Palestinian women break cultural barriers, forging their own futures

"The culture here is that when a girl graduates from university, she becomes a teacher," Nadine Natsheh, a young Palestinian woman from Hebron, said.

 The South Mount Hebron area, July 20, 2015.  (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
The South Mount Hebron area, July 20, 2015.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

Sitting in her office in Ramallah, in the West Bank, Iman Hassouneh talks to one of her clients on her mobile phone while responding to an urgent email on her computer.

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Hassouneh, a certified legal translator, established her company, Tarjmli, meaning “translate for me,” to provide translation services.

Like many Palestinian women, she is slowly breaking into a field that until recently was strictly for men only, such as high-tech, the judiciary, health services, sports coaching and refereeing, the police, food service, and much more, shaping the cultural landscape and breaking stereotypes.

Once she returned to Palestine from Amman, Jordan, where she attended university and worked for nearly a decade, she began looking for work.

“Studying translation was a dream come true for me,” says Hassouneh with a huge smile.

A view shows the Israeli barrier as buildings are seen in Kfar Aqab on the outskirts of Jerusalem, near the West Bank City of Ramallah, November 7, 2017. (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)A view shows the Israeli barrier as buildings are seen in Kfar Aqab on the outskirts of Jerusalem, near the West Bank City of Ramallah, November 7, 2017. (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)

Barriers

“The answers were varied, for example, ‘You’re a woman, we would ask for a man in this position,’ or ‘We don’t need a lady who puts on a hijab or a veil.’”

Iman Hassouneh

Being on her own wasn’t an easy decision for the petite 39-year-old.

“My parents are very supportive. My brothers and sister were always around. Leading the way was never easy but they were always there standing beside me asking me to be strong and giving me all the support that a girl could ever ask for,” she says with pride.

At first, she was able to land good jobs.

“I was able to get amazing positions in some of the biggest companies and the biggest private sector, NGOs,” she says. It wasn’t until she wanted to grow beyond her narrow role that she started to face challenges. 

“When I decided that it was my time to leave one of the jobs in 2016, I was searching for another position and the feedback that I got from different channels was not really supportive of any lady who’s trying to have a career.”

One interview after another, she either received no response or was turned down for positions she was highly qualified for, despite her 13 years of experience in marketing and public relations, she says.

“The answers were varied, for example, ‘You’re a woman, we would ask for a man in this position,’ or ‘We don’t need a lady who puts on a hijab or a veil.’”

Giving up wasn’t part of her vocabulary. She told herself that if she can’t find the right opportunity, she will create one on her own.

“At a certain point, it would wear down anyone, when you are really ambitious and willing to get help and experience and you’re not getting the chance for almost a year. I was searching for a job for almost a year, and not getting a chance was heartbreaking at a certain level.”

The turning point came as she spoke with a client whom she was providing freelance consultancy work while she searched for a full-time position.

“The feedback that I got was really helpful when he said that the work that I did was more than they expected. That was the turning point when I told myself that if I use my potential, Iman, you do have potential, you have the experience in marketing and PR and reporting as well.”

Hassouneh says once she became a business owner, “she could fight for more.” 

“You definitely have to fight all the way through because you’re a girl. Because I’m a girl. Being a girl in this society means you always have to fight harder than any guy around in order to get what you want.”

She experienced discriminatory treatment firsthand and the challenges posed by society’s perception of working women in general and female business owners in particular.

“A guy might get an offer immediately after a meeting but being a girl, especially in the early days of having your own business, means you need to prove more than once to people you’re dealing with that you deserve this offer or this job.” 

Hassouneh says her father provided her with the support and the emotional backing that every girl or woman wants from her dad.

“I’m very thankful for having my parents, my father, my mother, who are educated and who appreciate education and support the education of girls.”

Nadine Natsheh is a young Palestinian woman from Hebron, in the southern West Bank, a wife and a mother of three.

After high school, she wanted to pursue a career in sports, but social and cultural barriers stood in the way.

Nevertheless, she was able to realize her dream. Natcheh says that her daughter Miral was the impetus for the idea to establish a gymnastics club for girls, as she liked the sport and wanted to try it out.

When she searched for a place to take Miral, she was shocked to find not a single gym could accommodate her.

“The basis of the idea came from my daughter. I felt that she had the ability and the physical fitness. The idea was that she would do gymnastics in a club in the city [Hebron]. But there was no club for this kind of sport. Accordingly, the idea began to launch a gymnastics club project in the city. 

“We started in 2020 along with the beginning of the corona pandemic.”

It wasn’t easy for Natcheh to overcome the challenges in the religiously and socially conservative city.

“The culture here is that when a girl graduates from university, she becomes a teacher. This is the dominant thinking.”

But she received a lot of encouragement from her family, especially her mother, and husband.

“Praise be to God, my husband is always supportive of me and that I develop personally. He always supports me and encourages me to complete my master’s studies, even though the university is in a distant city,” she says.

Natcheh had no experience in gymnastics, but her insistence on creating an opportunity for her daughter and other girls made her educate herself about a sport she had never practiced.

“I got to know a Russian trainer, Svetlana, here in Hebron to train my daughter, and she was also teaching me. I took courses through the Palestinian Gymnastics Federation and obtained an accredited certificate from the federation for gymnastics training.”

Along the way came the criticism. 

“There were people around me trying to dissuade me from moving forward with my project. They told me you are facing society on your own, why? But this thing made me more insistent.”

Natcheh says she finds it weird that society believes it is culturally and socially inappropriate for a woman to teach gymnastics and for little girls to train in the sport.

“There is no contradiction between gymnastics and religion. But if we talk about customs and traditions, in our society they basically consider that the girl is an entity that belongs at home. She should not come out for other things, such as sports, or to develop herself.”

But the conservative attitudes also helped her get her project off the ground and helped to spread the culture of sports for girls and gymnastics.

“Being a woman helped me a lot because most of those participating in gymnastics are girls and their parents refuse for them to be trained by a man. Parents felt safe that their daughters were with a lady.”

Fidaa Abuhamdiya is one of the few yet increasing number of professional female chefs in Ramallah, becoming a model for young women in an unlikely field.

Food has always been her obsession; growing up she wanted to learn the art of cooking from the best.

“It was born with me, loving food and [being] passionate about food. In short, I can tell you that I followed my passion and I decided to go to Italy.”

She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree there.

“It was the best place and is still the best place to go and study about food, not just cooking but food culture and food history and also how to use food as an instrument for communication and how to talk about things and issues through food.”

Her decision wasn’t well-received by her family and those close to her; they told her it was an inappropriate profession.

“It’s a job for men and working in the kitchen is hard for women and it’s not nice,” they said.

But she didn’t change her mind; she describes herself as stubborn.

“I said no and I chose this and I will follow my passion, what I want,” says Abuhamdiya. “It wasn’t easy to study and to choose cooking as a profession. It was really hard and everyone, every single one, even in my family, which I consider not a conservative family, they said no.” 

She began her journey at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center’s Hospitality Education and Training Section, earning highest honors before she left for Italy, where she spent years studying and working, immersing herself in learning and teaching about food.

“I also worked in restaurants. I worked in a three-star Michelin restaurant in Padua.”

When she returned home, she and friends worked on a film on Palestinian food. And Abuhamdiya wrote a book on Palestinian food.

“Pop Palestine Cuisine is the first Palestinian cookbook in the Italian language,” she says.

Abuhamdiya says she faced backlash working with restaurant owners and staff who refused to take orders from a female chef, but that despite these obstacles, it’s worth it because she is doing what she loves most.

“No one said it was going to be easy, I know that. But working to preserve Palestinian food culture and teaching people about it and cooking brings me joy like nothing else. It’s a battle worth fighting,” says Abuhamdiya.