Chapter 10

Women in Palestinian Society

Rema Hammami

The author would like to thank Kristine Nergaard, Tone Fløtten, Marianne Heiberg and Helge Brunborg for valuable suggestions and comments to this chapter.

Introduction In order to capture the totality of women's lives in a given society, level of living studies usually involve several conceptual levels. These different levels of conceptualization enable both comparison between genders, on the one hand, and discussion of aspects of life that are unique to the situation of women.

In any study of living conditions, a comparison between male and female responses to the basic issues and phenomena serves as a fundamental level of analysis. This provides an understanding of the extent of gender asymmetry in a society; the extent to which there is differential access to material resources and mechanisms of social and economic mobility between men and women. Stated more simply, the aims would be to generate information as to whether women, as a whole, share in the ownership of wealth, the attainment of education, and participate in the work force in the same way and to the same extent as men.

In addressing more subjective aspects of life, this level of analysis raises questions about whether women perceive the differences and conflicts in their society like men do, and whether they have a different set of social and political aspirations for the future of their society.

This comparison across gender lines is generally prepared for in a study during the sampling period, when it normally must be assured that there is equal representation of men and women in the sample frame. Within the questionnaire, men and women should answer the same questions, posed in the same way, if one is to be able to do a gender comparison in the analysis.

But what about issues that are specific to women's experience? While health studies always have treated women's health issues as having their own specificity, incomparable to those of men, social and feminist research over the past few decades has shown that in other areas of life, gender is a decisive factor, not only in how individuals relate to objective social and economic phenomena, but also in shaping those phenomena themselves. Thus, while a basic analysis based on gender division has its uses, it cannot fully account for various phenomena that are gender specific from the outset.
This means that a host of issues relating to women's childbearing role (marriage, marriage age, daycare, work patterns, housework, etc...) should be addressed separately and specifically to women. Moreover, a cognizance of how a society elaborates and encodes gender must inform the analysis of both the objective conditions of women and how women perceive them.

Finally, if one aim of living conditions studies is to delineate social and economic divisions within a given society, then women cannot be viewed solely as gendered individuals but must also be studied as members of other social categories. While being women may entail certain shared experiences based on the elaboration of gender roles within a specific social context, other factors such as education, age, economic status, or regional difference also carry their own unity of experience. Therefore, it becomes necessary to analyze the circumstances and issues in which gender takes primacy over other identities, and when the latter plays a more determinant role.

A number of chapters in this study assess various aspects of gender division in Palestinian society through the overall analysis of various issues such as education, health, labour, and social and political attitudes. Some of them also analyze issues specific to women, e.g. fertility, specifically female forms of economic production, and women's (as well as men's) attitudes towards 'women's issues' such as day care, dress forms, etc. This chapter more strongly focuses on differences between groups of women. On the one level it analyzes material differences between women and the conditions that shape them; differing ownership of property and access to economic resources and support networks. On the other, it looks at how factors such as age, marital status, education or regional residence may mould women's perceptions of their world; their attitudes towards various women's issues; and their sense of feeling constrained or supported by their society.

While some of the themes in this chapter would be addressed in any study of women's living conditions, the way in which these wider themes are addressed here attempts to highlight the distinctive character of living conditions of women in the occupied territories. Thus, the issues of marital status and women's marital age, while important in any context, take on added importance for the study of women's living conditions in the occupied territories since they determine so much of the social and economic context in which women's lives are lived. Women's access to property and support networks also takes on a more profound importance in the context of women's low participation in the labour force and in the absence of a state with its requisite social welfare systems. Freedom of movement is an issue that has its own specific importance for men and women in the occupied territories. For both sexes this issue is significant in order to understand the political constraints on their lives and it may help explicate attitudes to a variety of social and political issues. For women, perceptions of their freedom of movement have an additional importance, as they are relevant to an understanding of the possible social constraints on their lives. Finally, because women's participation in formal labour activities is so often seen as a means to empowerment in other areas of their lives, it is important to assess their attitudes towards this issue so as to understand where there is room for change.


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