Brenda Gazzar, in makeshift hijab

JERUSALEM (WOMENSENEWS)–In Israel and the Palestinian territories, where weighty issues such as war, occupation, security and terrorism are often the backdrop, my life as a journalist reminds me that life can be complicated for the women who live here.

In the course of my reporting, I have been fortunate to meet a number of strong Israeli and Palestinian women who have dedicated themselves to promoting peace, advocating for equality and women’s rights and improving the quality of life for women in their communities. For example, I recently met an Israeli teenager who spent two weeks in jail after refusing to serve in the army on feminist grounds. I also met a Palestinian doctor who has dedicated her life to bettering women’s health in the occupied Palestinian territories. Both women have made impressive sacrifices for a chance to repair their world.

Compared to these women, my own experiences as a foreign visitor may be less significant, but they remind me that no woman anywhere is immune from discrimination–and at times even favoritism–for simply being a woman.

As a new and struggling U.S. freelance journalist in Jerusalem, I was thrilled to spot an Internet job posting for a writer/reporter/publicist for an Israeli nonprofit organization last March.

With more than four years of daily journalism experience under my belt and a dual master’s degree in communications and Middle Eastern studies, I felt I was certainly qualified. I immediately forwarded my resume and some writing samples. My excitement, however, turned to disbelief when I received the following e-mail response: “Thank you for your resume. For this position, we need either a man or a married woman. Do you fit either?”

The last sentence was punctuated with a happy face.

Was this national organization, which aims to awaken Israelis to their Jewish heritage and help them lead more observant lives, going to eliminate me as a candidate for the job because I am a woman who happens to be unmarried?

The answer, apparently, was yes. 🙁

I pressed her. Could she tell me why this would be a requirement? I never heard from her again.

Facing Discrimination

Women in Israel, as in many other democracies, face workplace and hiring discrimination for many reasons, including because they are of child-bearing age and presumably could leave work to raise a family.

Fifty-five percent of Israeli women age 15 and older participate in the work force compared to 59 percent of U.S. women ages 16 and up, according to the Tel-Aviv based think tank the Adva Center.

In some rare jobs a woman’s marital status might be pertinent and therefore justified as a requirement in Israel but the burden lies with the employer to successfully demonstrate that is the case, said Tziona Koenig-Yair, who heads the legal department of a prominent women’s rights advocacy group, the Ramat Gan-based Israel Women’s Network.

A Jewish organization employing a writer, for instance, might be able to show that Orthodox men would refuse to be interviewed by an unmarried female journalist. If the job required interviewing only those in the ultra Orthodox Jewish community–about 8 percent of Israeli society–then perhaps that might be a valid reason. In most cases, however, Koenig-Yair said, requiring a certain marital status is discriminatory and illegal in Israel.

My Israeli colleague, freelancer Sima Borkovski, shares a related incident. A religious Jewish couple recently approached her to write articles for a new ultra-Orthodox newspaper about health.

After a few phone conversations with the husband, Sima was told they would have to publish her articles under a man’s name to avoid offending their readers. She had no choice but to agree to their conditions, she said, if she wanted the articles to be published and to get paid.

Blunt Advances

In addition to being disqualified from one position because of my marital status, a number of story subjects and sources have made sexual advances. While this can happen to any journalist anywhere–male and female–Israeli and Palestinian men in my experience are far more aggressive and blunt.

For example, after just one interview, a Palestinian official said he wanted to see me socially at least once a week and an Israeli official said he would agree to be identified in an article if he could take me out for coffee.

Many people I meet and interview in the course of my work–particularly Palestinian–also take a keen interest in my personal life.

“How old are you?” (I’m 32.) “Why aren’t you married?” (Haven’t found Mr. Right.) “Do you have children?” (No.)

And what, I wonder, does this have to do with the peace process?

This is also a place where dress code matters. If I am interviewing an Orthodox Jew or a devout Muslim, I know it’s in my best interest to dress modestly.

When I found myself without a hijab before an interview with a religious Islamic official, I resorted to using my red knitted scarf that I wear in cold winter months as a makeshift (and bulky) head-covering. While I believe the scarf probably salvaged my interview at the home of one ultra-conservative Hamas official, another Hamas spokesperson did not hide his bewilderment at my attempt to cover my head. “Are you Muslim?” he inquired after the interview.

When I explained that I was simply covering my light brown locks out of respect, he surprised me by chuckling and telling me it wasn’t necessary.

Being a Woman Helps

Being a female reporter in Israel and the Palestinian territories also has its advantages. I believe women get preferential treatment by Israeli soldiers while entering sensitive areas perhaps in part because they are considered less of a security risk.

My colleague, print journalist Michele Chabin, says that both Israeli soldiers and Islamic militants have, at times, been kinder to her than to her male counterparts.

In addition, while in the West Bank several years ago to cover the wedding of a U.S. Palestinian woman and a local Palestinian man for USA Today, Chabin found that she and a female photographer were treated like other members of the clan at the pre-wedding henna party, where women typically gather to decorate the bride’s hands and feet with natural skin dye, share marriage secrets and bond.

The family even started acting like matchmakers on their behalf.

“This was one time when being a woman was a definite plus,” Michele said.

With all the challenges of being a freelance journalist here–navigating government bureaucracy, getting clients to pay and the highly competitive market–I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. My short time as a freelancer here has taught me not only about the region but about assertiveness, innovation and dogged persistence.

And there’s hope, too, that people will soon know better than to ask if I am married. The Knesset recently passed a law to create Israel’s first Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by the end of the year to better enforce anti-discrimination laws and help abolish gender discrimination in the workplace.

Now that, I would say, merits a happy face.

Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. She has also lived or worked stints in Spain, Egypt and Mexico and has a joint master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies and communications from the University of Texas at Austin.

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For more information:

“Jewish and Arab Women Unite Against War”:

“Palestinians Debate Women’s Future Under Hamas”:

“Israeli Women Push to Change Knesset Politics”:

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