Palestinian women DJs turn tables on 'working for the enemy'
ZUBEIDAT, Occupied West Bank - Ibtesam Zubeidat and her energetic assistant and fellow DJ Wafa Zubeidat hurriedly arrange white plastic chairs to suit the outdoor wedding venue in the village of Zubeidat. After pinning colourful streamers and balloons around, they turn on their laptop, plug in large speakers, and control the Arabic music blaring out of the occupied West Bank town; all from the comfort of their DJ sound-mixing station.
As the colourfully dressed wedding-goers throw their hips about and laugh with one another on the dance floor, Ibtesam and Wafa carefully gauge the energy of the crowd and take song requests from the bride.
“When I’m DJing, I feel like I’m in another world,” Wafa tells Middle East Eye with a wide grin. “When the party begins, I start to feel so happy. I get into the zone and the only things that matter are the music and the bride,” she says.
‘When I’m DJing, I feel like I’m in another world’
- Wafa Zubeidat, wedding DJ
But the locals were not always supportive of the women and their profession. "They made us feel useless, like we didn't have any importance," Ibtesam says.
The community was not used to seeing women Djing in the small village and many said that their work violated customs and traditions. "The men would tell us to sell our equipment because no one would ever book us,” Ibtesam tells MEE.
It is hard to imagine that just a year ago Ibtesam and Wafa, considered to be the first professional female wedding DJs in the Jordan Valley, had nearly committed their lives to working on Israeli agricultural settlements. Though they are in violation of international law, the settlements are scattered across the length of the Jordan Valley.
“They are difficult memories,” Ibtesam tells MEE. “The days were long and the pay was low. The [Israeli] boss could do whatever he wanted. He could insult you or violate your rights, and most workers have no choice but to remain silent.”
Ibtesam and Wafa’s situation was not unique. Hamza Zubeidat from the Ma’an Development Centre, a Palestinian NGO, tells MEE that at least 95 percent of residents in the village are dependent on employment in Israel’s agricultural settlements.
'I get into the zone and the only things that matter are the music and the bride'
- Wafa Zubeidat, wedding DJ
‘Working for the enemy’
Ibtesam dedicated almost 25 years of her life to gruelling work on these settlements. She was responsible for harvesting, cleaning and packing fruits and vegetables on the farms. According to her testimony, the Israeli boss would often slap and beat her and other employees if they did not work fast enough. Sometimes work days would last up to 15 hours under the scorching sun and workers would only be provided with one meal a day.
“We used to start work at 5am. We were not allowed to leave until all of the work for that day was finished,” Ibtesam says. “You couldn’t object to anything or the [Israeli] boss would fire you, and you would never be employed again.”
Guy Hirshfeld is an activist in the Jordan Valley and a member of the Israeli group Ta'ayush. The Palestinian and Israeli partnership focuses on non-violent resistance against the Israeli occupation. Hirshfeld tells MEE that Israeli settlers can easily exploit Palestinian workers and most are “too afraid” to take any legal action against the Israelis.
Hirshfeld says that Israeli settlers also employ Palestinian “middlemen,” who they say are responsible for the Palestinian workers, to dissolve themselves from accountability.
While Israeli labour laws are technically supposed to apply to Palestinians employed on Israeli settlements, Palestinian workers tend to earn around 10 shekels (around $3) an hour with no social benefits, according to the Ma’an Development Centre. The Israeli minimum wage is almost triple this.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported that Palestinian children as young as 11 years old can be found working in the settlements. Yet Israeli law prohibits children under the age of 15 from employment.
'The [Israeli] boss could do whatever he wanted. He could insult you or violate your rights, and most workers have no choice but to remain silent'
- Ibtesam Zubeidat, DJ
Children told HRW that during peak harvest times they were forced to work up to 12 hours a day instead of eight, causing them to suffer heat stroke and develop skin rashes from pesticides on the crops.
“The settlements here have ruined opportunities for our children,” Ibtesam says, adding that children in Zubeidat and surrounding villages often drop out of school at young ages. “They think: ‘Why should I go to school if I will eventually work on the settlements?’”
The village’s dependency on agricultural settlements has had a major effect on education because there is a strong belief that it will have no future benefit.
“The youth in Zubeidat don’t believe in education because they can’t see it taking them anywhere in their lives,” Hamza says. “Now we have each generation becoming more uneducated, and at the same time they are becoming more dependent on the settlements.”
Challenging social norms
Some three years ago, Ibtesam began working with other women in the village to find ways to challenge this reality. “We became determined to stop working for the enemy,” she says.
'We became determined to stop working for the enemy'
- Ibtesam Zubeidat, DJ
One day, Ibtesam realised there was an opening. During weddings, which are separated by gender in Zubeidat, professional DJs hired for such events were always male, catering to the groom's section of the wedding.
Since men are not allowed into the women's section during celebrations, they depended on speakers for music. This prevented women and even the bride from choosing their own songs or interacting with the DJ during parties.
So Ibtesam began developing ideas for initiating what is considered to be the first female DJ project in the village. Women and Media Development (TAM), a local NGO that works to support women-led businesses in the West Bank, arrived in the village with the hopes of developing a collaborative project with the women in the community.
In 2014, Ibtesam and five other women received training and assistance from TAM to develop skills in DJing, photography, filming, and other crafts. Their aim was to develop a women-owned DJ wedding service and event management business in the village.
However, the daring new project was met with rejection by family members and the larger community. “Our community is used to women working in the settlements. For years, this is all we’ve known. But a woman DJing was seen as something strange. It had no connection to our traditions,” Ibtesam explains.
'Other women want to be just like us’
Ibtesam continued to fight for her dreams, and split her time between farming in the agricultural settlements and DJing on the side. Once her family realised how determined she was and the positive benefits of refusing work on the settlements, they gradually began to support her.
'The men would tell us to sell our equipment because no one would ever book us'
- Ibtesam Zubeidat, DJ
Yet the women continued to face disapproval from some of the men in the village.
“The men would interfere when we were setting up the sound system and laptops, saying that men were better able to do the job," Ibtesam says.
“But we never listened,” Ibtesam adds. Their project soon became “normal” in the community, and most residents now eagerly support them.
We have seen a complete change in our community,” Wafa, who began working on the production line of an Israeli date factory at the age of 13, tells MEE. “Now we have an income away from the settlements and other women want to be just like us.”
Since 2016, the women say they have been able to live independently, staying away from work on Israeli agricultural settlements.
Ibtesam’s husband, Younis Zubeidat, has also had a change of heart, telling MEE that he is proud of his wife for fighting for what she loves. He says he has noticed positive changes in Ibtesam since she left her settlement job. “I hope one day no one in the village has to work on the settlements any more,” Younis says.
Navine Zubeidat, the group’s 23-year-old camera woman, worked for some four years in the settlements. Since leaving her job there, she says she is now relaxed and “free”.
“I don’t like to take money from the settlers,” Navine explains. “It feels nice to make your own money. And I smile every time someone calls me a camera woman.”
'I smile every time someone calls me a camera woman'
- Navine Zubeidat, camera woman
Navine’s father still objects to her work, however, as he believes that women should not work at all.
“But I don’t care,” Navine says with a shrug. “I will just continue doing what I love.” Though he has attempted to stop her working with the other women, she refuses to quit. “Now I’m not afraid of my father, and I fight with him each time he tries to stop me.”
'Forced to work as cheap labourers’
The village’s name refers to the Zubeidat tribe, who, like most other Palestinians in the Jordan Valley, became refugees in the Nakba (Catastrophe) during Israel’s establishment in 1948. The Zubeidat tribe was displaced from Beer al-Sabe, now the Israeli city of Beersheba. Almost all of the village residents still hold the last name of their tribe.
'Palestinians are given no other alternatives but to contribute their labour and money to the Israeli economy'
- Hamza Zubeidat, Ma’an Development Centre
While most Palestinians in the Jordan Valley are Bedouin, the Jordanian government - which controlled the Jordan Valley after 1948 - encouraged some of the refugees to develop skills in the more profitable venture of agriculture. At the time, they were allowed to rent the land in the Jordan Valley for a low price, according to Hamza.
Following the 1967 war, when the Israeli army took control of the West Bank and Gaza, the socioeconomic realities of the Palestinian villages were turned upside down. Israel took complete control over the area and began allocating land to Israeli settlers.
“Some of those lands where Israeli settlements have been built, were lands being actively used for agriculture by villagers in Zubeidat. But now they are forced to work on these same farms as cheap labourers,” Hamza says.
The ample resources in the Jordan Valley, often referred to as a “natural greenhouse,” owing to its fertile lands and its vast water resources, makes it a strategically significant area for the Israeli government.
Israel’s control of water resources in the Jordan Valley has prevented even the few Palestinian villages that can prove ownership of their land from productively cultivating it.
According to the Ma'an Development Centre, on top of Israel forbidding Palestinians from using water from the Jordan River, Palestinians are also prohibited from developing water distribution networks or drilling wells deeper than 140 metres. This is a depth where only salty water can be accessed and it limits the variety of crops they can grow.
Because of Israeli restrictions, Palestinian villages are then forced to purchase drinking water from Israel’s Mekorot water company. Israeli settlers, however, have no limitations on water access.
“It’s colonisation,” Hamza says. “Palestinians are given no other alternatives but to contribute their labour and money to the Israeli economy.”
The female DJs acknowledge that much more needs to be done to confront Israel’s "colonial" system in the Jordan Valley.
“Women look up to us because everyone in our village is so tired of working on the settlements. It’s insulting and tough work to do every day,” Wafa tells MEE. “But our project has shown them that maybe something else is possible.”
* Additional reporting by Hisham al-Laham and Abla Klaa.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.