For Palestinian women, life in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and elsewhere can be difficult but it is especially challenging for those living in Jerusalem.

"Palestinian women in Jerusalem live a conundrum of being stuck between being directly governed by the occupying Israeli authorities and the traditional, patriarchal structure of Palestinian families," said Eida Eisawi, a women's rights researcher at the Women's Studies Centre in Jerusalem.

Mrs Eisawi spoke at a conference last week attended by 200 Palestinian mothers, daughters and sisters, who shared stories about trauma and abuse.

The male-dominated family structure in Jerusalem has in many ways been "reinforced" by Palestinians' mistrust of Israeli authorities in the city, she said. Rather than report crime such as rape to Israeli police, families tended to sort out issues at home. But that usually meant that men were left to arbitrate disputes, a process that rarely favours women.

"If a Palestinian woman goes to the police to report abuse, her family will shun her because the police could come and detain her husband for an indefinite period of time, using her report of abuse as a pretext to arrest him for political reasons," said Mrs Eisawi.

The conference was attended by women from all walks of life. Educated, poor, religious and secular - they gathered to demonstrate to each other that Palestinian women could help each other overcome the difficulties of life in east Jerusalem.

"We want to show that we, the women, can rely on each other," said Abeer Abu Khadeir, a Jerusalem co-ordinator for the Women's Affairs Technical Committee.

She and dozens of professors, lawyers and activists helped organise Thursday's conference, bringing together panellists to discuss issues ranging from sexual abuse to juggling careers and family.

The issue of male-dominated tradition triggered spirited responses when one audience member pointed out in a question-and-answer session that not a single man was in attendance. Shouts of frustration ensued. Several panellists rolled their eyes.

"I invited my brothers, but they didn't come!" said a young woman. A university student complained that none of her fellow male students accepted her invitation.

Yet the absence of men also seemed to open the floor for an outpouring of questions and debate on issues that may not have been so easily broached in the presence of men.

One woman asked how, in the jumbled patchwork of legal authority dividing Jerusalem and the West Bank, her daughter could seek a divorce. A resident of the West Bank, her daughter's husband was mentally ill but did not show symptoms until after the wedding.

At one point, a panellist implored women not to let their daughters marry young. Another, Halime Abu Solb, a well-known Palestinian activist, received applause after telling the audience that all "men want to do is keep women in the kitchen!"

Perhaps it was a sense of female camaraderie, more than anything else, that many in the audience longed for, said Rima Rizeq, 31, a mother of two.

Through support groups, she mustered enough confidence to initiate divorce proceedings in the all-male religious courts. Her husband repeatedly abused her, she said, breaking her jaw and causing a miscarriage.

"Men think this is women just saying, 'blah, blah, blah', to each other" she said of the conference.

"But this is how we get support in the community and this is how we can change our community."