When Misada Muadi Murra and her husband Abdu renovated their grand, 100-year-old stone house in the Palestinian village of Kafr Malik, they never thought it would one day become a guesthouse for curious foreigners.
But four years ago, they began hosting international tourists in their home, after being approached by the Masar Ibrahim al-Khalil community-based tourism initiative, which manages the 194-mile (312km) walking path of the same name that runs through the West Bank.
“We really want foreigners to see how our lives are,” says Murra, who also works at the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Youth and Sport. She welcomes visitors who come to see a different Palestine, beyond the images of Israel’s separation wall, checkpoints and violence.
Like much of the Palestinian territories, Kafr Malik is beautiful. It is surrounded by olive trees growing among heads of green wheat, alongside peach trees and vines. But no visitor can fail to notice the settlements – colonies of Israeli citizens – that perch atop hillsides throughout the West Bank and are considered illegal under international law.
With funding from the World Bank – the path received a $2.3 million grant in 2014 – the Masar Ibrahim organization supports female communities, providing training in hospitality, cooking, English language, sewing and embroidery.
There are currently 150 women involved in offering homestays and meals for walkers on the path, says Amira Jaber, the Masar Ibrahim’s women and community development coordinator. There are 17 women’s centers in total, each with up to 10 women working in food production and hospitality, and 23 homestays along the trail’s length.
Women Take the Lead
At Ras al-Auja, near the ancient city of Jericho, Noura Abu Kharbish has four children and is pregnant with a fifth.
But she has no trouble running the homestay that allows visitors an insight into the camps of the West Bank’s Bedouin community. She manages bedding and accommodation, and prepares traditional meals of vine leaves, “shraq” bread – paper-thin loaves cooked over flames – and goat fat, used like butter. Here, it is she, rather than the male members of the camp, who rules the roost.
“I serve the guests here and prepare everything for them in the tent. When they feel happy, I also feel happy,” she says.
While the motivation for operating a homestay was initially financial, Kharbish, 27, describes how she has grown in confidence from the experience.
“It is not just financial; I meet people from different countries, and learn more about them,” she says. The language barrier is not necessarily an issue: “There is a translator, but for me to feel happy, it is enough when [guests] smile at me, to feel that I did a good thing for them.”
While offering homestay accommodation provides a secondary income for Murra, who holds a master’s degree in sociology and speaks English, this brand of community tourism is also helping some of Palestine’s most marginalized women, like Kharbish, to build skills, confidence and financial independence.
Data gathered by UNICEF shows that both female and male literacy rates in the Palestinian territories are high, at 98 percent for men and 92 percent for women. Female enrollment in secondary education actually exceeds male enrollment, by 92 percent to 87.
But entering the workplace poses fresh challenges. U.N. Women says Palestinian women often face disapproving attitudes about employment and experience difficulty maintaining ownership of their own finances.
Data gathered for the UNDP Human Development Report 2016 showed that Gross National Income per capita for women in Palestine is $1,766, against $8,651 for men.
“Palestinian communities are closed due to political challenges and restriction of movement, therefore women are not always very sociable,” Jaber explains.
A lack of job opportunities is also a barrier to development in the West Bank, where women suffer higher levels of unemployment than men. In 2016, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reported that the unemployment rate among Palestinian women willing and able to work was 44.7 percent, compared to 22.2 percent for men.
On average, women also earn less than men. A woman’s average daily wage in 2016 was 83.3 Israeli shekels ($23), compared to 114.1 shekels ($32) for a man.
The money women earn from providing meals and homestay accommodation – $15–20 for a lunch and $30–40 for an overnight stay – compares well in this context.
In the village of Duma, southeast of the city of Nablus, Susan Dawabsheh hosts around 12 guests per year – usually foreigners undertaking multiday treks.
Dawabsheh, who does not otherwise work, admitted that she initially felt apprehensive about having strangers to stay.
“I do not know anything about them,” she explains. “In the past, people used to say that people who speak with foreigners are spies. But now, they have started to understand that it is a normal thing. And this work provides me with a good salary.”
Dawabsheh earns around 100 shekels ($29) per guest. Although her husband is still the main breadwinner, she has been able to supplement the family income, while remaining at home to look after her four children.
“I feel proud and more confident,” she says. “It is also an exchange of cultures – seeing people and finding out about their lives.”
Noura Abu Kharbish sums up how the homestay program aims to improve women’s lives: “I am proud that other people see my culture and life in Palestine.”