Seven years ago, I had a conversation with some colleagues in the Gaza Strip. As I recall, the conversation ended in an argument about marriage, specifically, early marriage and the type of girl that each one wanted to marry. Most of them wanted to marry a girl who worked for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Any Palestinian, man or woman, would immediately understand why: economics. UNRWA pays its employees in US dollars, and their salaries are never interrupted, as opposed to Palestinian governments, which have difficulties making payroll from time to time. A Palestinian man who marries a UNRWA employee feels much more secure in his life than other Palestinian men. For the first time in Arabian history, men feel that they gain security from a working woman. They see a working woman as an investment for the future and a source of security for the family.
This is not the first time that women who live in the cities have been seen as a source of economic security, however. Palestinian women have had to work since 1948 when the Palestinians were forced to leave their homeland, as the men were either dead or imprisoned. As I pointed out in a previous article, even in villages and rural areas, Palestinian women have started to question their ability to be independent and breadwinners for their families and to demand their independence and rights. Occupation, perhaps, gives Palestinian women the feeling and reality of being equal partners in the ongoing struggle. Also, cities have different religious groups, universities, and governmental organizations that give urban women a chance to interact more with their surrounding environments and participate in the economic machine.
Women in rural areas, who are typically the breadwinners of their families, suffer more economic insecurity than women living in the cities. In rural areas, people view women as baby machines. Families need more children to help work in the fields, and, in the eyes of Arab society, the bigger the family, the greater its wealth and pride. Women are supposed to take care of the children and the house. Contrary to their downtrodden image, however, Palestinian women are the economic engines of their families. They are the ones who take care of the poultry and crops, then collect them and trade them using a donkey and cart. The dignity and independence of women in Palestinian society sometimes reaches an extreme level. Jamila, a woman in her thirties, decided to work as a manual worker carrying cement rather than asking charity NGOs and governmental institutions to feed her kids and take care of her father.
Also, considering the hardship, poverty, unhealthy environment, and political unrest, conservative Palestinian society has put in place informal guidelines to manage women in the workforce. Societal institutions often accept rural women working as teachers, nurses, and doctors; but they sometimes reject women working in offices where men and women interact on a daily basis. Nowadays, economic hardships have limited the opportunities for women to pursue university education; therefore, rural societies have had to accept women working in offices as secretaries, engineers in the fields, or even as police. What is needed are innovative ways to integrate women living in rural areas into the whole macro economy. Such opportunities must take into consideration in the abilities of rural women and their conservative society, culture, and traditions.
Moreover, geography plays a decisive role in the urban-rural economic gap. In cities, families send their girls to university and help their daughters’ families. In contrast, in rural areas, families need women to marry, have babies, and build a family. Rural families cannot afford to send their girls to universities—but they do send the boys. Before asking for equality between men and women, equality among women themselves must be realized. Such parity will only be achieved through equal educational opportunities and awareness of education as a weapon of mass development for women.
Strangely, women in Palestinian society played a major role in the economy in the past, at a time when only one or two universities existed. Now that there are more than fifteen Palestinian universities, women play a much less significant role in the economy. I believe that the Palestinian economy in particular, and the Arabic economy in general, will achieve major advancement if and only if Arab women in rural and urban areas have equal opportunities.