"You will be the builders of Palestine," Vera Baboun said last week in her address to Bethlehem University's graduating class of 2013. The majority of her listeners were women—three out of four of the students sitting in the colosseum-style stadium were female, and Baboun herself was in the process of completing a Ph.D. when she was elected as Bethlehem's first female mayor last year.
Bethlehem University is hardly alone in its demographics—as part of a wider trend in the Arab world, Palestinian women are increasingly attending universities and earning diplomas in higher education. In the West Bank and Gaza, women are now graduating from universities at a higher rate than men and are outperforming their male peers at the high-school level.
Fadwa al-Labadi, associate professor of women's studies at Al-Quds University, says the increase of women in higher education reflects changing values in what is traditionally a patriarchal society. "In the last couple decades women have become more involved in public life—they are on the streets, and they participated in protesting the last elections. This also extends to education, and people have discovered that women should also be educated," she says. "Women are now expected to play three roles—they have reproductive responsibilities, they are the organizers of the home, and they are working in the public sphere."
According to al-Labadi, families also prefer to educate their daughters as a matter of prestige, and men prefer marrying educated women, even if their wives don't ultimately end up in the workforce. It's also become more likely that women will continue for an advanced degree after they earn their B.A. and more acceptable—desirable even—for families to send their daughters to study abroad.
"Ten years ago, when I told people I wanted to study abroad, they looked at me like I was crazy," says 25-year-old Amira Musallam, who studied in Spain last year and is working toward her second B.A. in accounting at Bethlehem University. "But now, all the girls I know that graduate are looking for a scholarship abroad to do their master's or Ph.D. Little by little you are seeing that we are becoming a more open-minded generation."
The rising number of women earning degrees is already affecting certain aspects of Palestinian society. A recent study by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics found that in 2009, the average age of marriage for women with at least a bachelor's degree was 24.5 years while those with only a preparatory certificate married at an average age of 17.4 years. In addition, women who attend university are more likely to have children at a later age.
Hanadi al-Khatib, 22, was a member of last week's graduating class and got engaged in her penultimate semester at Bethlehem University. "My fiancé is studying in New York," she says. "If he was here I wouldn't be able to be a wife and study at the same time. If it came down to it and I had to choose between getting married and going to school—I'd choose school." Al-Khatib hopes to work for a year in the bio-medical field before applying to master's and Ph.D. programs.
That's not to say that married women aren't still attending universities—they are. According to al-Labadi, it's becoming more common for Muslim marriage contracts to stipulate that the wife will continue her education after marriage.
But despite their high rate of education, and undoubtedly in part because more women are entering the Palestinian job market (and living in an economy that is already limited due to its occupied status), women face an unemployment rate of 33 percent, up from 14 percent in 2001, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. The unemployment rate for men in 2012 was 20 percent in comparison. Furthermore, women with 13 years of schooling or more suffer from the highest rate of unemployment in the Palestinian territories, at nearly 45 percent. The report indicated that women make up less than 18 percent of the labor force.
While some industries, like banking, may prefer to hire female employees, women are struggling to make it into the highest positions in industries across the board. Nearly all the graduates and experts interviewed for this story mentioned that, in a society where women traditionally get married young and have several children, prospective employers were hesitant to hire women for fear that they would get pregnant and need time off.
Women here also tend to play a limited role in leadership positions. Though they made up 60 percent of university graduates last year, women accounted for less than 20 percent of teaching staff at those same universities. As of 2011, women made up only about 13 percent of the members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, 15 percent of senior government positions, and less than 6 percent of ambassadors, according to research presented at the Hawaiian International Conference on Social Sciences.
As a medical doctor who also holds a Ph.D., Khuloud Khayyat Dajani is one Palestinian woman who has broken through the glass ceiling. But, she emphasizes, it wasn't easy. "In the medical field people have assumed that I am the nurse, while some man is the doctor. In an academic setting, it can be difficult for your ideas to be heard and really listened to and accepted by a room full of men. Sometimes I feel like rather than a glass ceiling, I'm sitting in a glass bottle, unable to be heard," she says. But if you're strong and consistent enough, she continues, "you can break that glass."
Even if women continue to struggle to find work, al-Khatib says not all is lost. "Educated mothers raise educated daughters, and this can only be good for society. In the long run our daughters will get more equality and play bigger roles in society."
Musallam adds, "Women possess positive power in our hearts and our minds and emotions and not necessarily with our muscles. If more women become leaders, I think the world would be better." And in Palestine, she says, "we might see some very serious changes."