Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Women’s cooperatives provide support and income for Palestinian women

Juicebox Gallery

By Claire Matsunami - April 30, 2014
Section: [Main News] [Culture]
Tags: [culture] [women‘s rights] [Dheisheh refugee camp] [Qalandia Refugee Camp] [Hebron]

Staggeringly high rates of unemployment, imprisonment, critical injury, and death at the hands of Israeli armed forces have rendered many men unable to provide for their families.  As of January this year, according to Palestinian prisoner support and human rights association Addameer, there were 4,852 adult Palestinian males in Israeli prisons.  
As more men are unable to participate in the workforce, increasing pressure is put on women to produce income. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, between 2009-2011 the average poverty rate in the West Bank was 17.8%.   However, in traditional Palestinian culture, women are typically still expected to be the primary care-giver and household supervisor.  In more conservative families, women are sometimes not permitted to leave the house for work. Thus, finding a job outside the home is simply not a realistic option for many women.  The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics also reported that in 2013 participation of men in the labor force was four times higher than the participation of women. 
At the Idna Women’s Cooperative, made up of over 120 women from 8 villages around Hebron, women are provided free materials to complete embroidery projects at home.  The women are paid for their finished projects, allowing them to continue to maintain their household while also earning money on the side by doing traditional Palestinian embroidery.  
“I know our culture.  I know how they think. The most important thing for me is to teach these women to be independent, but you cannot make the women work away from home,” said Nawwal Slemiah, founder of the Idna Women’s Cooperative. According to Slemiah, her efforts at empowering women do not equate to forcing them out of their homes.  
One of the workers at Idna, Buthaina, is the daughter of a very restrictive father.  She spoke with the Palestine Monitor about her journey with the cooperative. “Before coming to the cooperative, I sat at home all the time, unmarried, with nothing to do,” Buthaina said. Her father married a second wife and effectively left her mother—his first wife—in failing health and with no financial support. 
She then met Nawwal, who at that point was running the co-op out of her home. Working at the co-op “made me feel good, confident. I was able to provide for my family, to pay my mother’s medical bills,” said Buthaina.
A culturally compatible income
The Qalandia Women’s Center in the Qalandia Refugee Camp just outside of Ramallah has a similar embroidery project, but they also have started a kitchen program through which they provide cooking lessons and make food for many events in the camp.   
According Moyassam Em Ala’a, who voluntarily runs the center, this exchange works especially well because work such as embroidery and cooking do not require any specialized training—they are skills taught to most Palestinian women from a young age.  She explained that “women used to do all of this in their homes, but now we give them a chance to be paid.” And while sometimes the income earned from the cooperative’s projects is nominal, Moyassam said, “something is better than nothing.” 
Wafa Khatib, cofounder of The Aseela Women’s Cooperative in Bethlehem, was a nurse in Jerusalem before she lost her job.  Since the Second Intifada, restrictions on movement due to numerous check-points, the Separation Barrier, Israeli-only roads, and ID’s that prohibit travel outside the West Bank have made it incredibly difficult for individuals to find and maintain employment. The most recent report by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reveals that in 2013 the unemployment rate in Palestine was 23%, translating to approximately 270,000 people without jobs. 
Khatib found it frustrating to sit at home with little to do, so she collaborated with 14 other women in and around the Deheishe refugee camp to start the cooperative as a means for the women to earn money as well as get out of the house. Today, the collective of about 20 women make and sell olive oil soaps in Bethlehem.  The cooperative was an idea for women to earn a profit while also fostering traditional Palestinian culture; using soap making techniques that Palestinian olive farmers have used for generations.  
The group insists on using oil bought from Palestinian olive farmers. “We wanted to use Palestinian olive oil. Most of the famous soap factories in Nablus use cheaper oil imported from Spain or Italy. It has become a challenge for Palestinian farmers to market their oil,” said Khatib. The different ingredients they use to enhance their soaps are also fairly traded and locally sourced. They also embroider hand towels from a struggling Palestinian factory to sell with soap.  
Empowerment and community building
In Qalandia, Moyassem Em Ala’a explains that the most important function of the center is that it provides a community and a sense of purpose to help women cope with the harsh realities of daily life as a Palestinian refugee. She points out that, “it is hard enough to be a refugee. We are refugees under occupation in our own land.”  She estimates that around 50 men from Qalandia are currently in Israeli detention facilities, but she points out that it is difficult to give exact numbers because many men are constantly in an out of prison, and new arrests occur frequently.
She also notes that the high rates of unemployment and poverty in Palestine often lead to familial strife, with increasing rates of domestic abuse and divorce. The center in Qalandia offers access to a free social worker, as well as a safe space for women to gather,  “to talk with each other, so they aren’t alone.” 
Wafa Khatib says the Aseela Women’s Cooperative often struggles to make a profit due to the lack of a sufficient market for their products. However, she explains the cooperative still serves an important purpose by giving the women a project and something concrete to work on, “it is very hard for a women to do nothing and not share in the burden when her family is struggling and suffering.” 
At Idna, Nawwal Slemiah reiterates this sentiment, saying that even if a woman is only making a small amount from her work, “these women need help, they want to be independent and feel they have a voice.  If they bring money home they feel they have a voice and that someone listens to their opinion.” 
Buthaina is living evidence of these words. Before working at the cooperative her father barely allowed her to leave the house. Now she is a full-time salaried employee, and Nawwal hopes she will one day run the cooperative herself. Last year, she even got the opportunity to travel to Italy with the business, and was overjoyed to be able to share Palestinian culture with the world. “I feel so good when people notice our work!” said Buthaina enthusiastically. “It is our heritage, our culture!”


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