Queens of Ramallah

New generation of Palestinian businesswomen transform economy and society of West Bank.

palestinian businesswoman521 (photo credit: Linda Gradstein)
palestinian businesswoman521
(photo credit: Linda Gradstein)
The Zman café would look at home on the streets of Berlin, Paris or Jerusalem. The modern design and sleek gray and red colors, strong coffee and fancy salads are enjoyed by the laptop-toting crowd, some of whom settle in for a long stay.
But this is Ramallah, the Palestinians’ political and financial capital. And the managing partner of Zman is a woman, 48-year-old Hoda al-Jack.
“We did a lot of things against the cultural norms of coffee shops here,” al-Jack tells The Jerusalem Report over a cup of Zman’s trademark beverage. “People thought we were crazy. They were laying bets that we would close within three months.”
Al-Jack says Palestinians weren’t used to paying first at the cash register, or paying $2.50 for a cup of coffee. They also weren’t used to female baristas. Al-Jack says she made no special accommodations for women managers. Part of their job was closing the store at midnight, even though it is not proper for young unmarried women to be out alone late at night. Despite it all, Zman, she says, is thriving. She recently opened a second branch.
Al-Jack is one of a growing number of Palestinian businesswomen who are changing the image of Palestinian women and serving as role models for young women in the West Bank.
Along with the coffee shop, al-Jack is vice president of Siraj Palestine Fund One, the first private Palestinian equity fund, which recently closed at $90 million dollars.
She says that Israel is indirectly responsible for the growing participation of women in the Palestinian workforce.
“We have a male-centric economy,” she says. “But because of the intifada many men were in prison so more women joined the economy. They simply had no choice.”
Women’s participation rates are still low.
The Palestinian Bureau of Statistics says that just 16.6 percent of Palestinian women are active in the workforce, though that is an increase from 10.3 percent in 2001.
This also does not include women who are part of a widespread informal economy – selling vegetables they grow or handicrafts they make.
Al-Jack is an example of a cosmopolitan Palestinian. Her father is a Sudanese diplomat and her mother is half-Palestinian and half-Lebanese. She went to high school in England and university in the US. She has an MBA from the Kellogg school at Northwestern. Her husband, Bahar Amer, is a Palestinian.
Al-Jack was living a comfortable existence in Glendale, California, when her husband came back to the West Bank in 2000 to care for his aging father. In 2003, al-Jack and her two children followed. It was not an easy entry, she recalls. They were intimidated by the presence of Israeli soldiers, their Arabic was weak, and the West Bank felt foreign. Now, she says, she wouldn’t consider leaving.
“I think the presence of so many educated women from the US, Europe and the Gulf is having an important effect,” says Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American business consultant. “There is an influx of Palestinians with a different value set, which is mainly happening in Ramallah.”
Bahour says that Palestinians do look at neighboring Israel and the position of women there. “When you see female soldiers at a checkpoint, people say their women are valuable enough to oppress us, but our women are not valuable enough to resist them,” he says. Bahour says that the Arab Spring has a feminist component to it, with women calling for social justice.
Few female executives
Palestinian society has always valued education, and has a 92 percent literacy rate, significantly higher than most surrounding Arab countries. In the universities today, there are more women than men. But when it comes to women in senior positions, the numbers are low.
According to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics, women make up 11 percent of judges and 10 percent of newspaper editors but only 7.8 percent of members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Part of the reason is cultural. In Israel, some 70 percent of women work outside the home, and there is an excellent system of state-subsidized day care centers.
In Palestinian villages, women marry and start having children very young.
In traditional families, it is considered humiliating for a man to have a wife who works, since it suggests that he cannot provide for her. While there are day care centers here in Ramallah, they are not considered good quality and most working women rely on family members to help care for their children.
“A Palestinian businesswoman needs a tremendous amount of support,” says Manal Zreiq, 43, a partner at Massar, a large consulting firm, and the founder of the Palestinian Businesswomen’s Forum. “We need to have more awareness and to empower women.”
Zreiq, elegantly dressed and wearing impossibly high black stiletto heels, says Palestinian women are well-educated but often lack marketing and accounting skills.
The Palestinian Businesswomen’s Forum aims to help them acquire these skills. She gives the example of a woman who was making high-quality olive oil soap but had no idea how to package it attractively or how to sell it. After receiving some advice, she now runs a successful business.
Zreiq comes from a family of businessmen. Her family owns a Mercedes dealership and she grew up knowing she wanted to go into business. As a child, she says, she would buy candy in bulk and sell it to her classmates for a profit.
Zreiq says conditions are changing for Palestinian women. The mayor of Ramallah is a woman, as is the governor of the Ramallah district. Zreiq says women run and own just 5.4 percent of Palestinian businesses even though they make up more than 50 percent of university students.
Beyond the advantages for women themselves, Zreiq says that bringing more women into the workforce and encouraging them to advance to higher positions is important for the future of a Palestinian state.
“All Palestinians have to work hard to build a state of Palestine,” she says. “Men and women have to share that burden."