At just 26 years-old, Yousra Badwan is Palestine’s youngest female mayor after being elected to the post in the Azzun municipality of the occupied West Bank earlier this year. Badwan tells MEMO about her reasons for pursuing political office, and how she hopes to help her community in the face of the Israeli occupation.
Having graduated from Palestine’s Technical University with a degree in Electrical Engineering, a career in politics was not the obvious choice for West Bank resident Yousra Badwan. As she observed the struggles of those in her community, though, particularly those faced by women, her desire to make a difference led her to aim high.
“I wanted to participate effectively in the community and prove that a young Palestinian woman is able to run alongside the men and can bear responsibilities and make decisions,” she explains.
In 2017, Badwan fulfilled her ambitions and ran in the local election, securing a majority vote for the position of mayor in May of this year. She is now a full-time politician.
Despite the rarity of young women in politics, Badwan does not see her achievement as unique amongst Palestinian women. “Palestinian women are symbols of heroism, sacrifice, perseverance and creativity. They are the mothers of prisoners and martyrs. They continue to fight in all aspects of life and have proven themselves successful in various positions. They are capable of change and ingenuity.”
This is found across Palestinian society, she points out. “We find many Palestinian women as leaders and pioneers, such as Dr Laila Ghannam and many other ministers, ambassadors and CEOs.”
Whilst Badwan’s intentions were noble, she says that not all of her community reacted positively to her election, as cultural norms against women occupying such positions divided opinion. “In the beginning, I faced the challenge not only from the people of Azzun, but also the entire Palestinian community, for them to accept the idea of a young, single woman in such a senior position. I was criticised a lot by many people for not possessing the abilities or experience for the position. I was also subject to a fierce electronic attack during my first few months in office.”
However, things changed quickly once she took office. “The people of Azzun began to accept me after they realised that there were tangible changes being made on the ground,” she says, stressing that she remains undeterred.
Badwan identifies numerous challenges in her 12,000 member community that she hopes to address during her term; the most significant are those posed by the daily incursions on Palestinian life as a result of the Israeli occupation.
“The Azzun municipality suffers greatly from the occupation’s policies, including repeated closures, arrests, almost daily raids and besiegement by the Apartheid Wall. It also suffers from a 34 per cent unemployment rate, and a number of individuals are prohibited from working for security reasons. It is considered to be one of the municipalities with the highest ratio of prisoners compared to its population.”
In tackling these issues, she stresses that unity is of paramount importance in securing a Palestinian future. “The Palestinian community must unite and come together, as it is the first step towards liberation. We must work towards self-reliance and self-dependence and establish economic growth projects to employ the people. We must also establish empowerment projects to reinforce our people’s perseverance in the face of the occupation.”
For Badwan, her position is above all a platform of hope for young Palestinians, a symbol of what they can also achieve if they work towards their goals. “I want to encourage the youth, both male and female, to undertake a similar experience, as the youth make up the largest part of the Palestinian community and possess creative abilities and energy.”
This is the positive message that she wants to get across to her peers in the community. Given her determination to succeed, who is to say that she will not succeed in this, just as she has succeeded in reaching her current position?
*This piece contains contributions from Marwa Assem