GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian women are facing economic and social barriers in business as they attempt to break the male monopoly over leadership roles in commerce.
According to a Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics report from December, female participation in the labor force in 2017 amounted to 19.2% of all women age 15 and older, with 1.9% of that figure owning businesses. About 66.4% of the 19.2% held service jobs and 11.9% of them worked in the trade sector.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Palestinian Businesswomen's Association (ASALA) Chairwoman Raja Rantisi said, “Female participation in businesses in the Palestinian territories is low, and is mainly centered on small enterprises such as beauty salons and clothing shops.”
She explained that small businesses willing to grow into big ones face complications, most notably a lack of financial resources, as Palestinian women continue to be denied a key source of money: inheritances. And then there is the wide societal perception that "women belong in the home."
Female candidates have been virtually absent in West Bank provincial elections for boards of chambers of commerce and industry. Very few hold positions as business managers, directors or chairwomen.
Chambers of commerce and industry seek to care for and protect the interests of business enterprises, enhance cooperation among their members (namely the merchants and businesspeople), help promote local products, encourage investments and serve the local community.
Jamal Jawabra, secretary-general of the West Bank Federation of Palestinian Chambers of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, told Al-Monitor the umbrella organization covers 13 chambers in the West Bank, each with a board of nine to 13. The total membership of 60,000 includes 1,700 women, he said.
He noted that only three female candidates participated in the recent race to elect board members for three different chambers.
Rantisi explained that most businesswomen are unable to meet the board nomination conditions, particularly since they are required to pay 1,000 Jordanian dinars ($1,400) to gain ballot access, a sum that most women who run small businesses or startups can't afford.
“Businesswomen are required to have male partners in their businesses from whom they need to obtain an authorization to run in the chambers' board elections. Each enterprise has one electoral vote. Women often end up without said authorization,” she said.
On Jan. 31, Maryam Abu Ein became one of 13 board members of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry for Ramallah and al-Bireh governorates. On Jan. 26, Fatima Rayan won a seat on the 11-member board of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture for Qalqilya.
The third female candidate, Azad Abu Shaqdem, was the first businesswoman to run in the Nablus Chamber of Commerce and Industry board election. She competed with 26 male candidates to win seats on the 13-member board. Abu Shaqdem, however, lost the Feb. 2 elections.
Abu Shaqdem, a mother of five, has been running her ready-made clothing business for 12 years. Prior to the elections, she held dozens of meetings with merchants to solicit their votes and share her campaign platform, which focused on promoting trade tourism, annual trade shows and exhibitions in the city.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Abu Shaqdem said she ran for the Nablus board to break the male monopoly on trade, encourage women to follow her lead and demonstrate that women can prove themselves.
“Women should have run in these elections years ago. It's true I didn't win, but the step I made gives hope for women to take part in the next elections,” she added.
Roubi al-Masrouji, a Palestinian woman running a retail women's clothing business in Jerusalem, told Al-Monitor one reason women typically don't run in chamber elections — even when they can meet the eligibility requirements — is that they have lost faith in their ability to win, given the vast majority of male voters and candidates. This discourages the women's blocs in these chambers from making strong efforts to promote women candidates "and mobilizing voters to their advantage,” she said.
"The absence of women in the Palestinian chambers of commerce boards obstructs any genuine advancement in the business environment," she said.
Masrouji said a quota system would help the effort by reserving seats for women. Yet she expressed reservations about relying solely on such a system. “The goal behind women candidates joining the race isn't limited to them becoming board members. … Rather, they need to become partners in the decision-making and in the management of Palestinian trade and industry.”
ASALA's Rantisi explained that women's blocs in these chambers must develop their visions and goals to create advancement programs for women.