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'Braking' boundaries: Palestinian women in driving seat as they seek new chances

As the 30-ton truck weaves through the crowded Hebron streets, groups of men stop and gawp at the diminutive figure of Dalia al-Darawish in a purple headscarf seated behind the wheel.

Darawish is preparing for an exam to become one of only a handful of qualified female Palestinian truck drivers, a test the 26-year-old sees as more than just driving.

"It is symbolic," she told AFP. "It shows we can do anything – that you can work as a woman, drive a trailer or whatever."

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The mother-of-two is among several Palestinian women pushing boundaries in the traditionally conservative city of Hebron in the West Bank, amid growing assertiveness of women's rights.

Darawish said she had faced criticism from both sexes as she trained, but the men were far more vocal.

"There are some who support a minority," she told AFP. "But then there are people shouting in the street, 'No, why are you driving a trailer?'"

"Whenever I make any mistake you will find men shouting, 'not possible (for you).'"

At the driving center, she shakes slightly as her black-mustached examiner Issam Bedawi explains the test.

After briefly demonstrating her ability to detach and reattach the trailer, the two clamber up into the carriage and drive off.

3D art

Recent months have seen women's rights protests in the West Bank after a 21-year-old woman was allegedly killed by her family members after posting a photo with her soon-to-be fiance on Instagram.

The demonstrators are demanding more protection for women, but also a more prominent political movement for women's rights.

Palestinian women still often give up their careers to care for children.

A World Bank study last year found that 58 percent of skilled women between 25 and 34 were unemployed, compared to 23 percent of men.

Two Palestinian women hold placards during a rally in front of the Prime Minister's office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, September 2. 2019. (AP Photo / Nasser Nasser)

The general unemployment rate for women (44 percent) is double that of men, according to official Palestinian Authority statistics.

Wafaa al-Adhami had long dreamed of being an artist, but they all had the opportunity to study growing up.

But five years ago and with the older kids, she returned to her passion, studying hours of videos about artists on YouTube.

"Painting and art courses are expensive and I had no time," she said. "So I loved educating myself."

"Every artist has their own style, and I wanted to find mine," she said.

From her living room table with an array of children passing through, she developed a specific layout technique for her work, pouring the paint onto the canvas before sculpting and manipulating it.

The result is a 3D texture that she says is unique among Palestinian artists.

Her inspiration ranges from Palestinian icons such as the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem's Temple Mount to more Jackson Pollock-inspired surrealism.

A recent 40-work exhibition was a big hit.

'Changed a little'

Elsewhere in the city, 31-year-old Asia Amer has set up what she believes is Hebron's first women-only restaurant.

The idea behind Queen Restaurant, she said, is to give women a space to feel at home.

Those who normally wear the hijab can remove the headscarf if they wish.

"I felt it was the right of women to have a place they can relax in – where there are no restrictions or people watching her," she said.

"I am proof that Palestinian women just stay home to cook and look after the children."

Back at the driving test center, Darawish pulls the trailer to a stop and waits nervously as Bedawi tallies up the score.

"Happy to say she passed," he announces. "Everything I asked of her during the test she did fantastically."

Darawish even knows if she will work as a truck driver, right now she is still looking after her children.

But she said she wanted to help drive change in attitudes.

“(Society) has changed a little. There have been some developments, but not enough, ”she said.

"If there had been a big movement, men who would see a woman driving a trailer would be happy or they would have said something at all."

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