Note: This version of this article was published on October 30, 2012, on the Common Ground News Service.
Abeer Abu Ghaith, a poised young woman overflowing with optimism, works tirelessly to help Palestinian women achieve their dreams and improve their lives. She is just one of many women who are finding creative ways to overcome the restrictions Palestinians face in finding work and starting a business.
Abu Ghaith, herself Palestinian, knows first hand how hard it is for women to succeed in the job market. Even with a degree in computer systems engineering, she had difficulty breaking into the overwhelmingly male field, and therefore turned her attention to empowering women and youth through information and communications technology (ICT) and social media.
Now, as country officer for the regional network, the Active Leaders for Women’s Advancement in the Near East (ALWANE) Coalition, she is leading a campaign to increase women’s representation in decision-making positions in the public sector. Her work includes several efforts to support women’s employment and entrepreneurship by increasing opportunities for women to work from home, growing women’s internet and computer literacy, and improving internet infrastructure in rural areas.
Discussions about Arab women in US media and policy circles tends to focus on cultural restrictions to their participation in public life, and non-profit and government programmes often seek ways to change cultural attitudes. But Abu Ghaith demonstrates that it may be more productive to focus first on the wider social, political and economic realities that affect both men and women.
The conditions in the West Bank add particular challenges and restrictions for Palestinian men and women alike. Bureaucratic delays and restrictions on imports and exports on the border with Israel mean that businesses lose time and revenue. The Palestinian market is too small to absorb all Palestinian university graduates. Difficulty navigating the hundreds of checkpoints that prevent movement from one area to another, compounded by the fact that few quality jobs are available outside of urban centers like Ramallah, is a significant challenge to men and women who need work but can’t travel.
The problems Abu Ghaith aims to address, such as obstacles to mobility and the limited job market, are not specific to women. Solving them, however, will have a significant and positive impact on women’s lives.
The challenge of traveling for work becomes even more daunting for women because of social norms that limit their mobility even further. And laws based on a narrow interpretation of Islam regarding divorce, inheritance, and other matters that affect women’s personal and financial lives limit their ability to raise the capital to start a business.
Rather than theorise about the cultural obstacles for women who want to work, Abu Ghaith’s work focuses on solving practical problems, such as mobility, so women can earn incomes and prove the value of their work to their communities.
Abu Ghaith’s solution involves working with businesses to set up opportunities for remote employment through the 5aleek Online initiative. It seeks to expand the Palestinian market by connecting local, regional and international employers with local individuals.
Simultaneously, she is seeking to increase access to internet and computer literacy so that women from villages can work for a company in Ramallah 50 miles away, even if they cannot physically travel there. It’s a creative solution that finds a practical way to give Palestinian women access to work.
Abu Ghaith is also running an awareness campaign that involves recording and publicising the stories of successful Palestinian businesswomen who are creating change in their communities. Highlighting the stories of women who have already created opportunities for themselves, the campaign inspires young women to get involved in business and entrepreneurship, and increases social acceptance of women in business.
Abu Ghaith includes Palestinian men in the ALWANE-Palestine committee, garnering support from influential men as well as women for ALWANE’s campaigns.
According to Abu Ghaith, women and youth are the key to political and economic development in Palestine and the region. Give them to tools they need to succeed, and they’ll take it from there.