Freedom of Movement

What are the constraints on women's ability to move freely in the West Bank and Gaza Strip? The immediate assumption deriving from the academic literature on Middle Eastern women might suggest that 'traditional' cultural norms of 'public' and 'private' space are the main determinants of women's freedom of movement. While this 'privatization' may have been a norm for upper class women during the Ottoman period, few other classes of women during that period had this luxury, since they were needed for family labour in agricultural and other production. While it could be argued that, historically, peasant women were 'privatized' in their villages, in fact the mobility of all sectors of the population was highly circumscribed before the advent of modern transportation systems. What does seem to have been a constraint on women's movement was the notion of 'mixing' - i.e. women should not be alone with non-family males. This has historically been the main problem with mixed schooling in the local context. The problem of 'mixing' to a large extent disappeared with women's entry into universities, the work place, and political activism - either need or changing notions of what was prestigious for women overrode fears of potential for scandal.
In recent years Islamicist groups have spearheaded a reversal of this trend. Although these ideas had been promoted since the 1970s, they only began to find resonance among the population in the context of the latter years of the intifada, when fears for women's security became generalized because of army violence and rumors of collaborators' and security services' sexual entrapment of women.

While these social and cultural factors are important when analyzing women's ability to move freely, there are also important practical and political considerations, specific to the Palestinian context, which must be taken into account. Freedom of movement is severely constrained on a daily legalized basis for the whole population living in the West Bank and Gaza. In Gaza people are restricted to their homes every evening at 9:00 p.m. curfew. Women experience in the same way that men do severe restrictions on their ability to move within, between and outside of their communities. Thus, in analyzing women's perceptions of their freedom of movement, this context of an overall real denial of this right to the whole population must be taken into account.
Besides cultural and political factors, relative perceptions are also important when analyzing women's freedom of movement. For certain women 'freedom of movement' may mean simply the fact that they can visit their neighbours in the neighbourhood, for others, lack of freedom may mean they are unable (for a variety of reasons) to travel overseas.

In the survey, women have been asked two series of direct questions about their ability to move. The first part is about their ability to move in general and at will. Women answering no to this first question, are subsequently asked about their ability to go to more specified destinations (other town, overseas, etc.) and whether this ability is contingent on being escorted or not.

Table 10.16 presents women's ability to move freely by age.
While 50% of all women claim they are free to move at will, table 10.16 makes clear that there is a very strong relationship between age and women's perceived or real ability to move freely; with young women aged 15 to 19 feeling dramatically constrained in their movement, and women in the oldest age groups feeling an almost opposite degree of personal mobility. While the reasons for this may simply be understood as cultural (i.e. post-menopausal women are considered beyond the age of sexual activity), it must also be understood that teenagers in any context are supervised in their movement and schedule by parents.

Table 10.16 Are you free to move at will. By age. Percentage.

The majority of women claiming they were free to move at will are married or formerly married women (table 10.17); 54% of married women and 90% of widows compared to only 32% of unmarried women. Again, this is very likely related to age factors (with the majority of unmarried women being in the 15 to 19 age category).

Table 10.17 Are you free to move at will. By marital status. Percentage
No 68471350

Table 10.18 shows perceptions of personal freedom of movement by marital status and area of the country.

Table 10.18 Percentage of women who feel free to move at will. By marital status and area.
GazaWest BankArab Jerusalem
Unmarried19 (n=117)37 (n=230)(44) (n= 39)
Married1354 (n=307)61 (n=457)66 (n= 68)
All women44 (n=424)53 (n=687)57 (n=107)

Overall, women in Gaza feel significantly less free to move than their West Bank or Jerusalem counterparts. While this may partly be due to the assumed social and cultural importance of some Islamicist groups in Gaza, it probably also expresses a general sense of restriction felt by all Gazans in their movement due to both the nightly curfew and their inability to move in and out of the Strip without requisite passes. In all three areas, unmarried women constitute the marital status group feeling least free to move, with unmarried women in Gaza exhibiting a much greater sense of restriction. For all three groups there is a significant increase in actual or perceived mobility among married women, with more than twice as many married Gazan women than single women claiming they are free to move. In fact, there are no significant differences between married women in Gaza and the West Bank, while unmarried women in Gaza feel significantly more restricted than unmarried women in the West Bank.

Table 10.19 illustrates perceived freedom of movement of women 20 years and older by urban-rural residence in the three areas.

Table 10.19 Are you free to move at will. By urban-rural dimension. Women age 20 years or more. Percentage
GazaWest BankArab Jerusalem

Camp women in Gaza above the age of 19 claim to be free to move to a much greater degree than Gaza village, town or City women. In the West Bank there are no significant differences between town, village and camp residents.

Another interesting point in this connection is that only 71% of women working outside the home feel free to move - this implies that almost 30% of women who travel daily between their home and work place feel restricted in their movement.

Table 10.20 Are you free to move at will. By dress forms. Percentage
ThobeStrict IslamicSemi IslamicModern

Table 10.20 presents perceptions of freedom of movement by forms of dress. Here again the issue of perception seems to arise. Women wearing 'modern dress' (no headscarf) feel least restricted in their movement, while women wearing 'modified Islamic' feel most restricted. These are women who would have been wearing modern forms of dress a few years ago. Their response might be interpreted as an indication of a larger feeling of coercion at work in their lives. However, there is also an effect of age and marital status. Young unmarried women are more likely to wear 'modified Islamic' than married women are, and this is the age group which feels the least free to move at will.
Of the 50% of women who claimed they are not free to move at will, table 10.21 describes their ability to go to various destinations and their dependence on being escorted or not.

Table 10.21 Are you free to go to the following destinations? N=608. Percentage
Cannot goCan go escortedCan go aloneTotal
Relatives in town25642100
Relatives outside town17785100

When breaking the above table down by marital status, a fairly regular pattern arises; married and unmarried women are almost equally unable to go any place, but unmarried women are less able to go to the various destinations alone. This pattern remains regular with respect to going to the market, the doctor and in-town relatives. However, unmarried women's ability to go to more distant destinations (relatives out of town or abroad), alone or escorted, is somewhat more restricted than that of married women. Still, if one excludes women under the age of 20, the differences between married and unmarried women are significantly reduced. Women between the ages of 15 and 19 form the group which is most restricted in their movement to all destinations.

In conclusion, younger and unmarried women have a greater sense of restriction of movement than older and married women. While this relationship cuts across socio-economic, regional and educational levels, there is evidence that overall, women in Gaza (with some variation) feel more restricted than their West Bank counterparts.


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