Palestinian Studies

2014 Workshop

Samia Al-Botmeh

PhD Candidate, Director of Center for Developmental Studies, Birzeit Universit

The Political Economy of Palestinian Women’s Labour Supply: 1920-2010

The paper aims to explore the trajectory of Palestinian women’s labour force participation trends between 1920 and 2010. This subject has long been considered critical by researchers and planners but not sufficiently explored over the course of Palestinian economic development.

Exploring the trajectory of Palestinian female labour force participation is important because it reveals two paradoxical features that have impacted both the ability of the Palestinian economy to grow as much as it has affected Palestinian women’s economic empowerment and status. The first is the persistently low rate of Palestinian female labour force participation. The second is the highly erratic and fluctuating female labour supply trend over the period from 1920 to 2010. These two characteristics are particularly striking and paradoxical when compared to the course of economic development in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region over the same period, and given the rise of Palestinian per capita income, particularly during the British mandate period (1920-1948) and between 1967 and 1993. These two features call for a thorough examination of Palestinian women’s labour force participation experience for the following reasons:

First, Palestinian women’s low participation rates and fluctuating labour supply trends in the past 90 years are in stark contrast to women’s work experience across developing and developed countries. The experience of Palestinian women also stands out in contrast to the labour market experience of women in the rest of the MENA region. Moreover, while participation rates in other MENA countries have been rising steadily over the past few decades, Palestinian women’s participation rates have exhibited a high level of fluctuation over the same period.

Second, Palestinian women’s limited involvement in the labour market is particularly odd given their high educational rates. Girls’ enrolment rates in schools have been rising since the early 1920s. By 2000, Palestinian girls had higher school enrolments rates and lower dropout rates than boys. Palestinian girls also have the highest primary and secondary school enrolment ratio compared to boys in the entire MENA region. Moreover, female enrolment rates at universities are higher amongst Palestinian women than men.

Third, Palestinian society tends to be amongst the least conservative in the MENA region, particularly compared to the oil-rich Arab states, which enjoy higher female labour market participation rates (World Bank, 2011). Though patriarchal structures remain strong within Palestinian society, seclusion of women is not practiced. Women have been engaged in all streams of life, particularly in the political struggle against Israel’s colonisation. Given that the cultural setting in the WBGS is identical to that of immediate neighbouring countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Egypt) and is far less conservative than in certain MENA countries, it remains bewildering why Palestinian women have persistently lower participation rates compared to the rest of the MENA region.

Given these paradoxical relationships, the objective of the this paper is to construct a clear and concise picture of labour market developments and particularly female labour force participation trends over time, from 1920 till 2010. In addition, the paper aims to identify and examine the principal supply- and demand-side factors that shaped these trends during this period.

The paper will utilise concepts and methods developed by neo-classical, institutional and feminist economic discourse.  A broader framework of analysis that incorporates a historical and social perspective, as well as a more specific understanding of the economic transformations characterising the Palestinian labour market during this period, is necessary to account for women’s labour market experience.

Samia Al-Botmeh, is the director of the Centre for Development Studies at Birzeit University and an assistant professor in economics. She has completed her PhD at the School of African and Oriental Studies- University of London, in labour economics, the title of her thesis : 'Palestinian Women’s Labour Supply: Towards an Explanation of Low and Fluctuating Female Labour Force Participation'. Samia’s areas of interest and publications are gender economics, labour economics, and political economy of development.