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For Gaza's working women, glass ceilings aren't the only problem

Gaza’s working women earn 25 percent more, on average, than their male counterparts, according to a new report. Why are they still trapped under a ‘concrete’ ceiling?

Erez Crossing, Gaza-Israel border (Activestills)

A Palestinian woman at the Israeli-controlled Erez Crossing, the only active crossing in and out of the Gaza Strip. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

When 53-year-old Clara Zetkin put forth the idea for an International Women’s Day, she was one of 100 or so delegates at the second International Conference of Working Women, its participating “unions, socialist parties, [and] working women’s clubs” gathered in Copenhagen, in the late summer of 1910, to call for universal suffrage and health insurance—including maternity leave for working mothers.

If their platform seemed radical for the time, it was no more so than Zetkin’s prior writings, many of which have been catalogued by the appropriately named Marxist Internet Archive. In these, the German socialist extols the “growing class struggle” from Egypt to India while condemning “the miseries and injustices capitalist exploitation and political rightlessness bestow on the working-class women” of these countries.

Given its origins, it’s not difficult to see how the founding themes of International Women’s Day would resonate with the working women of Gaza, their lives made “rightless” by what the Israeli advocacy organization Gisha, in a report published today, calls a “concrete ceiling.”

The report, according to a statement released by Gisha spokesperson Shai Grunberg, “focuses on women who managed to break through the glass ceiling only to be met by the concrete ceiling of the Israeli-imposed closure.” To illustrate the point, the authors profile six such women, each of whom works in “professional fields previously considered predominantly ‘masculine,’ such as banking, investment and management.”

Read the full report: The Concrete Ceiling

That they have broken through “the glass ceiling” so often restricting those professions to men is as much a testament to their perseverance and skill as it is a symptom of the Israeli closure, according to Gisha, which dubs itself the “legal center for freedom of movement.”

That’s because Israel’s policies, which severely restrict the movement of people and goods to and from the West Bank, have all but obliterated Gaza’s fishing and agriculture sectors, both of which have lost access to traditional Palestinian markets in the neighboring territory.

And with Gaza’s mostly male laborers unable to access work in Israel or the West Bank, they have turned to what’s left of these sectors, squeezing out the majority of women who used to work in them. According to Gisha, women working in fishing and agriculture represented just 2.8 percent of those sectors’ workforce in 2016—down from 36 percent in 2007.

Those who are employed tend to work in what Gisha calls the “service sector,” including as teachers and nurses. In fact, some 85 percent of the female workforce is employed in these professions, making women higher earners, on average, than men. The report estimates that the average daily wage for women is about 25 percent higher than that of men, a statistic that would seem to indicate that Gaza’s working women had blasted through their economy’s glass ceiling.

But those numbers only tell part of the story.

For one thing, unemployment across the board has skyrocketed since Israel’s near-total closure of Gaza took hold more than a decade ago. Among women alone, the number “able to work and looking for employment” has increased by 200 percent in that time period.

But even for those who have found work or established their own enterprises, their ability to generate enough income to sustain themselves and their families—in an environment where the closure has left 70 percent of the population reliant on humanitarian aid—is blocked by another ceiling, this one made of the concrete at Israel’s tightly controlled crossing points.

The problem, say the Gisha report’s authors, is that Israel’s policy on movement between Gaza and the West Bank or Israel is based on goods, not people. Exit permits go to Palestinian “traders” selling Israeli-approved products—such as scrap metal —for sale outside the territory. Given the predominance of men among these “industrialists,” women hold only 53 of the 2,348 such permits, according to numbers obtained by Gisha through a Freedom of Information Application.

All of which leaves women like Hiba al-Tamimi, a senior director at a Gaza IT company and one of the six interviewed in the Gisha report, unable to leave the 25-mile-long strip, sequestering her from her clients and denying her the opportunity to cultivate new ones. That, al-Tamimi says, shows how Israel’s closure policy is undoing the progress she’s made as a woman in a predominantly male job market:

The right to be a businesswoman from Gaza is not self- evident. It takes a lot of hard work on my part because I can’t leave Gaza. Why is it that most of the merchants who do exit are men, while many women try to get exit permits and trader permits but their applications are refused?

The answer may have more to do with Israel’s collective restrictions on Gaza than on a deliberate campaign to restrict women’s advancement there. As the authors of “The Concrete Ceiling” note, “[g]ender equality was probably never foremost on the minds of those responsible for Israel’s policy toward Gaza residents.” But were she alive on this International Women’s Day, Clara Zetkin would surely scorn the distinction.

More to the point, Israelis and their supporters should, too. According to a recent poll, also commissioned by Gisha, 67 percent of Israelis believe their government’s policies toward Gaza have made their country less secure—a New York Times op-ed from today notwithstanding.

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    1. i_like_ike52

      It is truly frustrating time and again to confront falsehoods like we see here that the problems in Gaza stem from Israel’s tight control of access in and out, and thus HAMAS has no choice to make wars from time and again, fire rockets and build attack tunnels (all of which cost a lot of money) in order to supposedly improve the economic situation in the Gaza Strip. Truly bizarre. Do even “progressives” think that Israel imposed these restrictions for the fun of it? If people are suffering economically in Gaza, there is one address for the blame…THE HAMAS REGIME.
      I am certain that were the IDF to reenter the Strip and oust the HAMAS regime, the majority of the population there would view them as LIBERATORS, at least for a couple of days. I mean this sincerely.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        ​Do even “progressives” think that Israel imposed these restrictions for the fun of it?

        Certainly not for fun, but for profit. There are all sorts of reasons Israel continues to run Gaza as an open air prison, including keeping the Palestinians weak and divided and economically crippled, and as collective punishment, but Shir Hever offers a compelling analysis of Gaza as a testing ground for Israeli military technology, a lucrative business. Israel is the largest per-capita weapons exporter in the world.

        “After the 2006 war against Lebanon, which was a humiliation for the Israeli army, the Israeli government sought to focus its aggression on the Gaza Strip. Gaza is small, contained and densely populated, and did not have the ability to defend itself in comparison to Hezbollah’s ability to defend Lebanon in 2006.
        Since then, a clear pattern emerged, according to which the Israeli army launches an attack against Gaza every 2 years. The army thus successfully avoided budget cuts, arm companies increased their profits, and by 2012 the Israeli weapons exports have reached a peak of US $ 7 billion.
        In the previous attack of November 2012 “operation Pillar of Defense,” the star of the show was the “Iron Dome” anti-rocket system. The Iron Dome missiles, which cost US $ 50-100 thousand each, intercepted the makeshift rockets from Gaza which cost little more than US $ 1,000 to make. Nevertheless, the system successfully allowed Israelis to continue in their daily routines while defenseless people in Gaza are killed at a whim, an achievement which seems attractive to many governments and armies around the world. Their demand for Israeli weapons depends on such asymmetrical warfare. The Hamas party in Gaza understands this fully well and tried to break the cycle. They offered a cease-fire at the very beginning of the Israeli attack, offering a 10-year cessation of attacks against Israel, in exchange for lifting the siege. This seemed to be what the Israeli government wanted. After all, Israeli justified the siege merely as a protective measure against Palestinian attacks, but Hamas knew that Israel would never accept their offer. The Israeli arms industry would lose its edge if it were to go 10 years without testing its weapons.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Lewis from Afula

      Well, Gaza’s women cannot blame Israel anymore. Any complaints they have, they should take Hamas to court. That is their once-voted-for (once being the operative word here) government.

      Reply to Comment