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?

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