Gender-Discrimination in the Middle East: A look at Women in Gaza, Palestine.

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Written by Hopes for Women in Education Volunteer.

A 2013 Thomson Reuters study has ranked Palestine 15th out of the 22 Middle Eastern countries studied in which to be a woman. Neighbouring Egypt ranked worst while Comoros was named the best place in the Middle East to be a woman.

The study ranked countries in six categories: ‘violence against women’, ‘reproductive rights’, ‘women in the family’, ‘women in the economy’, ‘women in society’, and ‘women in politics’. Palestine received the worst ranking (no.22) in the assessment of ‘women in the economy’; and the study cited low employment of Palestinian women (17.4%), despite a low illiteracy rate (6.4%), as a key contributor to this appalling result.

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In the same Thomson Reuters Foundation study that ranked Palestine 15th on a scale of best to worst places to be a woman, Palestine ranked joint sixth worst with Somalia when assessed on the following statement: “Girls feel pressured to get married before they are 18.”

Additionally, when assessed on the truth of the statement: “Women who refuse to enter into an arranged marriage are likely to be subjected to physical or mental abuse” Palestine ranked joint fifth worst with Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, Palestine was named the worst place to be a woman when assessed for the following: “When a woman is widowed, she is likely to lose her property unless she marries a male relative of her former husband.”

Fida Shurrab, who works with people with disabilities at a Gaza-based NGO, believes that educated women “need to be taken out of the darkness.” At 14, a friend and classmate of Fida’s was taken out of school to be married. “I was shocked; she was a child. I asked her, “Why? You love the school, and you’re an excellent student!” She answered: “My father says that I have to get married so that my brother can continue his education.” From that moment, I realized that some girls in our society have to pay the cost of being a female.”

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According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), the age of first marriage increases in line with higher education qualifications, suggesting that education is a key factor in determining age at first marriage. The PCBS also reports that over half of girls and women over the age of 15 are married.

In addition to gender based discrimination, especially economic and in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance, women in Gaza who are disabled face further problems. In working with disabled people in Gaza, Fida has been witness to some disturbing trends of neglect and marginalisation towards disabled girls and women, of which there are 18,000 living in the Gaza strip. “Girls with disabilities are mostly denied their rights to education due to the general social stigmas about disabilities and the fact that they are girls with disabilities. Many of them are being hidden from society, where they are deprived of enjoying the least of their rights.”

For Fida, however, disability represents opportunity; something which, sadly, the general population has overwhelmingly failed to recognise.

“I know that their disability causes them nothing but more motivation to learn and give life a kick-off towards success. Many of them are talented, smart, and inspiring. All in all, it is important to fulfil the need for education for women and girls as they are very effective role-players in society, and keeping them marginalized will lead society to declination.  There is an essential need to overcome the stereotypes about the incapability of women, especially those with disabilities, as they are key persons towards the development of the society.”

Small steps are being made, however, to reverse the marginalisation of disabled people living in Gaza. In June 2013, the Palestine Islamic Bank launched a new service for disabled customers which allowed them to make transactions with the bank without the assistance of an interpreter. The project involved training over 50 staff at the bank to use sign language, enabling disabled customers to deal with the bank directly, both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

In the field of education, however, there is still some way to go before disabled women are given equal access to education and career opportunities. Fida believes that the key to advancing a woman’s status is to recognise the value of investing in her education. “I strongly believe that education is not about how many degrees that one should have. Education is about being spiritually and intellectually able to absorb the knowledge and bringing it into a positive practice for the benefit of the people and the country. Education is not about titles as well- it is about what we want to do with education! Invest is a key word in the matter of education.”

Investment in education is an essential part of the process of rebuilding fragile states. Schools are a safe environment for children to thrive and succeed, and attending school can be the only source of stability for children in fragile states like the Gaza Strip. Given that female and disabled citizens often suffer the most during conflicts, it is even more essential that the rights of girls and women, able and disabled, to an education are guaranteed and respected.

“The siege imposed against the Gaza Strip has undermined most of the youths’ dreams,” explains Fida. “Siege has affected my life, for not being able to pursue my dreams the way I planned. However, believing in the concept of “making it work” the siege has forced me to dig for life, and that is the case for all my peers in the Gaza Strip. Siege is an obstacle, but Palestinians know nothing about standing still.”

In November 2012, Israel launched a military assault on Gaza, killing many, wounding more, and severely damaging Gaza’s already weak infrastructure. “The war came into our houses like a thief, stole our beautiful and precious things and left for us pain and agony. Every house, every family, every person, every child and even me has a story of loss, fear and horror. I have lived the moment of fear and horror that I might wake up and I do not find my family around me.  The Israeli war caused the Gazans so much misery; but it did not break our strong will to exist. In other words, The Gazan spirit to survive.”

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Fida’s own hopes for the future? Ever modest, Fida insists that the secret to being human is to see oneself reflected in others; that one’s actions should benefit the many. “The approach of how to create a real change in the people’s lives who surround us, that in turn will positively affect our lives, is to not personalize our endeavours of creating a change, and not to seek the self rather than seeking the whole unit of our community. The approach of oneness.” It is this philosophy, Fida believes, that will aid the development of Palestine. “It is of high importance not to personalize our achievements in life. Our society has to have the biggest share of success. Through very little experience, I learned that success is only measured by how much we invest in our society. When getting higher education, this should be to the benefit of developing our country. My hopes for the future is built upon my working life.”

Fida is, at current, taking steps towards founding a volunteer-run charity that supports the needs of disadvantaged Gazans; channelling her philosophy on interaction, investment, and collective success towards assisting those most in need.