by Sarah Irving
Across the West Bank the sound of construction work seems incessant. The grind of diggers and the steady thud of pile drivers reverberate around cities like Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Nablus. The construction boom has been hailed by mainstream commentators like Bloomberg and Reuters, by the Palestinian Authority, and by the Israeli government as the sign of a resurgent West Bank economy.
But for ordinary women in the northern West Bank city of Nablus, there are costs and benefits to the changing economic situation. For Latifa Kayed, general manager of a Nablus-based travel agency, the current opening of the checkpoints surrounding Nablus and loosening of Israeli restrictions on travel in Palestine has brought benefits. Palestinian citizens of Israel, normally forbidden by Israeli law from entering Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, are being allowed to visit. “They come to buy things, everything,” she says. “It's expensive here for us, but it's much cheaper than Israel. They are doing something good for the city!” And, says Kayed, money – from Israeli shoppers and from jobs created by foreign aid and investment – is slowly trickling into the local economy.
Talking over sweets and drinks in Kayed's office, three ladies I have come to meet are ambivalent. “Things are better than they were a year, two years ago,” says Sahar, a seamstress who takes in mending and makes crocheted baby clothes. “But although I can sell more, everything is becoming so expensive.” Samar, who makes cookies for sale and prepares ready-made meals for families where both partners work, chips in saying, “the economy is better here, but life's getting worse, more expensive. The more you get, the more you have to spend.” Suheir, a hairdresser, agrees. “To get anywhere everyone needs an education now, but it is so expensive,” she says. “I have two at university and two in school. It's very hard.”
Sahar, Suheir, and Samar started their own small businesses during the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising that broke out in 2000 after a visit by General Ariel Sharon and hundreds of Israeli riot police to the Haram as-Sharif, one of Islam's holiest places. Palestinians blame Sharon for some of the bloodiest incidents in their history. The city of Nablus, one of the areas of the West Bank hit hardest by the Israeli army's response to the Intifada, suffered repeated invasions. According to figures from the Municipality of Nablus 522 people were killed, including 80 children. The United Nations reported that in 2002 the Israeli army also bombed several of the historic soap factories in Nablus' Old City, destroying some of the few remaining manufacturing jobs. And, for long periods between 2000 and 2009, Nablus was placed under military closure. Few goods or people were allowed in and out of the Israeli army's Huwara checkpoint, crippling the city's economy.
Widespread unemployment amongst Palestinian men compelled women like Samar, Sahar, and Suheir to start contributing to their families' incomes. “I couldn't just stay at home, seeing people coming and going,” says Sahar. “I invested in the raw materials and built some word of mouth, and now I can save money. We try to stand up and help our families.” All three women have been helped by a Nablus Municipality project called Women's Corner, which promotes women-owned businesses and which in 2010 opened a shop in a large city-centre shopping centre.
Sahar, Suheir, and Samar all say that they would like to expand their businesses, but finding the resources to take the step from one-woman, home-based industries to larger operations is a big challenge. “I wish I could open my own salon,” says Suheir, although she admits that one of the attractions of her service is that many women like getting their hair styled in the privacy of their own homes. “I'd also like to grow more,” adds Samar, “I'd be very grateful to know who might be able to help me.” At the moment her family helps out when she's asked to take on a big job. “If I got someone from outside to help me, I would have to pay her, and I can't afford that,” she says.
After we finish our drinks and kanafe – Nablus' famous speciality, a crispy layer of semolina on top of chewy white cheese, served warm and doused in syrup – Latifa leads me across the city's bustling central square to the Women's Corner. Supported by the United Nations and by aid money from the U.S. and Italy, its most visible contribution is the city centre shop. But the economic support it offers to several dozen women producers is only part of its wider mission to empower the women of Nablus city, its three refugee camps, and surrounding villages.
Three years ago, the centre was started with the aim of delivering support to small groups of women in and around Nablus. Since then, qualified social workers and trained local volunteers have helped over 2,000 women discuss and explore solutions to everyday problems, including domestic abuse and depression. “A lot of it is about violence,” explains director Rafif Malhas. “Because of the Intifada, men were not working, so they were always inside the house and this increased tension. Also when the man goes to the checkpoint and there is violence there he will come home and may be violent as a reaction to the violence he saw.” But, says Malhas, the social workers quickly found that family problems were being exacerbated by economic troubles. “Because of this we started thinking about the other project, which helps women to sell their products and have more money,” she says.
The Women's Corner offers women a shop to market their products, exhibitions in the West Bank and overseas, access to networks of potential buyers – including local companies and institutions – and training to build their businesses. The latter includes both practical skills like how to finish traditional embroidery products to a saleable standard and psychological support. “We work on how a woman can defend her production – not to say 'please buy this...' but to believe that it's a good product that someone should want to buy. First most of the women are very quiet, but when they start to understand that there is value in them and their products, it really reflects in their personalities,” explains one of the Women's Corner's staff members. Building self-confidence is key to helping women in both their professional and personal development.
“I'm learning to use computers from the very start, from zero, and learning how to surf the Internet,” Samar says. “I can teach my daughter and it's useful for me. It's always better to know things, not to stay at home just cooking and feeding my babies and knowing nothing.” Latifa Kayed smiles and says, “the Palestinian woman, no-one is like her. She goes through a lot, but she is a wife and a mother and a working woman too.”
About the Author:
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer specializing in social and environmental issues and the Middle East. Her features have been published in the Guardian Online, the New Internationalist, and Electronic Intifada, among others. Sarah is co-author of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs (Pluto, 2010) and her biography of Palestinian fighter Leila Khaled is due for publication in 2011.