The factors behind the educational and career challenges Arab women face in Israel are subject to dispute. Arab leaders regularly blame the government, if not the Jewish majority as a whole, for the situation, while others contend that obstacles inherent in the traditional society of their own communities are at fault.
Perhaps only an individual visionary can cut through the tangle of blame, and develop initiatives that alter mindsets and accomplish enduring change. Dalia Fadila, an educational pioneer, is such a person. She is determined to transform the education of Arab women in Israel so that they can advance professionally.
As things stand, only 65 percent of Arab citizens complete 12th grade, and Arabs comprise just 12% of the students graduating from Israeli colleges and universities.
Disturbing figures, considering Arabs make up one-fifth of Israel’s population.
The educational institution Fadila heads, the Al Qasemi College of Engineering and Science, graduated 120 students this year, 50% of them women. Most found jobs in hi-tech and engineering.
“With education, women grow wings and fly,” Fadila told me. “It is easy to talk about the empowerment of women, but success requires higher education that is mostly denied if one lacks the courage to challenge traditional modes of thinking, especially about women’s roles and the attitude of the minority to itself and the state.”
Personal experience inspires her mission. In 1998, Fadila became the first female faculty member hired at the Al Qasemi Academy, a teacher training college in Baka al-Gharbiya. Within a few years, Fadila, who grew up in Tira and graduated from Bar Ilan University with a PhD in American ethnic literature and gained additional education in management, rose to the number two position at the academy. But when the president retired she was denied a chance to step into that role.
“The Board found it difficult to accept me as president,” she says.
What they offered her instead was to be head of the engineering college, which was not a separate school but a department within the Academy. Though disappointed, she nevertheless accepted the offer and used her new assignment to create something bigger for young Arab women and men.
“We Muslim women have to continually prove ourselves” in the Arab community, Fadila says. And she did. Soon after assuming the helm of the engineering department in 2013, Fadila resolved to transform the institution. She started by changing the department name to Al Qasemi College of Engineering and Science and moving the school to another location in Baka, closer to Highway 6, making it more accessible to students from the region. In two years it evolved from a department of less than 100 students into an independent college of 800.
“Women studying engineering and technology is a breakthrough in the Arab society in Israel,” says Fadila.
Her school’s graduates are finding careers that benefit them, their families and communities, and will also help boost the Israeli economy as more Arab women join the workforce.
“Arab women have been identified as high priority for Israel’s labor market and economic development,” noted a briefing paper by the New York-based Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues. In 2013, the Israeli government launched a six-year plan to increase Arab participation in higher education as a means to enhance their employment rate. That rate for Arab women in Israel is currently 26%, compared to 73% for Jewish women.
Fadila believes that Israeli Arabs now have a greater “awareness of the importance of studying a technological subject.” She identifies the biggest impediment to expanding the college in the Arab community. “The problematic socioeconomic situation of the community may [keep] some students [from being] able to study,” she says.
Challenges Arab citizens confront in school begin at a very early age and can hinder meeting the standards for acceptance at universities and graduating.
To help, Fadila established the Q School in Tira seven years ago. It offers the official Israeli curriculum but with an emphasis on learning English and study skills necessary for advancing into higher education. English is often the fourth language that Israeli Arabs learn, after literary and spoken Arabic and Hebrew. Lack of English language proficiency “inhibits progress of Arabs in education,” she says. But English competency is essential for university study, and later for gainful employment.
Fadila’s dedication to the use of education to effect social change derives from her upbringing in Tira. Her father headed the municipality’s education department.
He pressed for the education of all his six children, girls and boys alike. This was a forward-looking approach that contravened traditional thinking about girls and education, and no doubt influenced Fadila’s views about the potential for young Arab women.
“My job is to raise a new generation of Arab youth in Israel who see themselves with a positive image, as human beings, as learners and dreamers,” she says.
The Q school formula is proving successful.
“Parents want their children in Q schools,” says Fadila, though acceptance is competitive and there is a fee.
The Tira school began in 2008 with 30 students, and its current graduating class of 700 are all continuing on to college.
Fadila is eager to see greater numbers of Arab women studying, employed and becoming entrepreneurs.
“It is frustrating that things are not changing at a faster pace,” she says.
She has already demonstrated that “taking responsibility for our destiny for change within our society” effects positive change. Clearly, without Fadila’s path-breaking drive, efforts for the advancement of Arab women in Israel might still be stuck in neutral.The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.