Op-ed: Palestinian Women Charting a New Future for the Region

By Dorothy Shea, American Deputy Consul General, Jerusalem

Advancing women’s rights has been a major challenge, even in America. It was not until 1848, more than 60 years after our nation’s founding, that the movement for women’s suffrage got underway in Seneca Falls, New York. And it would be another 70 years before the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, became enshrined in our constitution in 1920. While we continue to eliminate the remaining barriers for women in our own society, we have learned to embrace the notion that people everywhere, women and men alike, should have the opportunity to live up to their fullest potential. As we honor the achievements of women this month, we are reminded that our work with our Palestinian partners to change attitudes and end all forms of discrimination is ongoing.

It’s no secret that there are economically depressed areas in the West Bank and Gaza, and while many factors contribute to this, there is one that Palestinians are fully empowered to change – the inclusion of women more fully in the workplace. In the Middle East, Palestinian women enjoy one of the highest literacy rates, and there are more women than men in Palestinian universities. Yet, the workforce is only 19% female. Paradoxically, the highest levels of unemployment are among college educated women. If these communities are to prosper, Palestinians must clear out this backlog of talent and allow women to chart their own future and live their own lives.

As I have travelled in the West Bank, I have seen first-hand the transformative effect women can have in their communities when given the chance. I am proud that the American Consulate General does a lot of work on that. Take Ikhlas Sawalha Al Sholy from Aseera village near Nablus. Frustrated by low pay and the dearth of work opportunities for women, Ikhlas decided to start her own business producing and selling soap – SIBA Soap. Colleagues at the American Consulate first met Ikhlas two years ago and invited her along with 30 other businesswomen to learn marketing and business management with our partners at the Palestinian-American Chamber of Commerce. We also sent her to the NYC NOW Gift Show in January to exhibit her products and network with American distributors. Today, SIBA is selling soap in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Japan and employs 15 workers – mostly women – at the Jericho Industrial Park (JAIP). Thanks to Ikhlas’s tenacity and hard work – plus some US government assistance – she was able to stand up a business and create jobs in her community.

While exemplary Palestinian women like Ikhlas are starting to blaze a trail into the world of business, they still face disadvantages and prejudice. Every year the Secretary of State honors women around the globe with the International Women of Courage award. The award recognizes women who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for human rights, women’s equality, and social progress, often at great personal risk. This year the American Consulate General nominated Maysoon Al Qawasmeh, a tireless advocate for women’s rights, from her days volunteering in refugee camps in Jordan, to leading a women-only slate of candidates for municipal elections in Hebron in 2012. During her campaign, she was subjected to considerable criticism from many who told her she was “doing something that men do.” Maysoon stood her ground, and although she did not win the election, she received a large share of votes and directly challenged established perceptions of women in positions of political leadership in Hebron.

Quite simply, it no longer makes sense to exclude women from positions of power. Those who think that women holding good employment prevents men from getting jobs do not understand the basics of growing an economy. When women have jobs they typically invest in their families, leading to higher levels of education and greater success for the next generation. I was heartened to see that on International Women’s Day earlier this month President Abbas reiterated his commitment to strive for a gender-inclusive society. Looking at America’s journey towards social change, I hope, Mr. President, that day comes soon rather than later, and I am glad to lend our support to programs that work toward that end.