Money, Power, and Inequality within Marriage among Palestinian Families in Israel

By Tal Meler

“I do not have such a way to save money for myself. All the money I receive is from my husband, and he is aware of it”

(Ruba, 36, a mother of three who had a bachelor’s degree, unemployed)

Economic practices between couples are constructed and shaped by cultural practices, religion, and tradition (Diduck & Raday, 2012). The implementation of international law aimed to promote egalitarian society and the integration of individual human rights within the family exist against this backdrop (Raday, 2012). Studying patterns of income management in Palestinian families in Israel meant analysing power relations among couples; economic, ideological, and political factors regarding the handling of household money underpinned inequality in this context (e.g. Roman & Vogler, 1999; Vogler, 2005).

Most studies of power relations and gender-based violence have focused on its physical, sexual, and psychological manifestations while relatively little research has focused on its economic aspects. Economic violence toward women is a situation in which a male abuser maintains control of the family finances, excluding women from financial decision making, preventing them from commencing or completing education, forbidding their assumption of formal or informal employment, or controlling their access to land resources (Durusay, 2013; Olufunmilayo, 2008: Meler, 2016).

Palestinian society in Israel serves as an example of an underprivileged, patriarchal society and is a national minority (21% of the population) within Israeli society (ICBS, 2018; Smooha, 2010). Palestinians are a deeply-divided group, the civil status gives rise to inequality and oppression in many aspects of life. Women in this community experience gender discrimination, originating in the patriarchal order typical of Israeli society in general, and Palestinian society in particular (Herzog, 2004; Meler, 2016, 2017). Most Palestinian women are unemployed or underemployed – working in low-paid jobs, and consequently, their contribution to the family budget is considered negligible (Fuchs & Friedman-Wilson, 2018). The financial identity of these women develops alongside general institutional discrimination, dual judicial systems (civil and religious), civil status, the existence of gender-based salary differences in Israel, and broader cultural norms (such as patriarchal structures that they are part of the experience of women in Israeli society in general and in Palestinian society in particular).

Factors affecting family budget allocation and financial autonomy of women in this society are not well understood. The present qualitative study used in-depth, semi-structured interviews to analyze patterns of financial allocation in the Palestinian family system in Israel.

Research on household resource allocation and financial management and control requires an in-depth examination of the family context, and wider structural trends. These structures form a wide spectrum. One end of the spectrum consists of families typified by a traditional extended family structure, where a couple and their children are the property of the husband’s family, with limited independence and constant supervision and intervention by the extended family (regardless of rural/urban community or education). On the other end of the spectrum are those who reject these codes to the point of achieving autonomy in decision-making processes, independent functioning of the nuclear family unit in various respects, and even maintenance of a more flexible gender division of labor and a varied of domestic arrangements sit in between these outliers (Meler, 2017).

In much research, the pattern of economic relations between spouses remains largely silenced, despite the importance of this field in family and gender aspects. These aspects include gender power relations, family decision-making processes, the ability of married women to achieve economic autonomy, and trends of women’s integration into the labor market: barriers and possibilities.

The interviews revealed a number of themes: The issue of paid employment and integration into the labor market was a central theme that emerged from the interviews, which also showed the economic status of women who work outside the household to be stronger than that of women who do not earn wages. Being employed improves women’s status in the family and allows them to participate in decision-making processes. There are social perceptions about the privileges of women working for wages. The distinction between women who receive wages and those who do not, as well as the benefits of paid labor, were explicitly expressed by the interviewees.

“A woman who does not work [for wages] has fewer rights because it is not her money, so she always feels less [worthy] than the man and depends on him and cannot be equally involved in decision-making

(Hanan, 26, a mother of three who had a high school education and who was not a salaried employee)

Another issue that I aimed to map in this study relates to the bank accounts owned by the couple, based on the budget allocation typology of Vogler and Pahl (1993), which reflects overt and covert gender power relations. Who controls the family budget?

My findings show that although a small portion of the interviewees had a joint account, many of them also had an independent bank account. The context can be varied, but still the husband’s account is the main account on which the family economy is based and it exists against the backdrop of gender-based salary differences in Israel. The findings point to the severe economic limitations imposed on women in daily life and show that an independent account may be kept for various reasons: autonomy and the possibility of saving, religious reasons, or maintaining a patriarchal pattern in which the woman is merely a pawn in the economic game and is required to open an account as part of the economic strategy of men.

“I detest my husband saying, ‘my money.’ Sometimes he says, ‘Don’t you think your expenses have increased this month?’ I answer him arrogantly, ‘I’m your wife, I’ll go and look for work. Don’t you understand that everything is expensive?’ Yet, in general, I am satisfied with this allocation and I buy the groceries and the children’s supplies”

Suha, a 30-year-old mother of three who had high school education and was trained as a special education assistant, unemployed described a model of male-dominated wage allowance, in which the husband controls the money and allocates money to be used by the wife for everyday needs and household management. Some interviewees mentioned a tight budget suggesting economic violence. As such it is the husband who allocate and manage the funds. The wife is allowed to make decisions concerning small expenses but must consult her husband regarding large expenses. Other respondents indicated that they received a large allowance.

In the case of working women, it rose as a customary for each spouse to pay for certain items in the joint expenses. This model was most popular among interviewees who defined themselves as ultra-religious because it preserves the Muslim approach that guarantees economic independence for women (inspired by Hadija, the wife of the Prophet, who was a merchant),

“I do not like to refer to money as mine or yours. Although my husband and I have separate accounts, we have always treated it as ‘our money.’ I cannot accept a situation where there is money just for me. What is mine belongs to me, my children, and my home, so I cannot say this money is only mine. Even according to religion it is unacceptable”

(Hadile, 37, a kindergarten teacher with a master’s degree, who was working full-time and who also defined herself as ultra-religious)

These characteristics of retaining control over financial resources alongside restriction and subordination are reinforced by social norms and social policy that condone male dominance and patriarchy in society. Therefore, the findings show that it is not sufficient to examine the overt mechanisms operating within the household (Pahl, 1983; Vogler, 1998) in order to deduce the extent of autonomy or economic violence that women experience. Rather, the degree of economic credit available to women should be compared to the credit, property, and economic abilities of men in the family, regardless of the economic practice (joint account, independent account, or stipend).

Another issue refers to ‘Savings’. There are overt and covert mechanisms women employ, which reflect the manners in which income is allocated de facto in the household. Through these mechanisms, women negotiate with the patriarchal context and cope with it when they challenge the authority of men without causing substantial shortage of household or children’s needs. Such financial independence of women can be achieved using gifts from the woman’s parents or savings the woman initiates out of her allowance. Some interviewees save openly whereas others do so without the husband’s knowledge – secret kitties” (Eroglu, 2009).

“I save a small sum of money, saving a penny for a rainy day [in Arabic, saving a white penny for a black day] … I might need this money someday. This is secret money. My husband does not know of it, and it is for personal use only”

(Nivin, 26, a mother of two with high school education, who did not work for wages)

I want to draw attention to economic violence as a type of domestic violence that is typically excluded in domestic violence studies. The continuum between normative and violent behavior is evident in the theoretical literature. Shedding light on everyday practices between spouses – which have remained silenced thus far – has resulted in the normalisation of a number of budget allocation patterns, some of which can be considered as violent, and others which limit the freedom of women in different ways.

So far, the State of Israel does not enforce the law regarding the practices that can be identified as economic violence. Such behavior is treated as if it were external to the legal system and as such continues to constitute a valid component of the “other’s” cultural norms and traditions.

Therefore, such information can be used to develop intervention programs and garner resources for women whose economic status has been compromised by an economically controlling and exploitive partner. Raising awareness of the issue should also lead to the initiation of intervention and support programs aimed to promote financial literacy among young girls and women as well as economic patterns of equality. Such programs would complement the changes already taking place in Palestinian society in Israel, where more women acquire higher education and integrate in the labor market.

Tal Meler is a senior lecturer in sociology and gender studies at the Zefat Academic College, Israel. Her PhD dissertation for the Program for Gender Studies at Bar-Ilan University deals with Palestinian single mothers in Israel. Her areas of specialization are the sociology of the family, Palestinian women in Israel and the Palestinian family in Israel, and economic violence.

You can read Tal Meler’s recently published article in The Sociological Review here.

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