For Arab women in Israel, raising their voice requires crossing both patriarchal universal barriers and local struggles that stem from the status of the Arab minority in Israel. Arab society and Arab women specifically, are undergoing significant changes that are becoming manifest in different ways. However, pursuing equality involves not only funding and resources but also issues of identity and recognition.
Arab women in Israel are a minority within a minority. They suffer from dual marginalisation – both a gender minority and a national minority. Some activists also refer to traditional and religious constraints within Arab society as a third level of exclusion (see for example Haaretz 2016).
Data on employment and education of Arab women in Israel tells a complex story. It shows encouraging trends but also reveals their limitations. While employment rates of Arab women increased significantly in recent years (from 17% to 26% between 2003 and 2013), their participation rate is still 2.5 times less than that of Arab men and of Jewish women (both around 66%). They also earn significantly lower salaries than other Israelis, as the WIPS Gender Index 2015 reports.
While Arab women in Israel are more educated than Arab men (13.3% of Arab women have 13-15 years of education, compared to 11.1% among Arab men, according to WIPS 2015) and this gap is growing – they rarely serve in leadership and management positions (1% serve in management positions, according to Bank Israel and Tel Aviv University 2014 report).
Local Manifestations of Global Gender Issues
To some extent, the situation of Arab women in Israel reflects issues and constraints that are being faced by women globally. They struggle with questions of economic, political and social integration, with issues of voice and influence in the public sphere, with patriarchal norms in the family and the broader society, with domestic violence, and with other universal gender issues that no society has yet seriously managed to address. But the case of Israeli Arab women also has particular characteristics that are reflected both in their daily struggles and in broader questions regarding identity, role, and place as Arabs in Israeli society.
Barriers for equal participation in Israeli society range from lack of job opportunities in Arab localities; shortage of day-care centres for small children; poor public transportation in Arab villages; language barriers; lack of labour skills; and taboos in parts of the Arab society against women working outside the village. Additionally, Arabs and women (especially women of young children) are the two groups that suffer the highest rates of discrimination by employers, which makes Arab mothers accessing the labour market even harder (Sikkuy 2016; WIPS 2015; IATF). Within the Bedouin society, while 2/3 of the Bedouin students at Ben-Gurion University are women – Bedouin women in the Negev still suffer from polygamy, underage marriage and restrictions on economic independence.
Local government serves an example of the double glass ceilings that Arab women struggle against. Patterns of political participation show the involvement of Arab women in Israel is growing. In the recent local authorities elections that took place in 2013, 165 Arab women were candidates in 44 localities (out of 54 Arab localities). Despite this encouraging trend, only 6 women were elected (Bayan 2016; read more – Injaz). The participation of women in decision making processes – and the embedding of gender mainstreaming – is more pressing in local government now than before. The implementation of the five-year Economic Plan of the Arab Sector that the Israeli government approved in December 2015, will depend on the Arab local authorities to a large extent.
Empowering Arab Women
Some measures, initiatives, and collaborations do bring about change, many of which are led by Arab feminists as well as Jewish-Arab partnerships. Economic investment in the integration of Arabs into the workforce, led by the Israeli government, resulted in a rise in employment rates of men, but especially women (Sikkuy 2016). Further barriers are being reduced as a result of the work of local feminist NGOs, organisations for shared society, universities that provide a Jewish-Arab shared safe space for women, business initiatives, and so on. The Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality is chaired by an Arab feminist leader, MK Aida Touma-Suleiman, from the Joint List, and yet her achievement can still be seen as the exception that proves the rule. Political and social activism and leadership is one of the most difficult domains for Arab women to access in Israel and even when this is achieved, it will take time until these positions of influence will be able to create a significant change in the lives of marginalised Arab women.
The lives of Arab women and their role in the Israeli society are influenced by the situation of the Arab minority, universal gender issues, and gender issues in the Arab community in particular. Therefore, as Alush Levron and Gerlitz (2016) argue, addressing these concerns by distributive measures, by allocating resources, although important and should be intensified, is not sufficient; the struggle for equality should address issues of recognition of identity of Arabs by the Israeli society, and specifically of Arab women by the Arabs society itself.
Women’s organisations working in the Arab community
Alnuhud: The Association for the Promotion of Bedouin Women’s Education in the Negev
The Association for the Promotion of Bedouin Women’s Education in the Negev is an NGO established in 1997 by Arabs, Bedouin-Arabs, and Jews from the southern desert region of Israel, the Negev. Their dedicated mission is promoting general and higher education among Arab-Bedouin women. Education and integration within the academic world is a successful tool for improving the status of Bedouin women within their own community, as well as advancing their standing in Israeli society in general. Read more.
Ma’an: the Forum for Arab-Bedouin Women’s Organizations of the Negev
Ma’an (‘together’ in Arabic) is the umbrella organisation for Arab Bedouin women’s organisations in the Negev. The organisation was founded in 1999 by Arab women from different organisations to promote the rights of the Arab Bedouin women by creating one voice initiating joint projects. Ma’an offers Bedouin women vitally needed advocacy services and emotional support, which is freely available to Bedouin women in the Negev who urgently need help regarding issues of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. The vast majority of the women who call Ma’an’s Crisis Hotline suffer serious domestic violence. Read more.
Desert Embroidery: Association for the Improvement of Women’s Status (Lakia)
The Association for the Advancement of the Status of Women, Lakia, was founded in 1996 with the goal of improving the status of Bedouin women in their society and in Israeli society as a whole. The Association was the first women’s organization established in the Negev. It is run and operated by local Bedouin women who are sensitive to the needs and problems of their community and of women in particular. The Association, which operates in Lakia and the surrounding unrecognised villages, has been a major influence in the improvement of the status of women over the years. Read more.
Amna Kanane has been a resident of Kafr Qara for many years, and founded Awareness4U with the hope of transforming gender relations in Arab society in Israel by raising women’s consciousness, changing men’s attitudes, and challenging gender roles, cultural practices and traditions that disempower women. Her focus is on cultivating women’s leadership, economic capacity, health, environmental activism, and Jewish-Arab dialogue. Read more.
Arous Elbahar – Association for Women in Jaffa
Arous Elbahar’s mission is to advance the position and involvement of Jaffa’s Arab women, to provide them with the tools and resources to make a positive difference in their lives – personally, economically, and communally. Among their programmes: the financial education for young women, the employment promotion programme, the activism group, and the Arab-Jewish women’s club, as well as two social businesses – JaffaDolls and Arabic courses. Read more.
Al-Tufula – Pedagogical & Multipurpose Women’s Center
It is the mission of Al-Tufula to further and to encourage the development of a democratic and civil society. At the center, based in Nazareth, Al-Tufula has targeted its work to two major groups it believes are the most important in making social change: children and women. Its aims are two fold: (i) to improve the early childhood care and development and (ii) to support women and to provide them with opportunities to utilize their full capabilities, since to date they lack sufficient opportunities. Read more.
WIZOUK is the founding member of an international women’s movement with over 250,000 supporters in 50 countries, which raises funds to support over 800 social welfare and educational projects in Israel. In addition, WIZO campaigns for the advancement of women in society and on issues of human rights. WIZO’s goal is to provide services to the entirety of Israeli society, regardless of religion, race, or gender. Among the programmes that focus on Arab women: Sindyanna of Galilee, a unique non-profit organization led by a team of Arab and Jewish women working to create social change from the ground up; Women and Their Olive Trees, a unique exhibition of paintings demonstrating unity in diversity and understanding through art. Read more.