Women, Property and Access to Economic Resources

In the Palestinian context, in which so few women directly participate in the labour force, it becomes extremely important to assess other means through which they get access, as individuals, to economic resources. Historically, the main mechanism the society used to ensure women some form of independent economic resources was through the payment of dowry at marriage. While the form, amount and women's actual control over their dowry payment have varied historically - between social levels and among individuals - some overall patterns can be delineated. Moors (1990) has shown that prior to the predominance of wage labour, many peasant women received their dowry in the form of land or fruit trees, or exchanged their monetary dowry for productive property (such as livestock)6. In Shari'a law a woman's dowry is solely her property. According to Palestinian peasant social custom a division of the dowry usually took place with some of it going to the woman's father and to cover the costs of the wedding. But the part that was given to her as jewelry or property was recognized as solely hers, as was any income she could generate from it. With the rise of wage labour, the associated rise of women's economic dependence solely on the spouse, and the breakdown of the extended family as a productive unit, Moors has argued that women began to use their dowry more for the economic well-being of the nuclear family. Thus women invested their dowry either in the building of home, productive property for the husband, or for children's education.

Historically, inheritance does not seem to have been a generalized means for women to get access to economic resources in Palestinian society, even though it is their right to inherit family property in Shari'a law. The historical problem with women's inheritance rights to land in Palestine was primarily due to the problem of land fragmentation. No rule of primogeniture existed in Palestinian society, thus inheritance among a number of sons over generations led to land being broken down into ever smaller, economically unviable units. In this context, women's inheritance rights were viewed not only as a luxury, but more so as a threat to their brothers' ability to inherit enough land to form an economic base for a whole family. The generalized social compromise that took place on this issue was that peasant women exchanged their rightful share of land inheritance for the guarantee of economic and social support from their brothers.

Despite major transformations in Palestinian society and economy over the past century, dowry payment (although now in the form of money) continues as an important social practice, although it may no longer provide a sustainable source of economic support for women, given its amount in relation to ongoing costs of living even for village women. Simultaneously, an increase in women's ability to inherit does not seem to have occurred.

In order to try to obtain information about women's property as individuals (rather than family property), women have been asked about what property they could sell as individuals if they needed money in an emergency.

Table 10.10 gives an overview of the responses to this set of questions. While jewelry constitutes the major form of women's independent property ownership in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Arab Jerusalem, women do own other forms of property although to a much lesser degree.

Table 10.10 Do you have anything that is your own that you could sell or mortgage to raise money? N=1218 Percentage
Tools of the trade1288100
Money, womenís savings group793100

About 40 percent of the women in the sample claimed that they had nothing to sell or mortgage in case they needed money badly, whereas 24 per cent had two or more forms of property which were theirs to sell.

Only 8% of women claimed they owned land which was theirs to sell. Because of a low sample size indeed, it is only possible to make some general statements about who these women are. They are overwhelmingly from the West Bank (77%), probably due to the availability and price of land there, compared to either Gaza or Arab Jerusalem. This factor is also supported by the fact that most of them are rural women (59%). They tend to be in the upper wealth category (66%), although this may be a cause or determinant of their owning land. Their age as well as the area in which most of the women who own land live, suggest that it is predominantly women in the West Bank villages who succeed in inheriting and keeping land inherited from their father. This assumption is supported by the findings of a recent, unpublished study on women and inheritance in the West Bank village of Beit Furik. The author found that land inheritance is still problematic for women, and found only five married women in the village with the support of their husbands who took relatives to court in order to wrest their property rights over inherited agricultural land7.

Women who claim to own houses which are theirs to sell are similar in background, age and residence to those women claiming to own land. Again, the sample size is extremely low (9%), and thus only some general remarks can be made. Again, the vast majority of them live in the West Bank (84%). They tend to be predominantly rural women (57%). Older women and widows were somewhat over-represented in the group that have a house that is theirs to sell. This may mean that some of the issues and processes that affect women's inheritance of land are also factors in women's ability to inherit homes.

By far, the most widespread independent economic resource women claim to have is jewelry, with a full 47% claiming they have jewelry they could sell if they need to raise money. Although the data does not give us the actual amount, it can be inferred that women consider it economically meaningful if it is mentioned as a possible source of money.

Owning saleable jewelry is very much tied to marital status, since it is the form in which women usually receive a good part of their dowry, and in amounts that are economically meaningful. After marriage, the other occasion in which women usually receive jewelry is upon the birth of a child. The type of jewelry sold locally (usually 20 carat gold), and the way it is sold (by weight), attests to its recognized significance as capital. Married women, who constitute 59% of the female population, are 78% of those claiming to possess saleable jewelry. Table 10.11 represents married women by age owning jewelry.

Table 10.11 Married women owning jewelry. By age. Percentage

A possible reading of the above table is that, over time, women's dowry jewelry is gradually dissipated as various investments for the family, husband or children. This process seems to begin when women are in their thirties when costs accrue due to children. Judging by the extent of jewelry ownership among women in their sixties, repayment on women's investment does not take place in kind.

In terms of regional difference among married women, 71% of Jerusalem married women claim to own saleable jewelry, compared to 55% of West Bank women and a comparatively lower percentage (37%) of women living in Gaza. However, this may be a product of the wealth differences between the three regions. When crossed by wealth categories, logically women in the wealthiest category exhibit greater ownership of saleable jewelry.

Table 10.12 represents women's ownership of jewelry in relation to urban/rural residence:
The table shows that among married women in Gaza villages and towns (other than Gaza City) there is substantially less ownership of jewelry than in the other areas, which show a fairly even distribution8. This is surprising, given the fact that in terms of age distribution, this area has higher numbers of young married women in the sample - women of the age and marital status that are most likely to have saleable jewelry. Moreover, this does not seem to be related to wealth differences: the differences in jewelry ownership between Gaza town and village residents and other Gaza residents are consistent when controlled for different wealth categories.
Commenting on the overall distribution in table 10.10, it is clear that women are more likely to own property in the form that the society traditionally reserves for them (dowry jewelry and thobe). Simultaneously, the other traditional form of women's property ownership (livestock; usually poultry and rabbits) that was part of women's domestic economy, seems to have dwindled in comparison to the other two. Tools of the trade (capital machinery such as sewing and knitting machine) might be understood as a modern means of domestic production - thus playing the same role that livestock once did in the family economy. Finally, women's ownership of more modern forms of property (banksavings, group savings) as well as of more substantive property (land or house) is also very low.

Table 10.12 Married women's ownership of saleable jewelry by urban-rural dimension. Percentage
 GazaWest BankArab Jerusalem


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