Attitudes on the Status of WomenConflict and disagreement are inherent in all societies. However, pervasive strong conflict and disagreement can also be signs of relative social instability. They can signal that the norms and structure of a society are being challenged and, through challenge, are under stress and potentially a process of transformation. The survey attempts to examine some of the specific conflicts and tensions internal to Palestinian society. (See also Chapter 8 on social stratification).
As discussed in previous chapters, gender is a fundamental organising principle in Palestinian society as it is throughout the Middle East. To what extent is there consensus on this pivotal pillar of social organisation? Do men and women subscribe roughly to the same attitudes concerning the roles and symbolic behaviour deemed appropriate for women?
Figure 9.1 indicates that on the level of Palestinian society as a whole there is a certain consensus among men and women concerning appropriate dress for women. While men are more restrictive than women, differences in attitudes are not strongly marked. However, the figure also indicates that there is conspicuously less consensus concerning women's ability to participate in paid employment, exercise choice in relation to marriage and in the restrictions implied by motherhood. However, both women's and men's attitudes are subject to major regional variations.
Figure 9.1 Comparison between men's and women's attitudes concerning women
Figure 9.2 suggests that whatever consensus might exist between men and women with regard to notions of proper dress on the level of Palestinian society generally is shattered at the regional level. With regard to dress codes, attitudes in Gaza are much more restrictive than those in Arab Jerusalem, with the West Bank in an intermediatory position. Reversely, with regard to women's roles regional variations are less significant. The degree of consensus among men and the opposing degree of consensus among women tend to transcend regional boundaries. With regard to conflicting attitudes in general, Gaza represents the region which is most dissimilar in attitudes and the region in which discrepancies between men and women are most striking. In part this could reflect the relative social isolation of Gaza and its longer, more acute experience with the Islamic movement.
Figure 9.2 Comparison between men's and women's attitudes concerning women by region
These points are further illustrated in table 9.1 and figure 9.3 which attempt to give a more detailed picture of attitudes concerning the boundaries of what is considered acceptable behaviour for women. Notably, with reference to married women working, the disagreement seems to centre on whether women should be allowed to work at all. Almost all Palestinians, men and women, seem to agree that child care is a woman's first priority. Responses are broken down by region and gender.
Table 9.1 Appropriate roles for married women by region and gender
Although there are regional variations between genders, table 9.1 suggests that with respect to notions concerning proper behaviour for married women, women in Gaza tend to be more similar to women in Arab Jerusalem than to their male counterparts in Gaza. In other words, disagreements on women's roles reside mainly on the level of gender. The situation is very different if attitudes concerning women's dress are examined where region, rather than gender, seems to be decisive in conditioning attitudes.
Figure 9.3 Reaction to female household members appearing in public without a head scarf by region and gender
Although there are clear differentials between men and women concerning appropriate dress for women, these differentials are greater between the regions than between men and women within any single region.
Figure 9.4 Percentage of women who approve of day care, women working outside house and western dress by age
Figure 9.5 Percentage of men who approve of day care, women working outside home and western dress by age
The significance of the strictures placed on women's dress in Palestinian
society relates not so much to definitions of appropriate roles for women,
as to concerns relating to control over women in whatever roles they fulfil.
At the core of this concern lies the notion of honour and shame defined
in terms of family control over the sexuality, or reproductive capacity,
of female members. Western dress symbolises a loss of family control. It
connotes an implied sexual complacency and reproductive disorder and, as
such, signifies a potential threat to family honour. Clothing which fully
covers a women's body and hair operates to reinforce an image of family
control. As illustrated by the growing use of head scarfs among young girls
far below the age of puberty, however, dress codes are also becoming linked
to specific political messages relating to activist Islamic doctrines.
Table 9.2 Women's attitudes on the acceptability of western dress by what they actually wear
When broken down regionally, on both the issue of day care and women working outside the home, the decline in acceptability is most marked among the youngest age group of Gazan women who currently hold attitudes that are more restrictive than either those of their mothers or grandmothers. For instance, while 68% of Gazan women between 20 and 29 report that it is acceptable for women to place their children in child care, only 43% of those in the youngest age group appear to hold this opinion.
The decline in tolerance for Western dress for women is especially striking
among the youngest age group of West Bank Palestinians. Whereas 31% of men
in the West Bank between 20 and 29 years regard Western dress as acceptable,
only 17% of those between 15 and 19 share this view.
If what women wear is factored for age, in all age groups, the percentage
of women who wear Western dress is less than one half of the women who approve
of such dress.
Table 9.3 Forms of dress worn by women outside home by age groups
The differences shown here between men and women regarding women's status in society indicate that the underlying norms are under considerable pressure particularly from women themselves. Notably in terms of roles the discrepancy is most pronounced in Gaza. However, the data also suggests that particularly among the youngest age group of Palestinians the gender divisions in society seem under a process of redefinition and reinforcement.