"Don't worry about it. You're a guy—you can do whatever you want," she replied.
Once actually in Nablus hanging with said female friend, I suggest going the Turkish bathhouse that I had heard so much about. But alas, I forget—women are only allowed one day a week at the bathhouse, and today isn't her day. I'm wearing a T-shirt, my arms are thankfully bare under the Middle Eastern sun, but hers are covered past the elbow; she doesn't want to be stared at, or worse, talked about.
If I were to try and pinpoint the biggest difference between American and Palestinian culture, I would settle upon how vastly different the lives of men and women are here. Everything from schools to weddings to swimming pools are likely to be sexually segregated here (though not nearly as severely and strictly as in places like Saudi Arabia). Men hang out with other men, and women hang out with other women—for the most part.
Internationals like myself are not immune from these cultural pressures. For example, my activities yesterday consisted of teaching an all-boys class at the Al Am'ari refugee camp, then hanging out with two other men at an apartment where female visitors were not permitted (a rule which just might have had something to do with my own eviction), then paying a visit to the legendary Baldna coffee shop, where the air is filled with a heavy combination of fragrant smoke and testosterone. There is no sign that reads NO WOMEN ALLOWED, but no such sign is needed—women do not come here. The unwritten rules are clear: this is a place for men to play cards, drink tea, and puff on argeela late into the night.
I am not, however, going to jump on the "look how oppressed these women are by their religion/culture" boat just yet. It is tempting to come to this conclusion when, for instance, you visit the swimming pool at Bir Zeit and see that the men's pool is spacious and equipped with slides while the women's pool is tucked out of sight—it's a small, slideless, tarp-covered thing.
You ask: is it hard to be a woman in Palestine? International women will almost invariably say yes, but Palestinian women are more likely to say no—at least this is my impression from scattered conversations. They say they choose to wear the hijab, they choose to cover their bodies, and even if their swimming pool is smaller, they enjoy having their own space where they are not going to be stared at by men.
But one could easily argue that the reason that men are likely to stare at them is because they have almost never been allowed to see women's bodies due to the culture they live in. Just like the denial of alcohol to teenagers in America creates immature alcoholics, so does the denial of women to unmarried men create scores of sexually repressed guys who may just masturbate at women from behind trees, or may just wait on the bottom floor of an apartment building at night, flashing his penis at any international girls that walk by. (True stories; since unmarried Palestinian women are definitely out of the question—remember, people talk and everybody knows each other—international women bear the brunt of trashy sexual advances by Palestinian men.)
It could also be argued that these women regard their sexual repression as "choices" for the preservation of their own pride, when really, forces larger than the individual make any other choice dangerous or outright impossible—like a gun to your head at the voting booth. It's a frightening proposition for a woman to abandon the safety and familial respect that comes with keeping to tradition, and so for the sake of her own mental health, she gradually begins to regard these customs as her own choices, lest she feel like a prisoner for her entire life.
Of course, the whole thing is so nuanced and complicated that what I just presented is undoubtedly a false dichotomy of the issue. Since I've been here for only two months, and since I am a man unexposed to the vast unknown of the lives of Palestinian women, I'll reserve further judgment.