Glass Ceiling? Women in Gaza Are Facing Concrete

For International Women's Day, women playing leading roles in Gaza's economy talk about the challenges they face, from societal conservatism to Israel's limitations on movement.

Maha Abu Sidu, Suha Khader and Maha al-Masri.
Gisha

Suha Khader from Jabalia is the manager of the Al-Quds Bank in the Gaza Strip. She is the only woman who is a regional bank manager, not only in Gaza but in all the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

The bank’s nine branches employ 122 people, including 30 women. Her climb to the top, from a clerk at the customer service department in the Palestine Bank in 1994, through management positions in various financial institutions, is definitely not typical for Palestinian women, particularly not in the Gaza Strip.

The rate of Palestinian women in the workforce is still very low, standing at 19 percent, in contrast to 71 percent for men. The rate for women in Gaza is only 14 percent, lower than in the West Bank.

The number of Gaza women seeking work is growing (from 9.1 percent of able women in 2005 to 21.7 percent in 2016). This rise is occurring at a time in which jobs are harder to find, due in part to Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, after which Gazans were prohibited from working in Israel.

Jobs are also much harder to find due to drastic travel restrictions which Israel imposed in 2007. And yet, women work not only in traditional jobs such as teaching, nursing and non-government organizations in Gaza, but also in high-tech and the business sector.

Gazan society, Khader told Haaretz over the phone, is unaccustomed to seeing women in managerial roles. Without the support of her husband and father, she believes, she would have found it difficult to overcome societal conservatism.

She started working in a favorable period: Right after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority new business opportunities opened up and the wish to be independent somehow merged with the ethos of integrating women into the workforce.

Seeking to break through the concrete ceiling

Sometimes all you need is a few women with “luck,” such as her, ones who shatter a social glass ceiling. The problem is that women in Gaza have more than a glass ceiling that they have to shatter.

The total dependence on indecipherable and opaque caprices of the mechanisms which regulate travel restrictions to Israel dictates any initiative. In honor of International Women’s Day today, The Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement published a collection of conversations with women who play leading roles in Gaza’s economy but who are blocked by what the report terms a “concrete ceiling.”

The usual reports in Israel of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza give the impression of a population that is passively seeking welfare. This depiction irks Gazans.

All their initiatives, creativity, improvisations and ability to contend with exceptional hardships are lost in the routine descriptions of Gaza only as a scene of a perennial disaster. The Gisha document seeks to correct this impression.

One of the women interviewed for this document was Maha al-Masri, who runs a non-profit group that promotes women working in agriculture. “The unrealized potential in Gaza is high. There are copious skills, motivation and leadership there. What women need most is experience, gained by training in areas such as agriculture,” she says.

However, as you may hear from women taking part in a demonstration by women’s groups in Gaza in celebration of Women’s Day, held in front of the legislative council building – without restoring the freedom of movement to Gazans no real progress is possible, not for society in general or for women in particular.

Khader was the only woman taking part in a meeting between Gazan bank managers and representatives of the Coordination and Liaison Administration at the Erez border checkpoint.

Women in the Gaza Strip

The meeting took place a month ago at the initiative of the administration (which is subordinate to the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories at the Defense Ministry), Khader told Haaretz.

“They wanted to know what problems we faced, they talked about easing restrictions and exit permits, promising to deal with requests rapidly. So what came of it? I’ve been waiting for an exit permit for a month. They leave me hanging, without saying yes or no.”

For many years her roles in financial institutions enabled her to obtain exit permits which were always renewed. Suddenly, in 2016, just after she became a bank manager, her request for a permit was not immediately granted. After 45 days she was told that she was barred from exiting for one year. Why?

The Shin Bet spokesman replied to a Haaretz query in August 2016, saying that “the request was considered but due to some security concerns it was decided to deny it.” This week Khader said that since August she had after all managed to leave for meetings in the West Bank on two occasions. Now she’s been waiting for a month for a renewal of her permit.

She thus misses regular meetings with the bank’s general management and with other employees. Her ability to consult and influence strategic planning and participate in discussions about various budgetary issues is thereby diminished.

The situation of Dr Riham al-Wahidi is even worse. She is the founder and co-director of a consulting agency for companies and organizations. According to the criteria of the Coordinator of Civilian Activities her company and al-Wahidi herself are barred from submitting a request to obtain a merchant’s permit since they don’t deal directly in exports or imports.

But as al-Wahidi says: “In the consultation business our products are our skills in business-oriented thinking. Developing our skills and experience depend on obtaining work and on meeting people, new markets, new business areas. The ability of our company to thrive and adapt to market developments without the opportunity to meet and study these opportunities is almost impossible.”

In negotiations with potential clients, instead of discussing the company’s quality of work they discuss the client’s ability to guarantee exit permits for employees. The likelihood that these will be denied makes the company turn down many job offers. This limits the number of employees they can hire, including women, since al-Wahidi is committed to hiring at least 50 percent women as part of her staff.

Maha al-Masri encounters the wall that blocks initiatives and livelihood opportunities through the hundreds of women in rural areas who have come to the non-profit group she manages.

The last war ravaged these areas. This is one of the direct causes for the drop in the rate of women working in agriculture, from 26.7 percent in the second quarter of 2014 to 2.8 percent in 2016. In addition to the initiative to reconstitute agriculture in six areas, the non-profit group for advancing village women encourages them to develop small business projects at home.

The group, which includes eight female and two male employees gives women assistance and technical advice, as well as raw materials such as seeds for home vegetable gardens and for raising rabbits and chickens, as well as providing training in hairdressing or in running a grocery. The fact that these projects operate from home makes it easier to overcome societal opposition to women working outside the home.

“All the borders are closed. When they were open the men would go to work in Israel or find work here. Then women didn’t have to work” she says. Another possible project is selling home-cooked food, baked products or honey. But the Gaza market is too small. The time and cost of shipping preclude women from even considering selling their wares in Israel or the West Bank.

“Today there are more young women going to university and looking for jobs. The frustration among these women is great when they don’t find any – it’s much greater than when I was their age 25 years ago.”

Maha Abu Sidu, 35, started a small project seven years ago, involving the internet marketing of embroidered items. This bypasses the closure, enabling several women to try and sell their handicrafts outside the Gaza Strip. Their products include jewelry and foods.

Abu Sidu orders raw materials from Jordan. She finds West Bank merchants going there and asks them to pick up her orders on their way back. She then finds businessmen who can travel between Gaza and the West Bank, asking them to bring her the cloth and thread. In this circuitous and time-consuming manner she also sends her finished products overseas. Last year, after Israel suspended the exit permits of hundreds of merchants, the importing of raw materials and exporting of final products became much more difficult.

Abu Sidu currently employs 50 women who embroider for her, and for whom this is the only source of income. Her requests for exit permits to the West Bank or Qatar – where she has most of her clients – have been denied.

She took part in a training course in Gaza, geared to women who manage independent businesses. The course was supposed to include a visit to Ashdod port in Israel. Fifteen women in the course asked for a permit and all were denied.

Last year, Abu Sidu left the Strip for the first time in her life. The Palestine Bank and USAID submitted a request on her behalf so that she could attend a special program for businesswomen in Ramallah. Since then she has been denied exit repeatedly. “I still wonder – if they approved my travel once why can’t they do so again?”