Arab women in east Jerusalem

The employment rate among Jerusalem's Arab women remains, for over two years now, a mere 20%.

 EAST CITY women want to work, earn money and improve their living conditions (Illustrative).   (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
EAST CITY women want to work, earn money and improve their living conditions (Illustrative).
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

Over the years, TV shows have exposed the public to Arab women who are integrated in the workforce – one character in a sketch comedy program working as a pharmacist was especially prominent. While for many across the country it was perhaps a novelty, for Jerusalemites, seeing Arab women from the east of the city working in a variety of jobs in the western part of town has become commonplace. 

It is not rare to see Arab women, some wearing head scarves, sitting in cafés, mostly in Mamilla Mall, in the company of other Muslim women like them and even in the company of men. At the same time, and alongside the relative freedom that many of them feel when they are in the west of the city, their standing in the east is still captive to the laws of patriarchy.

“I wear a hijab not so much because I am religious but because it protects me from ‘environmental interference,’” says Zeinab, a 28-year-old single woman from Beit Hanina who studies at the Hebrew University. “I feel that as long as I am with this head covering, they will not suspect me of violating the rules of my society and that way I can continue to study and move around freely in the west of the city.”

Arab women from the east of the city are currently employed in a variety of positions in the west, mainly as shop assistants in retail chains as well as in many clinics. However, official figures on women’s employment in the east of the city reveal a grim reality. This, in addition to other restrictions, paints a not-so-simple picture of the situation of the women, who have to deal with a long list of difficulties – including and perhaps most – from home, living in a very conservative society. 

Who are the Arab women from east Jerusalem, what is bothering them and what are they trying to achieve? What does their daily life look like and what kind of difficulties do they typically face? 

 YOUNG ARAB women stroll in Mamilla Mall.  (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90) YOUNG ARAB women stroll in Mamilla Mall. (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
Daunting barriers

The implementation of the government’s five-year Government Decision 3970 starting in 2018, and the desire to implement another five-year program starting in 2023 with an unprecedented budget of more than NIS 4 billion, has raised the expectation that the government will finally be addressing the employment situation of east Jerusalem women. Modern schools and new hi-tech facilities, among them the ambitious “Silicon Wadi” project in the Wadi Joz neighborhood, promoted by the municipality and the Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry, should provide some promising outcomes. 

Even in a conservative and religious society, the employment of women is a step in the right direction, enabling those women to utilize their skills and improve their status within society. Eastern city women want to work, earn money and improve their living conditions – but the barriers they face are daunting. 

The employment rate among Arab women in Jerusalem has lingered, for more than two years now, around 20%. This is mostly and primarily due to a lack of knowledge of Hebrew, as most pupils are still under the Jordanian educational system, taking the Tawjihi matriculation, and therefore finish high school without speaking Hebrew. Then comes the high dropout rates, which still haven’t been stemmed, despite repeated efforts and projects promoted by the Education Administration (Manhi) at Safra Square.

The threshold conditions that require 12 years of study to receive a professional certificate at the end of any training courses facilitated by the municipality or the Labor Ministry, is another barrier keeping young adult Arabs from employment, and women in particular.

Arab women have additional barriers: a survey conducted at a center for employment guidance in Beit Hanina showed that about 75% of the women who went to the center (compared to 25% of the men) preferred to work in the east of the city, justifying this with a sense of security and their personal situation. It also showed that Arab women tend to leave or quit their jobs or vocational training after getting married. Additional studies show that most Arab women participating in the labor force are employed in the education, health and welfare sectors – fields that don’t offer high wages or economic independence. 

The total income of employed Arabs in Jerusalem is NIS 3.5b. While more Arab women workers will lead to an improved standard of living for many east Jerusalem families, it can’t guarantee removing them from the cycle of poverty.

The pandemic has also further exposed the problems of those without access to digital devices such as smartphones and computers, which have exacerbated the isolation within the Arab sector. In a recent study conducted in east Jerusalem by Hebrew University researchers Maya de Vries and Laila Abed Rabho from the Department of Communication and the Program for Conflict Research, Management and Settlement, they looked at smartphone usage among older people from the Arab sector. The study included a year and a half of field work in an Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem, combining a questionnaire, participatory observation and in-depth interviews with 55 women aged 45-80, examining the ways in which the smartphone is influencing their daily lives. 

After it turned out that the participants’ digital literacy was relatively low, the researchers decided to establish a course for them on smartphones, in collaboration with the Machshava Tova association and the Joint Distribution Committee. A few months after the course ended, the pandemic broke out and many were forced to return to their social isolation. 

The women of east Jerusalem also suffer from labor market exclusion due to a lack of early childhood programs and poor public transportation. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, only 19% of east Jerusalem women residents (of working age) participated in the labor force. The pandemic has dashed this group’s hopes, with a third of them losing their jobs. 

Hebrew key to success

The Ma’an Development Center has been standing with the women in these difficult times, assisting them exercise their rights and giving them employment support. One woman, a 47-year-old resident of Kafr Akab (a northern Jerusalem neighborhood but cut off from the city by the West Bank security barrier) faces even more difficulties, since her husband is from the West Bank and therefore can’t get a decent job, and as a result she is the family’s breadwinner. 

Amina (not her real name) works as a school transportation escort for special education students, traveling from Kafr Akab to six institutions in Jerusalem. She helps pick them up from their homes to get them to their schools by 7:40, coordinating with parents and teachers early in the morning, and begins to return to the schools at around 11:30 a.m., to help the children get back home in the afternoon. Amina passes through the Kalandiya checkpoint four times a day. In the morning the driver takes her back to the checkpoint, but there is no transportation from there and the walk home takes her 15 minutes. 

Amina says she would like to work in a job that requires more education and allows her to earn a better living. She learned to read and write Hebrew and can also speak a little. She said the Employment Service offers very few jobs in west Jerusalem, and many companies have refused to accept her because her Hebrew was not good enough. 

“Usually the bureau sends us mostly for cleaning [jobs], regardless of our abilities, but we Arab women did not come into the world just to work in cleaning,” she says adamantly. “However, without Hebrew it is impossible to find a job, and unfortunately, our education system is very weak, especially in learning Hebrew. I would like at least my sons to learn Hebrew as well and continue to study at the Hebrew University so that they can progress. The problem is that the Education Ministry does not budget for schools that teach the Tawjihi, so many students fail in Hebrew, hate the language and are reluctant to study at the Hebrew University, which is a great pity. Still, I do not intend to give up, and I want to find a way to learn Hebrew and move forward.”

Societal rules

Zahieh, in her late thirties, works in a nonprofit and has very good Hebrew. Although her condition differs significantly from many other Arab women on the east side, she empathizes with them. “As long as they are [involved in their studies], the family won’t interfere, they aren’t forced to get married and they can have friends outside of their familial circle,” she says. “But once they finish their studies, no matter how many academic degrees they have achieved, the patriarchal society will bring the women back into the groove – marriage, children... leaving a very small place for developing a career.”

Zahieh reveals the untold rules Arab women are always aware of. “A girl will never be allowed to live outside of the family’s home. In rare cases, if she studies far from home, she will be allowed to live in the university dorms, but the rule is to live at their parents’ home until they get married. However, this is not only toward women; men also do not leave their familial home before they get married – it is unacceptable in our society.”

Today, having Jewish friends is not unacceptable anymore, but again, women will not openly have a male Israeli friend, certainly not outside of the campus where they’re studying. For Zahieh, the fact that even nowadays, and despite the progression in gender issues relative to previous generations, there are still areas that men will never enter. “No husband will help in the house or the kitchen – it won’t happen yet. They will help in all sorts of things but not in the housework, which is still considered a non-masculine field.” ❖