Women step forward in West Bank
As strife constrains men, women venture into jobs and activism.
KUFR KHALIL, WEST BANK
The village women who assembled in this hillside hamlet to talk politics came in conservative, drab gowns and head scarves that left only their faces exposed.
But their comments about the approaching municipal elections were anything but traditional. Two said they aspired to become the first female members of their village council. Others, like Nivineh Amr, insisted that only a female candidate would understand the importance of bringing day-care centers and running water to this West Bank town of 3,500.
Amid the devastation wrought by nearly four years of conflict with Israel, a subtle but significant transformation is under way in the lives of many Palestinian women. Normally confined to domestic chores and child care, they're now playing central roles in the survival of families in which husbands have found themselves without work.
The crisis has emboldened women to assert themselves in new realms, from finding part-time work and taking control of family finances to political involvement. The newfound freedoms are even bucking the rising influence of fundamentalist Islam in the public lives of Palestinians.
"Before the intifada," says Mrs. Amr, a mother of seven, "our husbands would come to us and say, 'Vote for this one or vote for that one,' and we weren't concerned with their qualifications or what that person stood for.''
As Israel's military has clamped down on cities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, it has choked off Palestinian activity and sent unemployment soaring. Jobless rates in the West Bank have risen as high as 40 percent. In Gaza, unemployment has surpassed 60 percent.
"Because of the closures, women had to find ways of producing food without going to a market,'' says Subhiyeh Hamdan, a social worker who facilitates the women's support group in Kufr Khalil. As a result, she says, "women have gone back to sewing. Any job that was available they took.''
Hanging above the entrance of the building where the group meets are faded posters of men brandishing machine guns - ubiquitous images of the uprising's martyred heroes. In a bare room up two flights of an unfinished stairwell, the women sit in a seminar-sized semicircle and discuss their struggles at home.
Cradling a 10-month old infant, Karine Oded told of an ill-fated chicken-farm venture that left her husband demoralized. That forced her to get support from charity organizations and open a small shop.
"The men are distracted because they are unemployed, and because of the political situation,'' she says. "All this leads to difficult relations in the family, and women have to deal with it.''
The past few years have also seen a membership surge in women's savings and loan cooperatives. By contributing 10 Jordanian dinars ($13.50) a month into the fund, members become eligible for loans as much as 30 times as big to help finance small businesses, tuition, or emergency needs. In the West Bank city of Ramallah, savings funds subsidized by the Working Women's Society count more than 500 members and $85,000 in assets.
Similar entrepreneurship can be found in the Gaza Strip. In Khan Yunis, wives of fishermen are rejuvenating businesses that have been paralyzed by Israeli blockades preventing the seamen from reaching the coast, says Majeda Alsaqa, a local field worker with the Culture and Free Thought Association in Khan Yunis. The women raised money through nongovernment organizations to refurbish their husbands' boats and are employing Gazans who do have access to the sea to captain the vessels.
"Women are oppressed in our society. So when they have a small space to solve a problem, they will go and do it," she says. "It's the first time you are freeing a woman, and telling her, 'Go and find a job and be creative.' "
UN data show that Palestinian women attend high school and university in roughly the same numbers as men. But instead of starting careers, women get married and remain at home. According to Palestinian Bureau of Statistics, the work force is only 14 percent female.
In some respects, Palestinian society appears to be growing more conservative, influenced by the growing prestige of fundamentalist groups like Hamas, which have persuaded Palestinians to adopt a stricter brand of Islam. Their influence can be seen in towns of the southern Gaza Strip, where women are seldom uncovered, Alsaqa says. But some observers suggest that the dress is a poor indicator of political or religious. "It's mostly a passport out of the house for women,'' says Randa Nasser, a sociologist at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah. "A lot of women find it easier to go get work, to go get an education, if they put on that dress.''
To be sure, there is no lack of resistance to the changes. Mrs. Hamdan says many men in the village have discouraged her from gathering women to discuss the vote as the Palestinian legislature mulls local elections. Other women's activists have said that men in villages have told their wives that they don't have the right to vote.
Still, interest is on the rise. The Working Women's Society - a sponsor of the women's groups - says it knows of 120 women in the West Bank interested in running. Back in Kufr Khalil, Amr offered an explanation.
"Hard times makes you assess the good from the bad,'' she says . "These hard times make us realize that we should have a role in this assessment.''