Palestinian Women Empowered With Sewing Machines

While gunshots echo in the streets in a political struggle, Palestinian women are engaged in their own personal, and revolutionary, struggle for economic independence and freedom from domestic violence. Photojournalist JoMarie Fecci reports.

A Palestinian woman and her children

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (WOMENSENEWS)-In a sewing workshop, Palestinian women talk animatedly as they sew pieces of brightly colored fabric into children's clothing, stitching their way toward a measure of economic independence and what they hope will be a better future.

About 20 women bent over sewing machines in the Women's Empowerment Project at the Gaza Community Mental Health Center are learning to become seamstresses, a craft that will ensure them some financial and social independence.

While in other countries, this scene might evoke concerns about their economic exploitation, here in this conservative Islamic society where most women are totally dependent on their fathers, brothers or husbands, sewing garments is an important step toward economic self-determination. Most women had been virtually excluded by tradition from most forms of employment and the important garment industry had been a strictly male preserve.

The seamstresses are among the 100 women enrolled in the six-month program that began five years ago, and they are learning more than how to earn a living and acquiring more than skills. Many have suffered abuse at the hands of their husbands or fathers; others are grieving the death of a husband, a son or a brother in the ongoing battles between Palestinians and Israelis. Through the work and the atmosphere of respect, they are gaining comfort, strength and self-confidence.

If they need more than training and a job, the program also offers psychological counseling, family interventions and legal assistance, if necessary.

“Many of these women come from very poor families. They live in poverty and they are already struggling for simple survival,” says Aitemad Muhanna, a representative of the local women's committee who works with the empowerment project.

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“We're trying to help push them out of their houses, to teach them to be empowered,” she added.

The latest violent protests against Israeli occupation and Israel's crackdown, curfews and border closures have brought economic devastation to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a slice of land 18 miles long and five miles wide on the Mediterranean Sea. More than a million Palestinians, three-fourths of them refugees, live in Gaza. Many live in shacks or stone block houses without electricity or running water.

A United Nations report released earlier this month estimated that Palestinians in both West Bank and Gaza have lost $505 million since the latest battles began in late September. More than 260,000 workers have become unemployed and, because each supports several other people, more than a million Palestinians have suffered serious economic losses. The United Nations estimated that almost half of all Palestinians were living on less than $2 a day.

Hanadi, 22, takes a break from a hectic schedule at the workshop. She learned about the vocational training because the Women's Empowerment Project staff reached out to the families of men killed in the Intifada. She lost a younger brother.

Hanadi (she asked that only her first name be used) said her main motivation was economic, although like most Palestinian women during this crisis, she sees her personal situation as inseparable from the Palestinians' struggle for statehood.

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“We are struggling for our future and the future of our children,” she said, pointing to a hand-embroidered map of Palestine made in her workshop. “When we will have independence, we will need to be strong and build our economy. We women can be part of that.”

“The situation here is really difficult,” said Hanadi who grew up in a religious home in a refugee camp. “It is important for everyone to see that we are doing this,” she said, referring to the project. In the West, you think we women are backward but here we are working to take our place in the society. ... We can be religious and work and study and improve our position.”

Though overall, Palestinian women have relatively high levels of education and women's organizations enjoy some political policy and decision-making roles within the Palestinian Authority, many of these women come from poorer villages and refugee camps. They are held back by both poverty and violence-political and domestic. Their options are limited.

“Women here have lived under social and political violence from the whole society. They cannot go outside because of social tradition. They cannot participate in political activity. Many have lives almost without hope. Together we are trying to help them to help themselves,” Muhanna said.

The Women's Empowerment Project, established in 1994 after the Oslo accords, is an effort to change the paradigm, one woman at a time. The examples that these women set in their communities are intended to encourage others. So far, about 300 women have been helped.

Women Face Violence in the Streets and Violence in Their Homes

While gunshots echo in the streets outside, the problem of domestic violence is ongoing. And, as in other societies, street violence, politics and poverty aggravate the violence at home where men take out their frustrations and anger on women. Men who have been released from Israeli prisons take their anger home, as do men who are unable to work and support their families and men who feel powerless against Israel's occupation.

“Our society is a traditional society that has some values that are anti-woman,” says Malek Shubahair, spokesman for the Gaza Community Mental Health Center. “This doesn't come from the religion but from a misinterpretation of religious rulings to support these traditional values,” he added.

Under such circumstances, domestic violence against women is often unacknowledged and continues unchallenged, he said. In Gaza and elsewhere, the patriarchal culture can make dealing openly with domestic violence difficult, hence efforts are made to help individual women on a case-by-case basis.

Every six months, the Women's Empowerment Project accepts 30 women who have been victims of domestic violence, at the hands of a spouse, parents or inlaws. Selected by social workers as good candidates for the comprehensive program, they join others receiving vocational training and eventually their own self-esteem improves.

“When the violence stems from the home, we do not confront the family. We try to bring them all into a counseling situation,” said Shubahair. “We make them aware of what they are doing and try to help them change the way they resolve their problems.”

Shadia El Saraj, director of the Women's Empowerment Project, said helping women become economically independent, or at least stronger, is the first step in helping them deal with domestic violence. Separation and divorce is usually not the answer for an uneducated, unskilled, economically dependent woman, she said.

“Our assumption is that economic independence must be achieved first. Only then can women fight for their rights. Many international organizations come to Palestine to tell women that they must fight for women's rights. Given conditions in Gaza, this is the wrong approach,” El Saraj said.

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“This is a pioneering project-it is not something traditional,” Shubahair said. “But at same time we have to work within the social institutions.”

Sometimes, though, the only solution is for a woman to separate from her husband, a dramatic step in this traditional culture. In such cases, the center represents the women in court, and then helps them through the difficult process toward independence.

Each woman follows an individualized plan that may include psychological counseling, legal assistance and vocational training. And they meet others in similar circumstances.

However, the project's training is not at this time leading to jobs. The garment factories are closed, shops are shuttered and workers are laid off because the economy has been paralyzed by the fighting.

Palestinian woman sewingThe garment industry, where most of the women would work, employs 20 percent of the labor force in Gaza, or 35,000 workers, and accounts for 17 percent of the Palestinian Authority's national industrial product. It is the second most important sector of the economy after construction.

In other countries, many women work in the garment sector, but in Gaza, all the jobs had been held by men with little to no formal education. Such workers are hard to train in new methods and technologies, so the Association of Sewing Manufacturers looked toward the women when it wanted to improve quality and competitiveness for its international market.

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Many Palestinian women with high school education or higher did not work outside the home. They offered a potentially valuable pool of labor. What was needed was a new kind of vocational program that would meet the needs of both the women and the industry.

The women were eager for the opportunity but faced initial resistance from their families that did not want wives or daughters working with men. The association successfully negotiated with the manufacturers to guarantee “female only” shop floors.

Now the women are learning not only how to make garments, but also some basics of management, marketing, cost accounting, work flow and business law. More than 140 women have already been employed in Gaza's industrial zone. When stability returns and factories reopen, they will go back to work.

And some are thinking of starting their own businesses, in tailor shops, hairdressing salons and crafts shops.

“Before getting involved with this project, we had no possibilities. We couldn't even work,” says Rasmiyeh (she requested that only her first name be used). “We want to rebuild our country from a position of strength.” Rasmiyeh said. “This is an opportunity I never thought I would have.”

“Now I am trying to learn as much as I can, because, when I am well-educated, I can work and fight for Palestine.”

JoMarie Fecci is a free-lance photojournalist in the social documentary tradition, covering areas of conflict. She covered the first Palestinian intifada in 1989 and the front lines in the former Yugoslavia, South Lebanon, the Caucasus, Colombia and Liberia. She has worked on contract for European and American magazines as well as U.N. agencies.