NABLUS, West Bank — Every morning, 20 women head to work at Abu Salha Sweets, the largest sweets factory in Nablus, in the northern West Bank. Abu Faya, 24, and her fellow “halwanjiyat” (female pastry chefs) now make up half of the factory workers. Breaking with tradition in this sector, like others, Palestinian women are ignoring prejudices and boldly competing with men for jobs.
Abu Faya told Al-Monitor, “I graduated from the media department at An-Najah University two years ago. I have been looking for a job in my field of work in vain ever since. I had to resort to making sweets to make ends meet.”
She said, “I began working at the factory two months ago after seeing an online ad. A few months later, I excelled in making sweets.” She noted that her relatives and friends were surprised at first that she worked in a job traditionally reserved for men, but they became more supportive with time as their perceptions changed.
Hassouna told Al-Monitor, “I joined the team in early September 2014 and I was the first woman on board. I started as a clerk at the factory’s shop. Then I was promoted to the sweets-packaging department until I became an expert in making sweets. I watched the process all day and took a training course at the factory.”
Hassouna and her colleagues earn less than their fellow male chefs. She makes 1,500 Israeli shekels ($420) per month, while men are paid double that amount.
Majdi Abu Salha, one of the factory's owners, said, “We have given women the opportunity to work at the factory since 2014, when six female graduates from An-Najah University in Nablus applied for jobs.” He said that the rising number of women working there is because men are less interested in becoming pastry chefs.
Abu Salha said his business partners were surprised, as were some customers, to see women working at the factory at first. With time, they accepted the idea, and his partners even demanded more women be recruited, as they proved more competent than men at making sweets.
Abu Salha added that all new recruits undergo two to four months of intensive training before they start work. He noted that the factory pays each female employee 1,500 shekels, and the salary increases with merit.
He noted that the factory was planning to provide pastry courses for women who want to acquire these skills, an initiative that will also be supported by women’s rights organizations, the Ministry of Labor and the municipality of Nablus.
This year's survey of the Palestinian labor force published by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in April showed that in 2016, the percentage of employed Palestinian women reached 19.3% compared to 71.6% of Palestinian men.
Aisha Hamouda, the head of the women’s department at the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, told Al-Monitor, “The female pastry chefs in Nablus are examples of working Palestinian women who seek to earn money and support their families.” She added that she has tracked their progress and noted that this group of women and others have become more willing to talk about their work as their confidence in their professional skills increased.
She said that women are taking over jobs that were reserved for men for several reasons. Women constitute around 20% of the total number of Palestinian workers, divided equally between the private and public sectors. Female university graduates outnumber male graduates: For every 100 men graduating each year, 145 women graduate, said Minister of Women’s Affairs Haifa al-Agha.
Agha told Al-Monitor that the percentage of women working in the Palestinian territories remains low in comparison to European and Western countries, where employment rates for men and women are much closer and all jobs are open to men and women alike.
In Palestine, some of the jobs are closed to women by law. Women are not allowed to work in certain industries, such as mining, forestry, manufacturing or processing of asphalt, and the alcohol industry. Women's employment is high in the education and banking sectors.
Agha added that salaries of women, especially in the Gaza Strip, are lower than men’s. She said that her ministry is working to compel employers to pay at least the minimum wage to their female employees.
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