- Published on Monday, 30 April 2012 13:48
LINDA GRADSTEIN meets a new generation of Palestinian businesswomen helping to transform the economy and society of the West Bank
From The Jerusalem Report, issue dated May 7, 2012
The Zman café would look at home on the streets of Berlin, Paris or Jerusalem. The modern design and sleek gray and red colors, strong coffee and fancy salads, are enjoyed by the laptop-toting crowd, some of whom settle in for a long stay.
But this is Ramallah, the Palestinians' political and financial capital. And the managing partner of Zman is a woman, 48-year-old Hoda al-Jack.
"We did a lot of things against the cultural norms of coffee shops here," al-Jack tells The Jerusalem Report over a cup of Zman's trademark beverage. "People thought we were crazy. They were laying bets that we would close within three months."
Al-Jack says Palestinians weren't used to paying first at the cash register, or paying $2.50 for a cup of coffee. They also weren't used to female baristas. Al-Jack says she made no special accommodations for women managers. Part of their job was closing the store at midnight, even though it is not proper for young unmarried women to be out alone late at night. Despite it all, Zman, she says, is thriving. She recently opened a second branch.
Because of the intifada many men were in prison so more women joined the economy. They simply had no choice
Al-Jack is one of a growing number of Palestinian businesswomen who are changing the image of Palestinian women and serving as role models for young women in the West Bank.
Along with the coffee shop, al-Jack is vice president of Siraj Palestine Fund One, the first private Palestinian equity fund, which recently closed at $90 million dollars.
She says that Israel is indirectly responsible for the growing participation of women in the Palestinian work force. "We have a male-centric economy," she says. "But because of the intifada many men were in prison so more women joined the economy. They simply had no choice."
Women's participation rates are still low. The Palestinian Bureau of Statistics says that just 16.6 percent of Palestinian women are active in the workforce, though that is an increase from 10.3 percent in 2001. This also does not include women who are part of a widespread informal economy – selling vegetables they grow or handicrafts they make.
There is an influx of Palestinians with a different value set which is mainly happening in Ramallah
Al-Jack is an example of a cosmopolitan Palestinian. Her father is a Sudanese diplomat and her mother is half-Palestinian and half-Lebanese. She went to high school in England and university in the US. She has an MBA from the Kellogg school at Northwestern. Her husband, Bahar Amer, is a Palestinian.
Al-Jack was living a comfortable existence in Glendale, California when her husband came back to the West Bank in 2000 to care for his aging father. In 2003, al-Jack and her two children followed. It was not an easy entry, she recalls. They were intimidated by the presence of Israeli soldiers, their Arabic was weak, and the West Bank felt foreign. Now, she says, she wouldn't consider leaving.