Cherchez la femme

Despite its ‘Wild West’ reputation, Beersheba appears to be out front of the rest of the country in the advancement of women.

September 3, 2010 17:06
Edna Sabag-Kriboy from Beersheba.

Edna Sabag-Kriboy 311. (photo credit: YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO)

Once a year from 1946 to 1950, Ruth Gruber, then a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, came to Israel to explore and report back on how the nascent nation was faring. Her 1950 book Israel Without Tears recounts her travels and stories about people she met.

One of Gruber’s stories tells how she found herself sitting in Beersheba’s Kassit Cafe, where she encountered Jesse Slade, a 24-year-old, half-American Indian, expat cowboy from Texas. With Gruber’s encouragement, Slade explained his plans for starting a dude ranch in the Negev.

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When Gruber stood up to leave, the shy cowhand stopped her with a question: “Can I ask you for one thing?” Gruber nodded. “Could you pick out a nice girl for me in the States and send her over? “She should be able to fry eggs, handle a six-shooter and ride a horse. If she loves animals, she’ll love me too.”

The plea for “a nice girl,” Gruber writes, was something she heard again and again, all over Israel’s frontier. In her book, she reiterated Slade’s request: Send Beersheba young women! “For any woman of not-too-advanced spinsterhood,” she wrote, “the battle-cry of Israel is ‘Go South, young woman!’” Apparently, women obliged. Today’s demographics show that in Beersheba women slightly outnumber men – which may be why encouraging feminine immigration doesn’t rank as a large part of the job for Edna Sabag- Kriboy, Beersheba’s counselor for Women’s Affairs.

Instead, Sabag-Kriboy spends much of her day analyzing how well the women of Beersheba are doing in every aspect of city life.

Whether it’s matters related to hiring or firing, appointments or promotions, or comparing women’s salaries to men’s for the same job, Sabag-Kriboy is there. Recently, she even found herself in the middle of a matter involving the naming of Beersheba city streets.

And no one was more surprised than Sabag-Kriboy when she discovered a discrepancy: “Part of my job as women’s adviser is to keep track of how women are progressing in our society,” she said during a recent interview.

“Some of that involves tracking numbers of how many women, how many men, do this or that.

“One day I was looking at a map, looking for a street, and suddenly it hit me. Almost all the streets in Beersheba are named for men! “How did I notice it?” She laughs. “It’s because I have these glasses on my face! No – it’s just that I’m just attuned to noticing things like that. But once it had hit me and I started looking more closely, it appeared that very few of our streets were named for women.

“I picked up the phone and called the city geographer – a man – and said I’d like to meet with him, warning him I’d be asking him for some work. ‘What work?’ he said.

“I told him I wanted him to prepare a list of all the streets in Beersheba that were named for men, another list with streets named for women, and a third that bore gender-neutral names.

“HE DID what I asked, and when he’d finished, I think we were both surprised. About 60 percent of the streets were named for men – everything from Rabbi Akiva to Don Isaac Abravanel to David Yellin and Yoel Zussman.

“Another 40% were named for groups, events or institutions like Hehalutz or Yad Vashem; some bore animal names, Tzipor or Hatzvi, or honored other places such as Caesarea or Timna. But ultimately, only 10% bore the names of women.

“‘How could that be?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know,’ he said.

‘But it’s certainly not because we’re against women!’” Sabag-Kriboy got busy. “We have a Commission on the Status of Women,” she says. “I called the chair, Ilana Ginzberg, and told her I’d like to find a way to have more of our streets named for women. At her invitation, the city geographer and I went to their meeting and explained what we’d found. Everyone was astonished.

“At their behest, I agreed to bring all this information to the attention of Mayor Ruvik Danilovich. When he was running for office, his platform had promised gender parity – equal appointments for men and women. We gave him the material and asked if he’d make the street names equal, too.

“That isn’t anything a mayor can do on his own initiative, but he did raise the issue with the official city names committee and they – after they recovered from their own surprise – said, ‘We’ll do it.’ “The committee asked if I had any suggestions, so I said I’d start by asking for six traffic circles named for women’s organizations. We’ll soon have Hadassah, WIZO, Soroptimist, Emunah, Na’amat and Maslan. It’s especially meaningful to us in Beersheba to honor Maslan, the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, because that organization started as a local Beersheba effort.

“Back in 1988, Ophira Levy, a social worker employed by a local hospital, saw the need for a special organization to help abused and battered women who had nowhere else to turn. Initially Levy had almost no money, but she created a non-profit organization to help.

Eventually a supporter donated enough money for a house they began using as a shelter. Everyone worked as a volunteer, and they began welcoming women who needed help or shelter.

“Today, Maslan operates statewide, offering a variety of free support services to endangered women, as well as anti-violence awareness and education for the general public.”

Where will these traffic circles be? “We don’t know the precise locations yet – existing names on streets and traffic circles won’t be changed. As new neighborhoods come into being, that’s where we’ll see the difference.

“Another promise is that in at least one of these new neighborhoods, all of the street names will honor women. The city’s official names committee will decide which names – but again, we’ll be able to make suggestions.

” Who are some of the local women who might have their names emblazoned on a street sign? “Several outstanding women have already been honored by the city,” Sabag-Kriboy notes. “I can only say that any of them would be more than worthy – like Maya Englert, a psychologist, whose work with new immigrants from FSU countries and Ethiopia has benefited generations of olim.

“Then there’s Esterica Nagid, an absolutely delightful woman who started an organization for large women.

Esterica is magnificent – so colorful and gorgeous, and she’s already been recognized for her work.”

In spite of its ‘Wild West’ reputation, Beersheba appears to have been out front of the rest of the country in the advancement of women.

Rachel Levy was also a social worker when then-mayor Itzhak Rager named her deputy mayor, one of the first women in the country to serve in that capacity. Sima Navon also served as a deputy mayor under former mayor Ya’acov Terner. She and Terner were of different political parties, but worked together very closely. Sima believed that women should help women – and she herself helped so many women it would be difficult to count them all.

FOR THAT matter, today the city manager of Beersheba is a woman, Avishag Avtovi – another first out of Israel’s 250 municipalities.

Although she’s too modest to mention it, Sabag-Kriboy appears to have been involved with just about everything relating to women in Beersheba for more years than one would expect.

“My father, Uri Sabag, was a member of Knesset, and my mother was involved in education – a numbers person, not a teacher. My father was the MK who pushed the no-smoking laws through the Knesset. They’d both come from Morocco and married when they were only 20 years old. They were living on a kibbutz when I was born, and we moved to Beersheba when I was three.

“All my life, I was used to people coming to our home with problems... they’d been fired, they needed help, all different kinds of situations.

“Because my parents were so young – just 21 – when I was born, my parents are more like my friends. I wanted to help others, too, so I chose social work as a career. I began working with Beduin, starting out helping families affected with problems related to alcoholism.

“I’d created a non-profit organization for Beduin women, and began advising the mayor on issues important to them. Then a male manager here in the city came to me and suggested that I be a social worker working for the city.

“That’s where it all started – Rachel Levy was one of the people who helped me personally. Because of many projects I’d been involved with, by 2001 I found myself working with the Knesset to help write a law that would require every mayor to have an experienced, educated woman serving in an advisory capacity.

“When that law passed, mayor Terner chose November 25, International Women’s Day, to bring it to the city council. He told them: ‘Now we have a law that requires we have a woman adviser, and I want Edna in this position.’ “I was elected by the council that day – and again, Beersheba was ahead of the game. Mayors of big cities did appoint qualified women, but most smaller municipalities didn’t take it seriously. The mayor would go to one of his secretaries and say, ‘I have to give them a name – so how about yours?’ That wasn’t how it was done in Beersheba.”

Sabag-Kriboy is officially entitled to participate in the city’s powerful committees.

“I can’t attend them all, but I choose those in which I can be of most help to women. I can’t vote – but I’m there, and I’m able to give my opinion and advice. So I watch carefully to see who gets hired and fired; I watch how grants and other funds are distributed; I do my best to make sure women get equal funding for advanced education, all those kinds of things.”

One of Sabag-Kriboy’s most interesting projects is a study of city salaries – how much men are paid, as compared to women for the same work. A document she released in February caused a great deal of discussion. It’s a chart showing how many women and how many men are employed in various categories – education, social work, administration and several others, and how much each is paid.

Going through the numbers and categories, line by line, Sabag-Kriboy points out significant discrepancies.

“It’s very disappointing,” she laments. “I say that not to shame Beersheba – quite the contrary. The truth is, Beersheba was the first city brave enough to do these comparisons and publish them. Other municipalities haven’t done that.

“But look here: In education – not teachers, because teachers have carved out a better deal for themselves – but in management, if you’re a man, you will earn NIS 10,231 per month. If you’re a woman? NIS 8,032.

Over NIS 2,000 a month less, because of your gender? “Or in social work – where the employees are overwhelmingly women – if you’re a female social worker, you’ll earn NIS 8,899. If you’re a man, you get a bonus – NIS 10,307.

“Or another one: If you’re an educated woman working in an administrative capacity in an office, you’ll earn NIS 6,044. But if you’re a man doing the same work? NIS 8,259! “Again, seeing these figures doesn’t reflect poorly on Beersheba. It’s we who acknowledge the situation. We publish it. My obligation is merely to observe how the budget gets divided between men and women – who, under our laws, are supposed to have equal rights.

“I’m in no position to demand change – all I can do is shed light on how things are, and the rest is up to the voting members.”

Another example: “There is a law that women must not be abused or subjected to sexual violence. I decided I wanted to know how many women in the city were able to attend courses in how to deal with spousal abuse. I found out that virtually none of the women from the Negev had attended any of those educational sessions.

“Why not? I asked around, and found that it was because the 10-day courses were all held in Tel Aviv – which was too far, and too expensive, for women from the Negev to attend.

So I asked for a course to be held in the Negev. The initial answer was, ‘No, we can’t do that. We don’t have enough money…’ “I WOULDN’T give up. I went back to them again and again, explaining that here in the Negev we desperately need such a course – maybe more than anywhere else. I asked them if they knew that in the Beduin community, if a woman visits a doctor to see if she is pregnant, then comes home and doesn’t immediately tell her husband, she can be subjected to an honor killing – she can be killed! The assumption is, if she doesn’t tell her husband she’s pregnant, then she must have something to hide, so her husband is free to kill her.

“I explained a few things like that, and eventually they agreed. A course was held here in the Negev, and both Jewish and Arab women attended. It was a great success.”

Will having the knowledge make a difference in the Beduin community? “The Beduin women who attended are part of us now. They’ve become part of a larger community of women. They know where to find help and support.

Over time, as more and more women learn about their rights, it will make a difference.”

Sabag-Kriboy also managed to put into place a set of courses being offered at Ben-Gurion University to educate young women so they’ll be in a position to assume leadership positions.

Working together with City Manager Avtovi, Sabag- Kriboy has created two courses focusing on women’s role in contemporary Israeli society.

“I prepared the course syllabus, found someone to teach it, and now we have university-level courses educating younger women,” Sabag-Kriboy says.

“When these young women complete the course work, they are educated, trained and in an excellent position to influence their own communities, wherever they are.

“That’s the key to women’s success – women helping other women to progress.”

Sabag-Kriboy has a practical side as well. She and her husband have three children, the youngest a daughter.

“My daughter Maya is studying medical engineering,” she says. “We’re all working toward full equality, but in the meantime, we know that if women want equal salaries with men, they must do the kind of work men do.”

Whether the issue is equal salaries for equal work, job promotions or which names appear on Beersheba city maps, Sabag-Kriboy will be on the sidelines, advancing the cause of women. Among the thousands of friends she’s made along the way – men and women, both – few doubt that one day Beersheba drivers will be looking up at a street sign reading “Rehov Edna Sabag-Kriboy,” honoring the woman who made it all possible.

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