Today marks the halfway point of Lent. In the Anglican church, it’s ‘Mothering Sunday’—way back when, the one Sunday a year when people would return to their homes and home churches (thus visiting their mothers as well as ‘mother churches,’ according to the Diocese of Ely); now, a day to honor mothers. Mother’s Day was celebrated here in Palestine a week ago Friday (21 March). The Beit Sahour municipality handed out fancy wallets to the women in town, and the mothers in my Palestinian family received new clothes, jewelry, even a television. My upstairs neighbors held a big family dinner, and the men did at least some of the cooking. (As a side note, the table was, as usual for a Palestinian meal, crowded with numerous dishes, and yet everyone kept apologizing to me and asking if I was disappointed in the food – I finally figured out that there was no meat because of Lent, so they were worried that I would be dissatisfied and hungry! Needless to say, I was not.)
The Mother’s Day celebration reminded me of the celebrations for married daughters at the beginning of Advent. The local Christian families invited their daughters with their families back to the parents’ home for a big meal; there was singing in honor of the daughters, and they were given gifts. Similarly, International Women’s Day at the beginning of March was a government holiday, and women again received special gifts from the municipality. There are no equivalent celebrations for fathers or sons—they don’t keep Father’s Day here.
In some very obvious ways, then, women are valued and honored in local culture. Women are present in society as shopkeepers and shoppers, working in and managing restaurants, on television and online. Every pharmacy I’ve been in has been wholly staffed by women (okay, I’ve only been in three pharmacies, so it’s not a great sample size!), and my gym is run by women, for women. There are women on the Palestinian police force. There are a number of businesses run by women for the production and sale of handiwork made by women—traditional embroidery, pottery, jewelry. Seventy percent of the student body at Bethlehem University is female. The mayor of Bethlehem is a woman, and there are several women who serve as ministers in the Palestinian government.
When you dig a little deeper, though, it becomes evident that the visibility of women masks their marginality in society, politics, the economy, and the family. 70% of the student body at the university is female because families prefer to send their sons abroad. According to recent data from the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics (for 2013), only 17% of women are in the workforce (compared to an international average of 52%, according to UN report ST/ESA/STAT/SER.K/19), and for every shekel earned by a man, women earn only eighty cents (agarot). The majority of women in the workforce hold lower ranking jobs—secretaries instead of professors, shop attendants instead of business owners; only 13% of the doctors in the West Bank are women, for instance, but 59% of jobs in the service industry are held by women. 35% of women were unemployed last year (compared to 20% of men); among women with at least some college education, the unemployment rate skyrocketed to 47% (reflecting the wider availability of work for women in the service industry, I would suspect).
Women on average spend about six hours a day cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, compared to less than two hours for men. In 2012, as reported in AI Monitor, 37% of married women experienced domestic abuse in Palestine (51% in Gaza alone)—and those statistics are based on the number of women who report abuse, but not everyone does. The police spokesperson in Gaza claims the police force “refrains from publishing statistics about the number of women who file complaints against their husbands, as well as the number of those subjected to violence, so as not to encourage more women to speak up, as it is not socially acceptable.” Even more alarmingly, there has been a surge of violence against women over the past two years (according to Al Jazeera): in 2011, five women in Palestine died as a result of ‘honor killing’; in 2012, thirteen women died; in 2013, twenty-six women died; so far in 2014, eight women have been killed by family members for offenses against ‘honor.’
A few comments from students in the lectures I’ve given at the university this spring reflect the realities of these statistics. One lecture addressed the history of feminism in the United States and its effects on society, including women in the workforce. One male student questioned the necessity for women to work. He said he wanted to be the provider for the family; his future wife certainly could work if she wanted to, but her wages would be for her own use only (to buy clothes, or special treats). His salary would support the household. I had the sense that this student thought his plan should be praised—he values women so highly that he would not want his wife to be forced to work. But actually, his plan turns his future wife into an ornament; she will not be an important or essential member of the household. (None of the women in the class greeted his plan with any enthusiasm.) The limitation of women to low-paying, low-ranking jobs across Palestine likewise limits their power and influence in society and the family.
Another lecture was on the family in America today. Several of the students had done study abroad programs in the States in high school (and I’d imagine most of them have family members in America). One woman had stayed with three different families during her study abroad year—all of them headed by single mothers with multiple children, sometimes with different fathers. Based on her questions, I think she was still working through the ramifications of being a single mother. It’s not possible here. Women who get pregnant out of marriage may get married right away, like the high schooler in my neighborhood whose parents found out about her pregnancy on a Monday, and married her off by Friday. Alternatively, they might leave town to stay in convents who care for pregnant women or go abroad to stay with family members until the baby is born, and then give the baby to an orphanage. Adoption is not common here (partly by culture, and partly for religious reasons).
After class, the student told me she wants to change the system to make adoption more available—even for single women. She herself is not sure she wants to be married; I’ve heard the same from several university students and recent graduates (all women, though that may simply be a result of my own gender rather than reflective of a male-female divide). It’s quite difficult to be a single woman in Palestinian society, though; the cultural norm is marriage. The average age at marriage for women is twenty (twenty-four for men), and the rate of marriage for women under age 19 is still quite high at 45% (in 2012). Women who choose to remain single face a long struggle against social opinion and family expectation (there are no special celebrations for unmarried daughters or childless women).
I certainly don’t want to say that the situation is wholly oppressive or denigrating for women in Palestine. There are women who hold positions of power in society, even if they are few in number; women can be very important in the family, and they have the power to shape the future through their children (an opportunity the mothers in the university leadership program eagerly embrace). But there is still a long way to go, as the students realize. This Mothering Sunday, coincidentally the last Sunday of Women’s History Month, is a chance to remember all the women of Palestine—to honor those who have gone beyond the traditional expectations of society, those who thrive within the traditional expectations, and those who suffer from the constraints of tradition.