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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Trailblazer for Palestinian women

Abeer Abu Ghaith, the first female high-tech entrepreneur in the West Bank, is proving how the local IT and communications sector can transform the lives of women

DURA, West Bank // Growing up in a traditional society, Abeer Abu Ghaith was often told a woman’s future is in her husband’s kitchen. Quietly, she proved everyone wrong.

Ms Abu Ghaith, 29, has become the first female high-tech entrepreneur in the West Bank, setting up an online employment brokerage and software development firm. Last month, the Palestinian trailblazer was recognised by regional high-tech leaders at the Women in Technology Awards in the Middle East and Africa.

Ms Abu Ghaith has put in 16-hour days, showing how the local IT and communications sector can transform the lives of other women by giving them access to jobs and financial independence.

Palestinian women already make up a majority of students in many colleges and universities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but after they graduate, the traditional gender expectations usually kick in – that they should get married first and worry about a career later.

Those determined to work face a tough job market with double-digit unemployment and employers who often prefer male applicants. Job choices are further constricted by family concerns that a young woman’s reputation could be tarnished if she returns home late from work or has to travel for the job. Only about 20 per cent Palestinian women work outside the home, compared to nearly 70 per cent of men, according to the International Labour Organisation.

“Palestinian women face a lot of challenges,” said Ms Abu Ghaith, the second-oldest of nine brothers and sisters, speaking at her family home in the town of Dura, one of the most conservative areas of the West Bank. “We have plenty of qualified women in my area who have no access to jobs.”

She graduated from the Polytechnic University in the nearby city of Hebron in 2007 and still works for her alma mater as a career counselor for IT students.

Last year, she set up her company, StayLinked, which serves as a talent broker between Palestinian freelancers and businesses in need of services, such as translation, data entry, graphic design, online marketing and website development. Customers include companies in the US and the Arabain Gulf.

Ms Abu Ghaith has three business partners, including a female friend, a male expert in IT training and a company that offered advice in the early stages. The two women pooled their savings to contribute to US$30,000 (Dh110,000) in start-up costs and control 70 per cent of the business.

So far, StayLinked has provided paid employment for about 40 freelancers, half of them women.

The company has not turned a profit yet, but Ms Abu Ghaith said that was in line with expectations. The past year showed that the business model worked, she said, hoping to expand significantly this year.

Ms Abu Ghaith has been a cautious rebel, pushing boundaries gradually instead of crossing them at once. In a nod to custom and her own beliefs, she wears a headscarf, prays regularly at a local mosque and lives with her parents, as is expected of unmarried women.

At the same time, she will not let anyone deter her.

“As a woman, I can help and change the world in my own way, even if the society wants to confine us in the kitchen and the house,” she said, sitting at a desk in her cramped bedroom, which doubles as an office. “I have changed the world from the house.”

Hassan Kassem, who heads the association of IT companies in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, said Ms Abu Ghaith is unique in the sector as a woman who started her own company. Several other women run businesses on the edge of the sector, including firms involved in e-marketing and social media, according to a local business women’s group.

Mr Kassem’s association represents about 150 medium and larger companies in IT and communications technology that employ about 8,000 people. He said the sector could double over the next five years and make up 20 per cent of Palestinian economic activity.

The Palestinian economy has been hampered by years of conflict and continued trade and travel restrictions by Israel. The IT sector is largely immune to such obstacles.

Mr Kassem said IT jobs are especially appealing to women, in part because they can work from home, within the confines of tradition. He said he expects that “in five years, we will have many Abeers in our country.”

Ms Abu Ghaith, meanwhile, hopes the award she won last month, as “best technology enabler and facilitator”, will give her venture an extra boost. The award was one of seven handed out by a group called Women in Technology in the Middle East and Africa. The jurors included executives from IBM, Cisco and HP.

Ms Abu Ghaith could not attend the prize ceremony in Dubai because of visa restrictions. As encouragement, the glass trophy now sits on her desk, next to her laptop.

* Associated Press