Education and Professional Development in Jerusalem during the Mandate Period

Education and Professional Development

Education and professions are linked together as topics that lead to one another, or /and affect one another. The more educated people are, the more job opportunities increase and evolve. In the Palestinian case, this was not an exception. As education became accessible and was not limited to a specific class in the society (the rich) , the needs and demands started to change and the education of women and thus her involvement and participation in different professions became noticeable. It is important not to forget that the modernization towards the end of the nineteenth century is “identified with the emergence of enlighted patriarchs, modernizing upper-class elites, and liberal families.”[1] One can relate to modernity partly in women’s rejection to their only roles in domestic duties, education helped women in transforming their gender roles. Whereas, women became change agents in the society.[2]

After the announcement of the constitution in 1908, a major change occurred in schools and the education system. The number of compulsory educational years before university became twelve. The community established more schools. This resulted in a new movement and an increase of cultural development that included the spread of libraries and printing houses and media. Printing had remained prominent in Jerusalem since its first establishment in 1846 with the Franciscan Fathers Printing House, and it spread in 1908. Media entered Palestine in 1876, when the Ottomans published the official paper, al Quds Al Sharif, in both Arabic and Turkish. In the same year, Sheikh Ali Rimawi published another monthly newspaper, al Azal, in Arabic. From 1908 to 1917, around thirty papers were published in different cities, among them Jerusalem. This resulted in increased literacy and scientific as well as religious production.[3]

This opening of the city resulted as well in new job opportunities in the government for both men and women. “The British were interested in establishing a corps of capable government civil servants who could administer efficiently to their own political and strategic interests in Palestine, while in general maintaining the social status quo.” [4] However, the increase in the educational level acted as an agent of social and economic change, which resulted in challenges to the British attempt to maintain the status quo.


‘Ayda Najjar speaks about schools in Jerusalem in that period, with an interesting analysis about how they affected girls’ education. According to Najjar, what marked the emergence of a “class” aspect of the Palestinian structure was the economic situation that prohibited poor families from sending their children, especially girls, schools, and the emergence of educational aspiration among the rich. The emergence of private and missionary schools enabled girls as well as boys to obtain better educations, and opened the option of education abroad, which ultimately resulted in providing that sector of the society with better job opportunities, especially since such schools provided education in languages other than Arabic. At that time, the Turkish government was neglecting Arabic as a language, and students were forced to learn Turkish. Competition among schools started at the beginning of the twentieth century, whereas missionary schools competed in providing better services and education and promoting their languages. Among schools that were opened for girls were Schmidt’s for the Germans, Salesian Monastery for the Italians, and St. Joseph for the French. Consequently, the Friends school was founded, from which ‘Isam ‘Abdel Hadi, Serene Husseini, and others graduated. The competition among schools expanded to the Islamic Council, which established the Muslim Girls School within the Aqsa mosque in the old city.  In that period, a female “sheikh,” Sheikha Zahra Al Saleh, was known as a Qur’an teacher in the Abu Suoud Zawiyeh (corner) in the Aqsa mosque. She taught several girls, among them Najjah and Na’eemeh al Saleh, who later became a teacher at Rawdet al Ma’arefschool (est. 1896), which was headed earlier by their father. Other public girls’ schools were established in Jerusalem, including the New Ma’muniyyeh, the Old Ma’muniyyeh, and Dar al Mu’allimāt (teachers college).[5][6]

The education of women allowed, as well, the opening of more opportunities for women in the work field, in an attempt to improve upon family income in less-privileged areas in the urban part of the country. Consequently, more women left the general devastation and poverty that resulted from the First World War to work in Jerusalem. This gave an active form of life inside Jerusalem and to women. Women started to challenge the traditions that secluded them from public life. Among the upper and middle classes in Jerusalem, education allowed women to actively participate in job-seeking, both on a voluntary basis and for employment.

Serene Husseini Shahid offers an important documentation of and reflection on education among Jerusalem families. It is undoubted that the opportunities and lifestyle that Husseini describes were mostly limited to society’s elite class, but it is also undoubted that those opportunities were there. Husseini went to the Islamic New Institute in the old city of Jerusalem until the British forces closed it in 1930. The institute was an educational resource for Palestinian girls.[7]

In her testimony, Serene Husseini speaks also about Hind al Husseini, who was a few years older than her.

Urbanizing of the country increased work-seeking; during that period, poverty and deforestation led people who had relied on farming in rural Palestine to seek different kinds of work. This resulted in the founding of charitable organizations that provided relief aid to those in need. On the one hand, the pressure of the war forced women in the lower class to seek jobs. On another hand, those from a higher level began to develop leadership roles for women through relief and charitable work. In Fleischmann’s book, she mentions a Palestinian woman’s testimony on that situation: “Saīda Jārallah’s father, an eminent judge in the Islamic courts, was unusually progressive regarding the education of his seven daughters. He recognized that providing them with the ability to earn their own living reduced their vulnerability in insecure times.”[8] Saīda Jārallah was the first Muslim woman to travel to England on her own to complete her education, in 1938.

Another account of such testimony is mentioned in ‘Anbara Khalidi’s biography, describing her fatherencouraging her education, and later allowing her to get involved in work and complete her education.

The experience of Fadwa Touqan, years later, was harsher. She gave a different, as well as traditional, testimony in her biography. She was secluded, being a girl, and not allowed to get any education. It was the attention of her renowned brother, Ibrahim Touqan, many years later, that helped her get out of that seclusion and allowed her to write.[9]

Nimra Tannous was another example of a woman who became renowned, as the telegraph operator linking communications between the Arab armies in 1948, having come to Jerusalem from a village in the north with her mother and sister so that the girls could continue their educations and later work for the government.

Nimra later became a major contributor to the Palestinian resistance in the 1940s when she assisted ‘Abdel Qader al Husseini in assuring calls that were received through the mailing system. She became a liaison officer between the Arab troops and the international mediator, Count Bernadotte, who was assassinated by the Zionists in 1948. She also worked as a volunteer in the Jordanian army, where she wore the military outfit.[10]

Another woman is Nahed ‘Abdu Al Sajdi, who came from Nablus and attended the secondary school run by the government, the Women’s Training College in Jerusalem.[11]

In another phase of the British Mandate period, education proved to help women at a different level, which resulted in an important political account. Indeed, the increased education of women was a subject of controversy as well as a liberalizing influence in Palestinian society. The role and status of women stimulated lively discussions and debates in the press, for example.[12] Women were contributing to articles and were, as well, the subject of discussions regarding the veil and women’s rights. In short, “people managed in that period to work, go to school, and survive. This and social and economic changes provided a period in which Palestinian Arab women could develop and grow into expanding roles.”[13] ‘Ayda Najjar mentions in her book, al Quds and al Bint al Shalabiya, women who participated in different roles in the society.[14]

Among the women who were active in Jerusalem life in the 1930s was Kathy Antonius, the wife of the Lebanese writer Antonius and the daughter of the journalist Faris Nimer, owner of al Muqattam newspaper in Egypt.[15] Kathy was among the women who participated in Huda Sha’rawi’s invitation to the conference in Cairo in 1938. She was a member of the Palestinian women’s movement.

In education, the Palestinian society seemed to have inherited the same passion toward educating the younger generation. Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, in his autobiography, Al Bi’r al Oūlā (The First Well), expresses his strong anguish and that of his generation in the push toward education. Jabra was born to a poor family and went on a scholarship to Britain, where he acquired higher degrees and later served as a teacher in Jerusalem and Iraq. Even though it was definitely easier for members of the higher classes to obtain education and send their children abroad, education wasn’t limited to the elite level of the society. Khalil al Sakakini wrote extensively in his biography on the difficulties and challenges of education and his role as a teacher. Education was a consistent challenge, one that Palestinians strived to promote.

This affected the status of women in approaching education. A generation of educated women in many ways promoted the education of more generations of women. Teaching was a career that remained acceptable for females to work in. The establishment of the private missionary schools led to the establishment of more schools by the government to create balance and fulfill demand, among which was r al Mu’allimāt,established in 1919.[16]

Medicine, as a field of specialization, remains an aspiration in the Palestinian family; parents aspire to have a doctor in the family, a desire that seems to have been prominent in the Palestinian mind since the early twentieth century. Women took over the midwifery positions, which had been the societal norm in the previous decades. Jerusalem had tens of midwives, who expanded throughout the neighborhoods inside and outside the old city of Jerusalem in the first decades of the twentieth century. In medicine, women were present as well—a remarkable fact in a time when medicine wasn’t even widely open to men.[17]

Among the professions to which women contributed were radio broadcasting; some women participated in radio shows in the 1930s and 1940s. Fatimah Mousa Budeiri was a well-known name as a news broadcaster. She worked with Isam Hammād, who later became her husband. After the Nakba, she and her husband started al Sham Radio in Damascus. Her name echoed the sentence “Huna al Quds” for generations to come. Al Budeiri also participated in women’s and children’s shows on the radio and literal related topics. Salwa Khammash, Nuzha Khalidi, and Samiha Samara were three names that young adults and children grew up on, listening to their children’s shows. Henriette Siksik, who was also known as Miss Suād, was a writer and presenter of educational shows.[18]

Women’s organizations became active in mother and child care, providing free services, and daily papers such as al Difa’ and al Carmel contributed by publishing articles that promoted women’s education and health-care issues.[19]

Among the exceptional professionals in that time was also the female photographer Karimah Abboud, who was born in Nazareth and lived in Bethlehem. Karima had a studio in Jerusalem and was very well-known among families.[20]

[1] Abu Lughod:  Chapter 2 : ‘Aisha Taymur’s Tears and the Critique of the Modernist and the Feminist Discourses on Nineteenth-Century Egypt. Mervat Hatem. p. 74

[2] Ibid.

[3]Sheriff, Maher. “Palestine Ottoman History., 16-10-2013.


[4] Fleischmann, Ellen. Jerusalem Women’s Organizations During the British Mandate (1920s-1930s). PASSIA 1995 ,p. 12

[5] Najjar, Bint al Shalabiya p. 135–141

[6] Even though girls’ education wasn’t recommended and popular in the villages, Arifa Najjar established Banāt Lifta School in the mid-1940s. ‘Arifa got her education in the Silesian Italian School in Jerusalem. Later, her sister Rifqa Najjar, who graduated from Schmidt’s school, became the principal of Al Zarqa Girls School directly after the 1948 Nakba. Ibid., 145–147

[7] When the institute was closed, S. Husseini speaks about the choice of schools made by her parents, which, according to her, were many. At that time Jerusalem was filled with missionary schools and local ones. Schools converged from German, Italian, French and American. Toward the end, her family chose the Friends School in Ramallah. The director of the school was a woman. She mentions in her biography her Arabic teacher, Eva Bader. Husseini, Jerusalem Memories.

[8] Mrs. Jārallah recollected: “He would say that a woman should have her diploma like a bracelet in her hand. For if she did not get married but was widowed or divorced, she would be independent and have her own job and life, and not depend on her father or brother to support her.” Fleischmann, The Women’s Movement in Jerusalem, 1920s to 1930s .p. 15

[9] Touqan Fadwa, Rihla Jabaliya Sa’ba (a difficult mountain journey) . A biography . Dar Al Shurouq for publishing and distribution . Ramallah, 2nd Ed., 2005

[10] Najjar, Bint al Shalabiya, p. 41-42

[11] Fleischmann, The Women’s Movement in Jerusalem, 1920s to 1930s p. 16

[12] Ibid., p. 17

[13] Ibid., p. 18-19

[14] Among other names are: Najla Nassār, a graduate of Schmidt’s Girls College, and Mary Anton ‘Attalla, a woman who worked in the tourism business in Jerusalem and received a master’s degree in social studies from Harvard University in the 1930s. Among such women was also Sultana Halaby (1901–1985), who received a university degree in business in the United States of America in 1934 and established one of the first commercial libraries in Jerusalem, which included the “artistic section,” to which Mary Attalla contributed. See: Najjar.

[15] After the death of her husband in 1942, Kathy used the Mufti’s Palace (the house of Amīn al Husseini) as a center for international exchange among journalists and diplomats, and which served as a cultural venue for years to come. The Antoniuses rented the palace from the owner, who was their close friend.See: Najjar.

[16] The number of students in the years 1924–1925 was 54, rising to 154 in the years 1945 and 1946. The graduates of that institute reached more than three hundred until the Nakba. Among the teachers in the institute were: Saīda Jārallah, Jawhara Kamar, Ester Khouri, Mrs. Qattān, Yusra Salah, and ‘Adawiyah al ‘Alami. Among the graduates were: Saba Fahoum, Yusra Barbari, ‘Isam Husseini, ‘Abla Nassir, Rene’ Matar, lawahez ‘Abdel Hadi, Wasīlla ‘Abdel Hadi, Nuha Milhes, and ‘Aisha Tījāni, who became a well-known radio broadcaster after the Nakba. Ma’muniyyeh School comprised many female teachers, including: ‘Ayda al Khadra, Ni’mati Qmei’, Leila Khalidi, Sabiha and Kamirān al Masri, Nadiyyah Rassas, Ni’meh al Saleh, Basima Fares, ‘Aliyeh Nusseibeh, Zakiyya Budeiri, ‘Itaf Hammād, Amal Medawar, Lam’ah Ghosheh, Alice Kashishian, Īkram Khalidi, and others. Najjar, Bint al Shalabiya, p. 161

[17] In the 1930s, Jerusalem knew Dr. Abla Fawzi, who worked in the government hospital. Dr. Laura Mughrabi was a gynecologist and a pediatrician. Dr. Mughrabi had a private clinic, Damascus Gate. Dr. Salwa Khouri ‘Utaqi also worked in the government hospital. In Ramallah, Dr. Charlotte Nicola Saba was known, and was a graduate of London. In Ma’man Allah (mammilla), Dr. Naheel Dajāni operated a dentistry clinic. Najjar, Bint al Shalabiya, p. 104–107

[18] Palestine also knew other women who presented radio shows and sections with women: Salwa Sa’id, Wadi’ah Shatara, ‘Aziza al Hashimi al Saleh under the supervision of Mufida Dabbagh. Journalists including Asma Toubi, Samira ‘Azzam, Najwa Ka’war, Sadhij Nassār, Samīra Abu Ghazaleh, Poet Fadwa Touqan, Mary Sheḥadeh and others were also often hosted on radio shows. Najjar, Ayda, Bin al Shalabiya, p. 171-172

[19] Ibid., p. 107–108

[20] Ibid., p. 122

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