RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - From corner fruit stalls in Hebron to chic Ramallah ballet studios, Palestinian women are making their mark in business, some out of necessity and others looking to break the gender mould and pursue a dream.
For Shyrine Ziadeh, a 24-year-old Birzeit University graduate, that dream was to open a dance studio.
Now the proud owner of the Ramallah Ballet Center, the first in the West Bank, her sunny, top-floor studio is flooded with classical music and mirrors stretching from wall to wall. Little girls plié in pink ballet shoes and jump over fairy wings.
“I want to develop girls,” she said. “Ballet helps develop their point of view in life. We need such things in Palestine.”
Latest statistics from the International Labor Organization estimated that in 2008-2009, women headed just 5 percent of West Bank firms. Circumstantial evidence suggests the figure has climbed since then, fueled by economic growth and an increasing appetite for bank lending.
However, the deeply traditional, male-dominated society that is prevalent across much of the Arab world, coupled with bureaucratic restraints unique to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, pose particular challenges for women seeking to get ahead.
“Many women in the West Bank want to do things, but they can‘t. Our culture is generally more of a man’s culture. Women are trying to do things, but in small steps,” said Ziadeh.
Restrictions from Israel, which controls all entry points to the West Bank, only add to the problems, she said.
“Because of the occupation, we need a permit to do anything,” she said, pointing to the difficulty of importing leotards and other ballet garb not available in the West Bank, for example.
Although the odds are not in their favor, the outlook for women is improving in the cities, if not yet in the poorer, hidebound villages that dot the arid territory.
Women’s literacy and employment rates are rising. Female police units are integrating into West Bank forces, and women make up a quarter of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s cabinet.
Looking to spread the good word, NISAA FM radio station took to the airwaves in 2010, set up by and for women. It highlights local success stories about anything from female-led investment groups to refugee camp microfinance projects.
“We need awareness about being a businesswoman,” said Maysoun Odeh Gangat, the founder and CEO of NISAA FM, which already ranks as one of Ramallah’s top five radio stations.
Ramallah also now has a Ladies Cafe - a women-only establishment set up earlier this year by 21-year-old Balsam Qadoura and seven other partners.
Studying English at Birzeit University, many of Qadoura’s female friends plan on pursuing business after graduating. But she said her plans couldn’t wait.
“We are a group of girls who had an idea,” she said.
The brightly colored cafe, on Ramallah’s main highstreet, provides a relaxed place for women to meet, smoke waterpipes and listen to blaring Middle East music.
Some locals have questioned whether a cafe just for women represents a step back in the struggle for equality, but Qadoura argues that women needed their own space to help counter the male-domination seen in many of the city’s other such establishments.
“The men act like we are not human beings. They say ‘what are you doing here, it’s not your place’,” she said.
Palestinian women’s participation in the workforce has gradually risen over the past two decades, lifted in the mid-1990s thanks to an economic boom after the Palestinians won limited self-rule and foreign donor cash started to pour in.
“It was a general economic boom, not only for women,” said NISAA FM’s Gangat.
In 1995, women made up some 11.5 percent of the workforce, a figure that has risen to 16.7 percent, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
However, this number is low compared to the World Bank’s 26 percent average for the Middle East and North Africa, and the labor distribution is highly uneven, with women in many areas of the Palestinian Territories still out of the market.
In the Gaza Strip, a woman made headlines in May simply because she was a waitress in the coastal enclave, which is ruled by the Islamist group Hamas and where patriarchal resistance to women working outside the home still prevails.
“A high percentage of people have no contribution to the national economy,” said Salah Abu Eisheh, the West Bank and Gaza representative for the Near East Foundation, a non-governmental organization promoting women’s empowerment through business.
“We are in good shape, but still far from having real equality,” he said, adding that many men feared that women’s empowerment gave women unfair advantages.
He hoped rising levels of female students at Palestinian universities, who represent more than 50 percent of the student population, would help push more women into business.
Yet, the statistics bureau estimates that nearly half of all women with a higher education remain unemployed.
Huda al-Jack, owner and managing partner of the West Bank’s first coffee chain, Zman café, blames a culture where men do deals with each other in a social context that tends to exclude women.
“It was difficult for me to integrate,” said al-Jack, who is of Sudanese-Palestinian descent and who moved to Ramallah from California in 2003.
“I had to really prove myself. I started out making 30 percent of what I was making in the States.” Only after working her way up the ladder, and helping launch a company in Dubai, did al-Jack get taken seriously, she said.
“Sometimes I feel like we’re going backwards,” she said, adding that society’s refusal to address sexual harassment in the workplace continues to limit women.
Al-Jack hopes to develop a gender-blind business community and is currently planning another establishment where a Palestinian woman will serve customers.
Emerging female business leaders are following in the wake of al-Jack’s success. Ziadeh, her dance studio only recently opened, sees the role of businesswomen as essential if a future, independent Palestinian state is to be a success.
“People will accept that women can handle it, that women are changing,” she said. “I want the world to know that we Palestinians can do it. We can grow.”
Editing by Crispian Balmer and Sonya Hepinstall