Women at Work (Jerusalem, 1920-1936)

By Leyla Dakhli
Submitted to Session P4763 (Gendered Transformations: "New Women" of the Mandate Period, 2017 Annual Meeting
The Levant;
19th-21st Centuries;
The role and place of Middle eastern elite women during the Mandate, especially the role they played in raising national consciousness and in educating their fellow women, is well known. Most of studies on Feminism and women’s movements have focused on this bourgeois milieu and its social work. This perspective is often justified - and obviously legitimately – by the absence of women in institutional archives and “official documentation” in the region.
The work of the “Open Jerusalem” ERC program over the past three years allows us today, at least for the city of Jerusalem, to be able to cross documentations and consider the possibility of accessing other stories, especially on the “invisibles”, among them the working woman.
This paper aims to frame the presence, role, and life of women in the holy city during the British Mandate. It is based on original documentation from a selection of archives of the city, combining missionary documentation (mainly the Rosary Sisters’ papers and the Custodian Archives), the Municipal Minutes, Consular archives (mainly French, Italian and British) and some newspapers. Its main focus is the workplaces and the public, social and political presence of women in the daily life of the city. The attention to women’s their role in education, business and commercial activities, and mediation and services, show at the same time the social economic value of women in the global urban economy and the importance of social stratifications. Gender, class and confessions played a specific role in the definition of a feminine working group that helped to define a national struggle for independence and emancipation in the 1936 Revolt.
Palestinian women, confronted by the British Mandate and the growing Zionist movements, faced to the transformation of their position due to the progress of the Arab feminist national movement, and negotiated their own practices and presence in the public life. The examination of women’s daily activities and practices may introduce us to the complexity and the ambiguity of their social position, not confined to private and close spaced (even though pushed in that direction by a growing conservative movement, especially among men of religion ), but directly confronted to the public struggle for hegemony and power in streets, markets and fabrics, schools, mosques and churches.