10 March 2009
Wafa Khatib looks every inch the confident business woman as she sits manning a stall at an event organized to mark International Women’s Day (8 March 2009) in Dheisheh refugee camp near the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Wafa is a co-founder and operational manager of the Aseela Women’s Cooperative. The cooperative, which is run exclusively by women, produces a range of traditional Palestinian olive oil soap products.
The cooperative is currently enjoying a great margin of success with products sold both locally and around the world in Japan and Europe. Wafa is very proud of the cooperative’s achievements, especially in a society still predominantly dominated by men and patriarchal traditions.
"It has been and still is very hard work," she explains. She has found herself battling with people’s prejudices and preconceptions. "People think that women need a man to run things, but we have succeeded by ourselves. When we first set it up we were told that we would not be able to have a women’s only cooperative as nearly all of the other cooperatives were run by men. However, we have succeeded."
Wafa did not start her professional life as a business woman. In fact for many years she was a nurse at the Augusta Victoria hospital. However, as Israeli closures of the West Bank intensified during the course of the second intifada she found herself unable to make the short journey from her home in Dheisheh refugee camp to the hospital on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. The Israeli closures are a host of measures which restrict Palestinian movement both within the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) and between the oPt and Israel.
For Wafa these closures meant that she was forced to give up her job. Finding herself unemployed and excluded from opportunities in East Jerusalem she set about trying to find alternative employment in the more immediate area of her home in Dheisha Camp.
However, closures meant that the population of Bethlehem and the surrounding area was facing economic decline and high unemployment. Finding few opportunities for herself Wafa decided to take things into her own hands. In the autumn of 2004 she was one of 15 women who established the Aseela Women’s cooperative as a grass-roots economic initiative to generate some much needed income for families in refugee camps and rural areas surrounding Bethlehem.
Wafa’s success and determination makes her a great role model for young Palestinian women. However, she herself does not feel too optimistic for the progress of gender equality in her society so long as closures continue to suffocate the West Bank economy.
"The chance for a better life is very limited here," she reflects. "The closures have caused much suffering and have meant that people have very little hope for the future". She has seen how this has been having a detrimental effect on women’s status in society. "Things were different when I was younger, women were allowed more freedom and were encouraged into education. We were freer to express ourselves and to wear what we wanted." Now however she has noticed that more and more girls drop out of school early and fewer go into professions.
The situation as she sees it remains bleak. "When people have no income and are surviving daily from hand to mouth their minds become blocked, it becomes more difficult for families to allow and encourage their daughters to be independent and empowered."