BEIT RIMA, West Bank -- Fathiya Barghouti Rheime sees herself as the new face of Islam in the democratic Middle East espoused so fervently by President Bush.
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.
Fathiya Barghouti Rheime is the first Palestinian woman to be elected mayor.
(Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)
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 getaway 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 29 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 potholes 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."