Forced to take over

The hardships for the 1.6 million Palestinians brought about by the Israeli blockade of Gaza are leaving an even greater toll for women, who have had to take on new, often thankless, roles within their families and communities. As the neighbouring countries witness new challenges and opportunities for women in the wake of the Arab spring, Gaza’s women seem to be trapped in a bleak and endless autumn.

Naima Abu Shawareb wakes up to the sound of dripping rain making it through the flimsy asbestos ceiling in her tiny, bare abode in Al Shaati refugee camp.

The 40-year-old mother of four young children fears the worst, as the grey clouds fill the early morning sky and promise a relentless downpour that risks flooding yet again their little dwelling.

She hurries up to collect as many buckets as possible to make sure the floor remains dry and save the little furniture she has. Her husband is still asleep, and he’ll stay asleep for a good part of the day, sedated by drugs and his mind completely elsewhere. Dejected and unemployed, he is suffering from a paralysing depression.

“Before 2007, I worked in my brother's sewing factory,” Naima says. “I'm no professional, but I consider myself to be quite good with a sewing machine. My husband, a tailor by trade, also worked in a sewing factory located in the Erez Industrial Zone in the north of Gaza. There he made about 100 shekels (20 Euros/27 US$) per day. With the onset of the closure, he stopped receiving permits to enter the industrial zone and we soon understood that the intention was to close the whole area. That's eventually what happened”.





After finding himself unemployed overnight, her husband started working as a porter and for a time he also collected gravel and other construction material for sale to factories for recycling, making not more than 40 shekels a day.



“We were forced to ask help from family – sometimes my brothers, sometimes his,” Naima says. “I believe it was the stress of these hard times that made my husband fall ill in 2009. Since then it’s been impossible for him to find work. I’ve become the sole support of our family, doing odd jobs as they come.”Naima’s experience is shared by thousands of other Palestinian women in Gaza whom the blockade has forced to take over, while men used to the culture of being family leaders get more withdrawn in the face of helplessness. This is leaving women making important family decisions on their own, while also forcing young girls to abandon dreams of furthering their studies and developing.

An economic security and rights study of Gazan women carried out by UN Women last year observed that women were forced to assume new economic roles and dynamically came to employ a large variety of coping strategies to bridge their households’ loss of income.

“In this process of responding to protracted crisis, normative gender roles and expectations between men and women have become increasingly unsustainable,” the study called “Who answers to Gazan women?” notes. “The dominant family model of male breadwinners and their dependent housewives no longer represents the reality in the majority of Gazan households. In this context, increasing numbers of women express criticism of the growing gap between their greater economic responsibilities and their still limited economic rights.”





Women’s disadvantage in Gaza’s extremely restricted labour market is longstanding and marked by their segregation from most areas of economic activity, the study adds, leading to women’s unemployment rates reaching as high as 45% in 2009. Women’s education also faces unequalled hurdles under the everyday life of the blockade, with their educational aspirations taking the sidelines.







Young women’s access to university often depends on them finding scholarships and financial aid, as parents continue to prioritise sons’ higher education. Incidentally, even though girls score highest in school grades and with a great portion of them pursuing university education, they are the first to forfeit the careers they studied for to make time for family – although even such attitudes, with Gaza’s low employment opportunities – are changing towards a more pragmatic approach.




Added to these hardships, Gaza’s strongly traditional and conservative society continues to tip the balance against women, where honour killings are still treated leniently and domestic violence – which psychiatrists attribute largely to the mass scale psychological effects of the occupation, the conflict and the blockade – rampant. The UN study however reassuringly finds that a lot of Palestinian women were aware of their rights.

Be that as it may, Palestinian women keep defying stereotypes not necessarily out of choice, but in a combination of circumstances that keep testing their very own survival. Their resilience can be best symbolised with the latest name added to the list of Palestinian heroines of freedom and civil disobediences, that of Hana Shalabi, the 29-year-old from Jenin who staged a 43-day hunger strike while in Israeli administrative detention without charge, leading to her release and transfer to Gaza.

Hundreds of other Palestinian prisoners are now following in Shalabi’s footsteps and those of Khader Adnan who first went on hunger strike earlier this year. It is a stark reminder of people’s power, beyond the slogans and party banners, that can has yet to liberate Palestinian women and men together.






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