Friday, October 30, 2020

Embroidery in Dheisheh camp financially improves women‘s lives

By Jessica Purkiss - March 25, 2013
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [embroidery] [women‘s rights] [Palestinian women] [Dheisheh refugee camp]

On March 8 of every year, International Women’s Day is celebrated as a symbolic reminder to the rest of the world of the struggles of women across the globe.

“International Women's Day for Palestinian women this year means a lot of struggle, a lot of power that must be gained for Palestinian women because we are facing two kinds of oppression,” said Khitam Saafin, Chair of the Union of Palestinian Women's Committees (UPWC) to Mondoweiss.

Palestinian society is not exempt from that fact that the place of women is by no means equal to that of men. Suhair Odeh from Deheishe refugee camp, Bethlehem is well aware of this. The problems women faced in the refugee camp she grew up in compelled her to think of ways she could assist them.

“We live in a bad situation, not just in an economic sense, but in terms of the political and the social situation,” said Suhair from her home in Dheisheh. |There is no peace inside or outside the home. The women are half of the society, as well as the leaders for society.”

Deheishe camp was founded in 1949 and is now home 15,000 refugees with a total number of 3,000 families. Often the families within the camp struggle economically, which is further compounded by their political and social situation. 

“Many NGO’s help women in the villages because they have land and they can work on it but inside the camps this does not work,” Suhair added. “We are refugees and who is responsible for us? UNRWA gives us nothing but a bit of flour.”

Palestine’s informal employment sector 

The art of embroidery is part of Palestinian tradition. Today many women rely on that skill as a means to bring in an income for their struggling families, thus forming a part of the informal employment sector in Palestinian society. The nature of this sector leaves those that work within it susceptible to exploitation. 

Suhair noticed the amount of women in the camp who were forced to rely on this industry and who were being exploited by it. 

“The tourist shops sell the pieces the women make for very high prices and pay the women very low prices,” she said.

“It is as if these women are slaves. They work until their eyes are damaged. It makes me so sad that someone would take advantage of these women because of the situation they are in,” she continued. 

Many women rely on embroidery as a means to bring in an income for their struggling families, thus forming a part of the informal employment sector, leaving them susceptible to exploitation

The exploitation of women in the informal employment sector, particularly in the art of embroidery sheds light on the dark side of the tourist industry in Bethlehem. The pieces that hang in the windows of the souvenir shops in Bethlehem for high prices are often sourced from women who are in desperate need for an income and with no choice but to embroider for long hours for very little pay. Such ad-hoc labour is difficult to monitor, ensuring that those responsible do not have to adhere to any basic standards of rights. 

Suhair works to find the poorest women in the camp and provides them with opportunities to embroider pieces for a good price. At times she supplies up to 40 women with commissioned work.  She provides the material for the women from her own back pocket. Since the Israel has withheld the taxes from the Palestinian Authority she has not been paid a full salary from her job as a nurse in 7 months.

Her project is far more than improving the women’s economic situation through embroidery.

“If you go into the home of a woman, if you knock on the door and sit with her, you encourage her to speak. Not just about the embroidery but about her life, her world, you can touch the problems she feels,” she said.

“You may invite women to conferences and meeting on their rights as women of the world, they can sit there with a whole group of women and listen but until you are in your home you cannot touch on her as an individual with her own feelings and problems. You cannot make her hold her back straight and feel empowered.”

Each women she assists has her own story. Suhair speaks of a woman who is disabled and whose husband is suffering from brain cancer with  two small children to support, and of unmarried women and divorced women who have no support from their families and stand alone in their economic crisis. 

“If you open the economic doors, you start to open the other doors,” Suhair stated.

Protection for women under Palestinian law

Khitam Saafin, the Chair of the Union of Palestinian Women's Committees (UPWC) spoke on the legal protection of women under Palestinian law to Mondoweiss. She highlighted the laws that need to be tackled in the fight for women’s right.

“We are talking about the family law, the punishment law, and labor law. In the family law, we are talking about the rights of women to be equal in many decisions. For example, the divorce right is mainly for the male. The multi-marriage for the men, the polygamy, we are trying to make it harder for men. We are trying to raise the age of marriage,” she said.

“We are talking about the right of women to marry themselves, because in the Palestinian law the woman must have the decision [made by] a male in her family. “

“For the punishment law, we have a very big problem [with regards to] the honor killings, which gives [a] small sentence [to] the male who kills the female under the honor excuse. That makes many crimes against women go on through the society under the honor killing excuse.”

President Mahmoud Abbas saddened the Palestinian rights community when in December 2012 he refused to change a law which gives leniency to suspects who claim “honor” as the justification behind the killing of a woman. 

"For us, for women, all this is irrelevant," said Soraida Hussein, general director of the Women's Technical Affairs Committee, an umbrella group of women’s organizations to Ma’an News. "Until now, our lives -- in law and in practice -- are seen as less than men's."

By providing some of the poorest women in Dheisheh camp with a fair income Suhair does not just provide economic opportunities. The generated income does more than feed a family; it has the ability to empower women inside their homes and within society so they can fight for their rights as women in a male-dominated culture, and as Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

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