Education's Impact on the Status of Women

Survey results indicate that educational levels among Palestinians have improved remarkably over the last decades. The slope of improvement has been particularly steep in relation to women's education. It is generally assumed that improved education provides women with a greater degree of self-sufficiency in terms of expanding the realms of choice, control over resources and freedom of movement. Has one outcome of dramatically increased educational levels for Palestinian women been a movement toward increased freedom of choice? The survey asks women if they are allowed to move outside the home at will or if their movement is constrained (see also chapter 10). The general expectation would be that more educated women have more freedom of movement than others.

There is a correlation between education and freedom of movement, but except for the most educated women, it is negative (table 5.17).

Table 5.17 Women's freedom of movement by education of women
Can move at willCan't move at will
13 or more5545

Further analysis (see chapter 10) indicates that it is age, not education, that is vital in regard to freedom of movement. In relation to age there appears to be two thresholds. The lower one divides unmarried women from married women. The upper threshold separates married women, still of child-bearing age, from those who are post-menopausal.

Although their range of movement is restricted, do highly educated Palestinian women spend, nonetheless, more time on average outside the house? The survey asks women how many hours they had actually spent outside the house on the previous day. Again actual hours spent outside the home seem more determined by age than education, except for those women with post-secondary educations who on average spend 3.4 hours outside the home. It should be noted, however, that this group of women are also those most likely to have jobs outside the home. Otherwise the young and the very old spend least time outside the house, on average only two hours per day, and the middle aged, the most time, on average some two and a half hours per day.

One of the prime functions of education is to equip women with the skills to participate in the public sphere of employment. In Palestinian society there have traditionally been severe moral restrictions against women working outside the household. Are these attitudes changed by increased education? The survey asks both men and women whether they believe it is acceptable for women to work outside the home (table 5.18).

Table 5.18 Womenıs attitudes concerning the acceptability of women working outside the home by educational levels
AcceptableNot acceptableDon't know
0 75223
13 or more946
Total women76222

Table 5.18 suggests that despite the strong norms against it, a large majority of women, and an overwhelming majority of the more educated women, feel that it is acceptable for them to be employed outside the home. However, since authority in these matters is normally the prerogative of men, it tends to be men's attitudes that determine whether or not women are actually free to seek employment.

Table 5.19 Men's attitudes concerning the acceptability of women working outside the home by educational levels
AcceptableNot acceptableDon't know
0 2273 5
7-93762 1
10-124654 0
13 or more6634
Total men42571

Table 5.19 indicates that men's attitudes differ strikingly in relation to the amount of education they have enjoyed. The two tables taken together suggest that women's ability to participate in the public domain might be affected to a much greater degree by the education of their fathers and husbands than by their own educational level. Men's answers to a range of questions concerning appropriate behaviour for women, ranging from placing their children in day care to driving a car, all show the same clear propensity. Increasing education is associated with less restrictive attitudes.

It might be suspected that it is not men's education which is the factor determining attitudes to the acceptability of working women, but their age. The argument would postulate that younger men have more liberal attitudes in reference to women than their fathers or grandfathers. However, it is the middle aged, rather than the very young or old, who have more liberal attitudes in this respect. While 56% of men in the age group 15 to 19 years feel it is unacceptable for women to work outside the home, 56% of men aged 60 or more feel exactly the same. The same pattern exists for women, albeit less marked. Younger women are somewhat less liberal on this issue than their grandmothers. While 18% of women 60 years or more feel working women is unacceptable, 28% of women between 15 and 19 share this view.

The common assumption that increased education provides women with increased access to resources also seems doubtful among Palestinians. Women's potential access operates on two levels: their access to the joint resources of the household kin group, resources that are usually under the management of men, and access to their own independent resources gained through inheritance, employment and so forth.

Inside the family unit the data suggests that again it is age, not education, that facilitates women's access. The survey poses numerous questions which attempt to map women's access to resources both inside and outside the household (see also chapter 10). Women are asked whether they can borrow money from their husbands, fathers, relatives outside of the household or friends if they really need it. Women are also asked if they own a range of commodities that can be transformed into money, such as jewellery, land, bank savings and so on. The pattern of replies is similar along all dimensions. Increased education does not provide women with increased access to household resources or to the resources of the wider family. To the extent there is a correlation, it is negative. Nor do educated women own more resources than their less educated counterparts. In almost all cases women's access to resources is heavily dependent on age and, in particular, their position inside the household.

Table 5.20 Men's attitudes to the acceptability of western clothes for women by educational level
AcceptableNot acceptableDon't know
13 or more30691
Total men21791

Currently in Palestinian society attitudes concerning women's dress, particularly western and Islamic forms of dress, are linked to particular political and social attitudes. Both men's and women's attitudes to dress seem clearly linked with education (tables 5.20 and 5.21). The survey asks respondents if they think it is acceptable for women to wear Western forms of dress.

Table 5.21 Forms of dress worn by women by women's educational levels
ThobeStrict IslamicModified IslamicWestern
13 or more2503017
Total women2843217

When women are asked the same question, the same pattern appears with an even stronger tendency. While only 14% of women with no education think western dress is acceptable, this figure increases to 44% among those women with post-secondary education. Respondents are also asked how they would react if the women in their household appeared in public without a head scarf. Of those men with no education a full 87% reply they would be insulted. 54% of men with advanced education give this reply. Among women, 77% of the least educated say they would feel insulted while only 34% of the best educated give this response.

Since the acceptability of western dress increases with education, do women, as they attain more education, more frequently wear Western forms of dress (table 5.21)?

This table is analyzed in more detail elsewhere (chapter 9). But it can be noted here that whereas Western forms of clothing are more frequently used by better educated Muslim women and are considered acceptable attire by 44% of the best educated, only a small minority wear it.

A critical area affecting women's autonomy is the right to select their own husbands. In a society in which this choice historically has been the jurisdiction of parents, has increased education altered attitudes in favour of women?

The pattern revealed by the survey data is similar to the pattern found in relation to women's roles generally. Among women, 71% of those with no education feel that a woman has the right to choose her own husband. This increases to 93% of the most educated women. The impact of education on men's attitudes is much more decisive (table 5.22).

Table 5.22 Men's attitudes on a woman's right to choose her own husband by educational levels
Women should chooseWomen shouldn't chooseDon't know
7-9 48511
13 or more63371

Again it is education and not age which produces more liberal attitudes. The youngest group of men are in fact more restrictive on the issue than those between 20 and 49, but the differences are not great. Notably, however, even the most educated men are more unwilling to give women the right to choose their own husbands than the most uneducated of women.

Finally, does advanced education for women, as widely believed, operate as an impediment against marriage? Does "too much" education reduce a woman's attractiveness in the marriage market? The survey results would suggest that this is to a certain extent the case. Table 5.23 includes all respondents who are no longer students and who are either currently married or have been married in the past.

Table 5.23 Percentage of men and women who are or have been married educational level
01-67-910-1213 or more

Table 5.23 indicates that generally more men than women have been married and thus for every educational level, except one, a gender gap exists. Interestingly, it is only for those with 10 to 12 years of education that no gender gap exists. However, the gender gap is by far the largest for those women with advanced education. This finding seems to be consistent with general Palestinian attitudes concerning education and the marriageability of women. In terms of marriage a certain amount increases attractiveness, too much is counterproductive. It would seem that Palestinian society in this respect is similar to Western societies, in which men tend to marry women who are younger than themselves and who are either as educated as or less educated than they are, but not more educated. Thus, advanced education for women functions to reduce the chances of marriage for at least two reasons. First, advanced education delays the age of marriage for a women, particularly since in Palestinian society it is not acceptable for a women to be both married and a student. Second, the percentage of men with equal or higher educations is significantly reduced. Both these factors operate to reduce the pool of potential husbands.


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