According to the United Nations' Arab Human Development Report of 2005, the situation for women in the Arab world has changed substantially in recent decades. But as far as working life is concerned, improvement has been limited. From 1990 to 2003, women's share in economic activity increased by 19 % in the Arab region, which was a sharper rise than in any other region in the world. Nonetheless, Arab women's economic participation remained the lowest in the world, with just a third of women aged over 15 in gainful employment.
The Arab world may burnish its image in the international community by talking up the rise in female economic involvement. In reality, however, the prospects for women remain modest.
In many Arab countries, women are less educated than men. Certainly, women have made great progress in recent years and achieved a better standard of education: female literacy rose from just 35 % in 1990 to nearly 50 % in 2000. Over the same period, however, male literacy improved, from 63.5 % to 71 %.
The figures clearly document the inequality of opportunity for men and women across the Arab world. But huge differences also exist between one Arab country and another – in terms of education, employment, legislation and cultural environment. So it makes sense to single out a country for closer scrutiny. The focus here is on Palestine where I come from.
Few opportunities for educated women
Education paves the way for change and is held in high regard by Palestinians, so Palestinian women tend to be well educated. In the academic year 2010/2011, girls accounted for around half of all students enrolled at Palestinian schools, making up 49.5 % of the primary school population and 54.2 % of secondary school students. Last year's statistics show an even stronger female presence in higher education, where 57.2 % of students were young women. Among graduates, too, women form a clear majority – around 60 % in the academic year 2008/2009.
The figures reveal that the percentage of female students rises with the level of education. One of the reasons is that many men go abroad to study while women tend to stay at local universities. However, there is also marked difference in the subjects male and female students choose. Although Palestinian women have massively improved their levels of education in recent years, they still tend to focus on teaching, the humanities and social sciences, which are traditionally considered appropriate for women. This gender-based split is already evident in the courses chosen at secondary schools.
Development professionals like to emphasise the economic importance of women's education. In Palestine, this does not necessarily apply. Although Palestinian women perform better at school and university, men outnumber them in working life by more than four to one. In 2010, 41 % of those over the age of 15 were in gainful employment across the Palestinian territories – 67 % of men and 15 % of women.
Paradoxically, unemployment among Palestinian women increases with the level of their education. In 2010, 36.3 % of women with more than 13 years of education were registered as unemployed; in the case of women with no education at all, the figure was just 1.5 %. A woman's job opportunities are thus obviously diminished, not enhanced, by education and training.
As a result, many women with higher-education degrees accept jobs that are below their level of qualification. At the time of writing, female graduates in Gaza were digging wells for farmers in order to make ends meet. Talented young women file away their certificates, and go to work in the fields at the crack of dawn. They know they have no chance of working as academics, but they can contribute to the household income as unskilled day-labourers.
Women who do manage to succeed in the job market work mostly in traditional female occupations like education (34.7 %), farming, forestry, hunting and fishing (20.5 %) and healthcare (9.4 %). But even in these areas, they tend to be in the more lowly positions. In healthcare, for instance, women account for more than half of the nursing staff, but only for around 14 % of the doctors.
Inequality is also reflected in pay. From the service sector to the public sector and private enterprise, men receive higher wages and salaries than their female colleagues with the same qualifications. This, of course, is not a specifically Arab or Palestinian problem. But in a country like Palestine, it means that households headed by women are particularly likely to be poor.
Women's prospects in working life are really not rosy. Even so, Palestinian women have achieved great changes in recent years. For one thing, their efforts have helped influence legislation. Article 25 of the Palestinian Basic Law, the national constitution, includes a formal guarantee of equality in job opportunities for men and women. As we know from other countries, however, theory and practice are often worlds apart.
Women who enter the work force face some very fundamental cultural hurdles. To start with, society still tends to view work for women as just a financial necessity, whereas the majority of women see it as a chance for self-fulfilment. Other cultural barriers are not immediately apparent. They are subtle, insidious and disguised – and as my own personal experience has shown, they can sometimes be quite absurd.
"I won't become a toothless tiger"
I returned to my Palestinian home in 1995 after studying in Germany. It was the dawn of a new political era and I wanted to help build the new Palestine. I even passed up the chance of a PhD scholarship because I felt that Palestine needed me more than I needed a doctorate. That belief was reinforced by the fact that, even before I returned, I was offered a job as the head of adult education programmes at the International Centre in Bethlehem.
Back then, the Centre was a young institution with only two people on the payroll. My colleague in the women's department had also studied abroad and returned to Palestine to take up the job. The Centre set out to recruit talented young people – especially women – and sought to persuade female graduates who had studied abroad to come home. Even today, the Centre employs far more women than men, also at the managerial level. It has also developed lots of training programmes for women, to improve their opportunities in the job market.
For me, as a young graduate, the job was a chance to put my ideas into practice and to shoulder responsibility. A few months later, more women joined the team and the Centre expanded. We worked long hours, often till well after dark – not because we had to, but because we saw the Centre as our home. I remember that when the gallery opened, everyone of us, men and women, all with university degrees, worked till late at night, cleaning the rooms so that the opening would be a success.
The very same year, I was approached by the Lutheran Church in Jordan and Palestine and offered the newly created post of deputy schools' director. Although I did not want to leave the Centre, colleagues there encouraged me to accept the offer because it was a platform for initiating change. I took up the post at the end of 1995, but remained responsible for adult education activities at the Centre on a part-time basis.
The new job presented lots of challenges. I was a young woman, not yet 26 years old, and had to make school visits and conduct inspections. Sometimes I even had to assess teachers who had earlier taught me. On my first visit to the school where I had been a student, I was regarded with scepticism by a number of teachers. The tension in the room was palpable – until one of my old teachers, then in his late fifties, stood up and said he was proud that one of his students had attained such a high position. He invited me to conduct my first inspection in his classroom – at which point everyone started to clap and congratulate me. As I was later to discover, that positive sort of reception was the exception, not the rule.
Three years later, the schools' director retired. As his deputy, I was the natural candidate to succeed. A heated debate erupted, but it did not centre on my qualifications, my experience or even my age. It was basically about me being a woman. The position had always been held by a man, and there was serious resistance to the idea of a female appointee. At that time, every school principal I would have supervised in the new position was male.
In the end, a so-called compromise was agreed. The title and powers conferred by the position were significantly scaled down. The job could thus be offered to a woman. I did not need to think long before I turned the offer down. I had no intention of becoming a toothless tiger. I resigned and returned to my work at the Centre full-time.
But there were no candidates better qualified for the job, so the position remained unfilled for a couple of months. Then, after lengthy consultation, a new compromise was reached. The job was offered to me again, this time with full powers and title, but without an official car. That was a compromise I could accept.
In December 1998, I became the first and youngest female schools' director in Palestine. I had to attend many official functions and was generally the only woman among lots of men. After almost every event, there were discussions and criticism – not because of my pedagogical views or administrative skills but because of how I dressed. After a few such occasions, I restocked my wardrobe. It is astonishing how important titles, cars and clothes become when women are concerned.
That was my introduction to working life and my story is by no means exceptional. Many of the obstacles Arab women face in the employment market have nothing to do with their level of education or with a shortage of jobs; they are culturally based obstacles – which are a great deal harder to overcome than any other kind.
© Development and Cooperation 2011
Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp