost. Rheime was elected mayor by the council on Jan. 16 with a seven-vote majority -- the five Islamic members, a communist and a socialist.

Rheime and her Islamic party colleagues on the council -- two of whom are distant relatives -- believe that convincing the West to change its perception of Islam is just as critical as repairing pot holes and improving the drinking water for the residents of this bucolic but economically ravaged voting district of 6,000 people, located barely 20 miles west of the skyscrapers of affluent Tel Aviv.

Saed Rheime, 34-year-old imam of a local mosque who holds a masters degree in theology, is Islamic in his politics and ideology and embraces his party´s campaign slogan, "Islam is the solution." He won more votes than any other council member in West Bani Zaid .

"In the West, everybody with a beard is considered a terrorist," said Saed Rheime, a charismatic man whose face is framed by a neatly trimmed ebony beard. "The West thinks of us as primitive. They associate us with social oppression of women. They view us as a camel civilization. Let them come and see us. We respect women. We are very civilized human beings."

Fathiya Rheime took part in socialist politics as a student at the Palestinian Bir Zeit University, but said she never became involved in Palestinian politics, which were then controlled by men. The only other woman to serve as a Palestinian mayor was appointed to the job in the 1980s before the Palestinian Authority was created.

Rheime said she was encouraged to seek public office by her husband, Majdi Rheime, who has served three years of an eight-year sentence in a Palestinian jail for his role in the assassination of the Israeli tourism minister.

In the West Bank elections, Fathiya Rheime benefited from the support of her own and her husband´s large extended clans. She is from the same tribe as Mustafa Barghouti, who failed in his independent bid to become Palestinian Authority president, and Marwan Barghouti, the popular jailed Palestinian leader.

Even so, the more traditional members of the community considered it inappropriate for a young mother to hold political office. But Rheime said she ran for election "to banish the idea that our society is a male society." Her children, especially her daughter, relish the idea of their mom as mayor, said Rheime, who has a soft voice, gentle laugh and luminous green eyes.

After little more than a week running a municipality with 29 employees, Rheime, who has a degree in Arabic literature, said, "I feel like I´m under the microscope; everybody is watching and waiting. I need to work harder than a man to prove myself in society."

Two blocks from the squat, cream-colored limestone municipal building at the main intersection of Beit Rima, where a green Hamas flag flutters from a soaring white minaret and small stores hug the street corners, many residents seemed enthusiastic about their local political phenomenon.

"We are happy for her, although we voted for men," said Zarifa Abdul Hadi, who described her age as "more than 60" as she adjusted a flowing white scarf around a face as wrinkled as a walnut shell.

Ahmed Fahdel, 16 and still too young to vote, offered a common view in an electorate disillusioned with the bloated, feuding political bureaucracy of the Fatah movement that Arafat left behind. "We have tried men," said the teenager with gelled black hair. "Now it´s time to try women." (© 2005 The Washington Post Company 01/29/05)

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