Attitudes on the Status of Women

Conflict 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
Stay home and care for childrenGive priority child-care, but can workCan work outside houseCan study outside houseDon't know
Male Gaza6726511
Female Gaza3757501
Male West Bank5146111
Female West Bank356123
Male Arab Jerusalem4849200
Female Arab Jerusalem217721

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.
Both men's and women's attitudes concerning the status of women seem to be affected by age, but in a particular manner. Broadly speaking, the middle-aged have more liberal attitudes towards women than either the very old or the relatively young. The drop in tolerance is particularly marked for those currently between 15 and 19 years of age. The survey data shows two exceptions to this trend. Men's attitudes concerning the acceptability of women working outside the house is unaffected by age. Women's acceptance of Western dress declines steadily with increasing age although a majority of all women regardless of age disapprove of Western dress styles for women. However, although young Palestinian men and women seem to be increasingly restrictive in their attitudes to women, they are restrictive about different things. Young men are notably less tolerant of Western female attire, young women of behaviour linked to women's roles, such as placing children in child care or working outside of the home. These findings seem to hold in all three regions.

Table 9.2 Women's attitudes on the acceptability of western dress by what they actually wear
AcceptableNot acceptable
Strict Islamic2848
Islamic headscarf2916

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.
With regard to dress codes, a critical issue is whether women are able to translate their own attitudes concerning dress into choice over what they actually wear despite the opposition of men. The data suggests that such choice is at best restricted. Women who approve of Western dress are twice as likely to actually wear some form of Islamic dress than Western attire and equally likely to wear full Islamic attire.

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 suggests that the traditional Palestinian thobe is being replaced by two new, modern forms of dress, neither of which is customary in the region. For a minority of women the new form is Western. For a much larger segment it is strict Islamic, an imported form of new "traditionalism". These new dress forms are not only in opposition to each other, but the social messages they carry concerning the status of women are antagonistic.

Table 9.3 Forms of dress worn by women outside home by age groups
Age groupThobeStrict IslamicIslamic headscarfWestern
60 or more701939
Total women27422111

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.


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