Willow Heske

Willow Heske (Democracy and Workers’ Rights Center – DWRC): Willow graduated from Rutgers University-Newark with a BA in history. As the daughter of two union workers, Willow strongly believes that labor organizations play a crucial role in forming modern democracies and that unions can provide an important first step towards socio-economic development. At the time of her fellowship, Willow was pursuing a Master’s degree in International Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Her concentration was on international security policy with a focus on conflict resolution and modern state formation in Africa and the Middle East. She was also studying the Arabic language.


17 Aug

In keeping with the spirit of Hannah‘s blog this week, and with the video we made about Rema Khawaja and the Ni’lin Women’s Demonstration, I have decided to focus this blog on women workers, and to give you some insights about gender and the labor market here.

One of the things I respect so much about DWRC is their dedication to gender equity. DWRC places a special emphasis on building and recruiting women’s leadership at all levels of the labor movement, but especially at the top levels of union organizing, which is where the majority of decisions effecting women workers would be made. DWRC also holds regular training sessions for trade unions where women’s participation must be at least 30%. Additionally, DWRC encourages women to speak out at training seminars, and holds special classes to educate women workers about their rights, so that they can be more effective and confident when addressing conflicts in the workplace.

Traditionally, trade unions are dominated by men, but DWRC is doing great work to challenge this space. Even the most progressive and socially conscious trade unions world-wide still operate under a pretense of collective fraternity and brotherhood. It’s hard to change this, and while one can argue that this is just an issue of semantics, the language alone still marks a distinct order that women do not belong to, and whether it is intentional or not, the language creates an immediate space that is inaccessible to women.

Of course, it is so much more complicated than language alone. Access to equality for women in the workplace is not just about the words we choose to describe a collection of workers, its not just about the language of the legislation that does or does not protect women’s rights. Usually, it is more about what is unwritten and what is unsaid. It is about a social structure that exists world-wide where women are not raised to be leaders, where they are not encouraged to speak up and speak out, where they are not encouraged to be decision makers.

This problem is not specific to Palestine, but throughout the Arab region we in the West tend to have a negative view of the possibility for women’s leadership to occur here, we project our own concept of freedom and rights and from this view we assume that women here have no choices, no opportunities.

In some ways this is too true; but there are not a lot of choices or opportunities for Palestinians in general, and so of course this will negatively effect choices and opportunities for women and girls.

But this is also completely contrary to what I see here, because here in Palestine I see a real opportunity for women’s leadership to emerge. Conflict creates the space for change, it creates a context where new ideas and movements emerge, where new norms can be born, and can be embraced.

In Palestine more and more women are working as a result of the occupation. The Israeli crackdown on work permits for Palestinians, coupled with the rising consumer price index (in Palestine, prices of basic goods rose over 10% from 2007 to 2008) and high levels of chronic underemployment have forced more and more women to go out and work. True, the majority of these women are working in agriculture or in the informal sector, but the point is they are working, which provides the perfect opportunity to organize them.

Moreover, when a woman works to contribute to her household’s needs, there is an opportunity for her to become a more active decision maker in her family’s future, there is a form of empowerment, of equality taking place, even if it so small that we don’t immediately recognize it, it exists and it is something that can grow, that can evolve.

For herself, she may not have the opportunity to go back to school, she may not have the life that she wanted, that she would have choose for herself, but she may encourage her daughters to have their own life, she may think twice about the opportunities they can have, and as a contributor to the family’s income, she might feel more comfortable speaking up when it comes to the future of her own daughters.

And for her sons, without consciously trying, she is already showing them the importance of women’s work. Something may change in them, in her sons, something can change that will effect their future decisions about how they treat and respect their own wife, their own daughters, and what kind of future they would want them to have.

But, of course, I am being optimistic, of course, there are still problems.

Women in Palestine already make the majority of university graduates, but women’s participation in the formal labor force is just 14%.

Rising levels of unemployment and poverty (compounded by policies of occupation) are the primary culprits. World-wide in times of recession women are the first fired and last hired, and Palestine is no exception.

Working women here also face the same discrimination that working women everywhere face, and I will be the first to admit that here, this discrimination is compounded by cultural barriers that keep women close to their family home.

If a woman lives in Ramallah, then there are many local opportunities for her to engage in professional work, but if she lives in Nablus or Jenin, she would have to travel two, maybe three hours one way to Ramallah, she would have to pass through at least two checkpoints where she may be physically or verbally abused by Israeli soldiers, and she would probably spend a long time each day just sitting at the side of the road, waiting for the approval to let the bus she is traveling in go.

Beyond the cultural norms regarding women working outside the home, most families don’t want their daughters exposed to this kind of emotional and psychological violence, and I can’t say I blame them.

But on top of this, there are also structural restrictions regarding women’s work, which stem from the institutionalization of cultural norms. Article 101 of Section 7 of the Palestinian Labor Law prohibits women from performing “hazardous or hard works.”

Article 101 of Section 7 also prohibits women from working at night, or working overtime hours during any stage of a pregnancy. Although article 103 and 104 of Section 7 guarantee women a ten-week, fully paid maternity leave, and provide further protection against any dismissal based on this leave, women in the Palestinian private sector routinely complain about being arbitrarily dismissed once they have announced a pregnancy, and there have been studies conducted confirming their complaints in the private Palestinian banking sector.

And like almost everywhere else in the world, working women in Palestine receive a lower wage for the same work done. On average, women working in the West Bank make only 65% of their male counterparts salary. But in Gaza, women make 77% of their male counterparts salary. Why? BecauseHamas has actually embraced an equal pay for equal work scheme, and has actively recruited women to work in all sorts of public sectors, including as police officers.

Of course, the situation of women and of women’s rights and freedoms is complicated here, and cannot be measured in terms of equal pay, nor should it be measured just by women’s participation rates in the workforce. There are mechanisms and motives behind every action regarding the rights of women and women’s work here, in Gaza and in the West Bank, from Fatah to Hamas.

What we should keep in mind is at the end of the day whatever work women do here they should be contributing to the decision to do it. They should be encouraged to be leaders whether in the office or in the home, to contribute intellectually to the work they do, their opinions should matter, they should be listened to, and their contributions should be respected equally.

Can this happen in Palestine? I believe it can and in my office here in Palestine it already does happen. But beyond this, on a wider-scale I see a space for respect and collaboration between men and women to evolve.

And I think that on some level these kinds of relationships, the collaboration between men and women here, the level of respect between men and women here has always existed. It may at first appear as if there are vast cultural norms that cut equality short, and in some respects I agree, but I also think that equality may just be operating on a different level then it does at home, and we can’t expect things to be exactly the same.

Already, in the time I have been here, I have met incredible women from all walks of Palestinian life. Women who are true leaders, who raise their children to be leaders. Women who are speaking up and speaking out about all kinds of issues, women who are not afraid to tell you what they think, and who are telling you what women here really want, which is sometimes incredibly different from what I, as a woman, want.

***To get the true feeling of Palestinian women at work, please watch the videos Hannah and I made about the women’s demonstration in Ni’lin

Posted By Willow Heske

Posted Aug 17th, 2014

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