Who are you calling feminist?

From a moral, political, practical standpoint we can't allow ourselves to identify with women’s rights while other women are being oppressed elsewhere.

March 7, 2011 23:48
Haneen Zoabi

Haneen Zoabi 58 headshot. (photo credit: Courtesy)

In 1977, the UN General Assembly voted to adopt a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.

Even back then, the UN recognized, rightfully, the link between the morals of peace and the rights of women, and the connection between the struggle for womens’ rights and the struggle for freedom and justice. If we were to adopt the UN decision to the reality here, we would reach the same conclusion.

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Feminism is not a women’s movement, it is a movement of morals. From a moral, political, and practical standpoint we cannot allow ourselves to identify with women’s rights while other women are being oppressed elsewhere. We can’t call ourselves feminists if we occupy other women, demolish their homes, force them to live under a blockade, support settlement expansion, and then come home and talk about women’s rights.

It shouldn’t matter if a government that chooses to settle matters through force, and rejects my nationality or my rights, includes four women or 14. And it shouldn’t matter how many pilots who operated during Operation Cast Lead were female. These are certainly not the point of a feminist struggle.

The motto of the women’s movement which the UN has adopted is “women’s rights are human rights” and whoever demands rights for women cannot infringe upon the rights of other people. And by no means can they trample on the rights of other women.

In this country, Jews are, rightfully, convinced that in the Arab community, it is difficult to talk about women’s rights.

At the same time, they speak with an often condescending tone of the “suffering” of miserable Arab women within society. They are incapable of grasping how difficult it is to wage a feminist struggle within a militaristic society, and how difficult it is even for a Jewish woman to assimilate into the moral framework in which the army is not only a central institution, but also the body of utmost value. Feminism is indeed warped within this society.

Arab female employment stands at only 19 percent – less than a third of the rate among Jewish women, which stands at 65%.

Nearly 50% of women in Israel work, and the state, which is the largest employer of women in the country, doesn’t employ enough women: only 3% of all female state employees are Arab women. They make up only 1.8% of all state employees.

The authority for the advancement of women in the Prime Minister’s Office has stated that the Arab community is a traditional community in which the partriarchal family is of utmost importance. This social structure keeps the Arab woman within a traditional framework, which encourages her to pursue a role within the house.

But this view is pure Orientalism. It is also irresponsible. It’s not the tradition or the culture which keeps Arab women from working. There is no culture that rules that its people must live in poverty and lack dignity. How do we reconcile blaming Arab women for their low participation in the workforce with the fact that within Arab society, women pursue higher education degrees at a higher rate than men? Or that this society allows women to work far from home in mixed cities? Rest assured, education is of utmost importance in this traditional society.

In spite of the push for higher education and the encouragement to work, only 57% of Arab women with academic degrees are employed, as opposed to 74% of Jewish women. And a quarter of them earn the minimum wage.

A DECADE ago, “only” 36% of Arabs in Israel lived below the poverty line. Today, the figure stands at 56%. A Bank of Israel report stated that the poverty level between the two lowest social strata in Israel, the haredim and the Arab sector, rose in 2007.

At the same time, the haredi community reached a turning point. In spite of the sharp cuts in stipends, the chances of a haredi man joining the ranks of the poor continues to drop. The reason is the increased entry of haredim into the workforce, a phenomenon strengthened by special employment programs geared towards their community. By contrast, the chances of an Arab joining the poverty ranks in Israel have only risen.

Real feminism must acknowledge the discrimination against Arab women in this country, and real feminism must know to identify with and struggle alongside them, on the national, civil and social levels.

My parliamentary agenda is to protect Arab women in this society in each of her identities: as a woman, a Palestinian, and as a citizen of this country.

I, like most other Arab MKs, want to see an end to state policies which are hostile, both physically and symbolically. Incitement, by some members of Knesset, by some rabbis, and by some simple everyday citizens against Arabs, is a reality.

The political witch-hunt against me and my party (Balad), and the remainder of the Arab parliamentary members is also part of this reality. So is police hostility and violence (remember the October 2000 riots?), home demolitions and the expropriation of land.

Therefore, it is possible to sum up Israel’s relations with its Palestinian citizens in one sentence: We are not only a minority that is discriminated against, we are a minority at risk.

Over the past two years, the Knesset has brought forth dozens of laws designed to strengthen the Jewish character of the country at the expense of its democratic character.

I fight for my rights in my homeland. Perhaps this is news to many of you, but I did not choose to live in the State of Israel; Israel has chosen to live among my people and I.

The writer is a member of the Balad Party and the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women.

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