Women rewrite the rules of business in Palestine

West Bank, Occupied Territories (openDemocracy) – Fida’a Hamarsheh was in her forties when she started her own business. In her hometown of Yabad in the northern Palestinian West Bank, it seemed an unusual move for a beginner entrepreneur, and a female one at that.

But Fida’a had seen an opportunity—a clear gap in the market—and was determined to make the most of it.

“I realised that there were no preschools for families in my area, and parents were suffering by having to send their children far away to another town,” she said. From that first observation, she improvised: wrangling wedding invites in surrounding villages, speaking to young couples attending the parties and persuading parents to help out on open days.

Six years later, her kindergarten is attended by 120 four and five year olds from several different villages, and Fida’a has plans to expand even further. The preschool, she believes, takes a different approach to teaching and caring for kids in the years before they start school.

“I want them to feel that it’s their place,” she said. “That I’m not the owner of the preschool, that it’s the kids’ space. Something like a second home for them.”

Fida’a is one of a growing number of female entrepreneurs in the West Bank, many of whom have benefited from projects that give assistance—whether financial, or in training and skills development—to female business makers.

But in many ways, women like Fida’a have been the backbone of the economy for years. In past decades, and especially during the prolonged unrest of the Intifada, many took the responsibility of financially supporting their households when male relatives were imprisoned or killed; as time went on, they made their own businesses work in the face of widespread unemployment. According to the World Bank, women-owned organisations account for about one in eight of total businesses in the Middle East, including many that employ hundreds of people.

Still, structural problems mean women’s businesses have to struggle disproportionately. Women are more likely to start up small-scale endeavours, for example, which doesn’t allow them to benefit from investment tax breaks that apply to larger investments; and safeguarding loans is a struggle without access to land or property as security. Even when women are the engines behind economic development—whether by selling basic food produce at ad-hoc market stalls or by setting up independent businesses—final responsibility for the project and control over the income is often handed by male family members.

“It’s a very new concept for them. Starting a business as an owner, as a woman in the north especially, it’s not something ‘normal’,” said Humaira Wakili, country director at West Bank NGO Tomorrow’s Youth.

The organisation runs an incubation program for female entrepreneurs, which Fida’a is currently taking part in. “Women might have a lot of pressure from their spouses or their families to not do it or treat it like a hobby. It’s like okay you can do it, it’s a nice hobby, but when it gets too serious and you have to start taking time away from home, then you have to stop.”

The Tomorrow’s Youth program, called WISE, is an intensive course of workshops, training and critical support that offers women coaching in areas including marketing, IT and English as well as business planning. Fida’a along with 15 other women, whose projects range from educational resources to beekeeping or embroidery, have been attending the course for almost a year.

The idea, Wakili said, is to “create support structures to counteract some of the social, economic and political barriers, tied not just to patriarchy but to the Israeli occupation and economic difficulty that impede business success in the West Bank”.

“Love for children is not enough to run a preschool. I knew I had to take courses,” Fida’a explained. The support from the NGO program developed the skills and experience she already had. Her engagement came from a deep personal journey as well; she’d always wanted children but was unable to, and was frustrated with a life limited to the home.

“I don’t have children of my own, and I want to do anything for them. I can feel the innocence in them, and that they need the love,” she said.

“Before I started this, I didn’t really have anything to do all day. My life was empty, and it was very silly. I just sat around at home, and watched TV. The business has changed all that, because it’s exposed me to the outside world; a world outside of being only a wife; a world outside the village. Now I’m doing things outside the home all the time, connecting, networking. My life is completely different.”

Fida’a believes her family has been instrumental to her success as a businesswoman; they value education and her husband, employed as the kindergarten bus driver, couldn’t be more supportive. But these are benefits, she believes, that aren’t available to all women: “in lots of families, a girl is not supposed to be outside her home for business.”

For Fida’a, however, the kindergarten is an opportunity to change that, and not just because it’s run by a female entrepreneur. “What I can do is work on changing my kids,” she said.

Leadership conference. Image Source: Seeds_of_Peace, Flickr, Creative Commons

Leadership conference.
Image Source: Seeds_of_Peace, Flickr, Creative Commons

“In the preschool I always sit a girl next to a boy and have them hold hands. I make sure while they are playing that they share, play and do activities together. I makes sure boys are next to girls, and know that girls are equal to them. 
This is what I can do. This is the generation that can change things.”

Written by BETHAN STATON  for openDemocracy.