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On a stiflingly hot September afternoon little shade is available, but spirits are high among the group of women as they set up trestle tables in a wide circle on a grassy verge near the busy Gan Shmuel shopping complex. Light banter is exchanged as the ladies neatly arrange the items they brought to sell at the roadside bazaar.
The goods are almost as diverse as their vendors: Jewish and Arab women from the villages and small towns of the Wadi Ara region. The Jews hail from kibbutzim, moshavim and the small clutch of communities in the area founded by early Zionist pioneers. The Arabs are from a batch of Muslim villages straddling Route 65, the main highway connecting Hadera and Megiddo.
Although close neighbors, the ladies at the tables and neatly arranging items from ceramics and flower arrangements to hair products and housewares did not know each other until last year, when they joined a project devised to assist female entrepreneurs develop small business initiatives and create a business community providing mutual support.
The project, called Creating Women's Business Communities, is based at the nearby Givat Haviva Noa/Nuha Center for Women and Gender Studies. It is one of several innovative projects run by the six-year-old center that reach out to women in different parts of the country under the general title of Women in Community.
Groups of Jewish and Arab women are involved in diverse projects such as training to become women's group facilitators participating in empowerment projects and professional training. The aim is to advance the women's social, political and cultural involvement while promoting Jewish-Arab coexistence.
Back at the Gan Shmuel bazaar, the first curious potential customers are beginning to cast an eye over the goods on sale. They have been enticed over the road from the lucrative kibbutz forecourt shops by a number of pamphlet-distributing business-savvy children, the offspring of the budding businesswomen.
A number of items are sold, and successful stallholders receive supportive comments from those who have yet to make a sale. A word of encouragement invariably floats back in their direction.
Casting an eye over the proceedings are project director Myriam Dagan-Brenner and Noa/Nuha staff member Jumana Boulos, a Nazareth-born business adviser who resides in Acre.
"Most of the women run a business either home or close to their homes. Although they might get some encouragement from their husbands, there's a definite 'It's okay for you to work, but don't rock the family routine' attitude," says Dagan-Brenner, who joined the Givat Haviva staff 20 years ago as supervisor of the Children Teaching Children program and director of the Counseling Center for Peace Education.
"As many of the women live in relatively isolated communities, they have little chance of success. Some do not have much connection with others outside their immediate surroundings and, as women, they are less assertive in their business dealings such as with suppliers," explains Dagan-Brenner. "We've had women almost go bankrupt because they find it difficult to refuse those who want credit, and the debts pile up. In many cases, the family is not supportive. They see the woman's effort to build up a business as a sort of a hobby - and sometimes an expensive hobby. Men do not have such problems; nobody regards a man's trying to set up a business as indulging in a hobby."
One of the first hurdles for the women was learning how to present to others what they had difficulty in promoting prior to the course: the "how and why I do what I do" aspect. As part of the project, funded by the UJA Federation of New York, the 20 women visited each other's businesses and homes.
"Just preparing for the group's visits meant being able to explain location and possibly prepare a map if it's a bit off the beaten track, organize a business card with phone numbers, and being able to deal with and learn from the possible criticism following the visit," says Dagan-Brenner.
Rasmia Asali has been in business for 16 years. The mother of five runs a shop in the center of her village, Kfar Kara, selling goods imported from Thailand and China. Although a veritable veteran businesswoman, Asali says there was much to be gleaned from the Noa/Nuha project and has not been disappointed.
"We help each other by buying and suggesting to others to buy from other women in the group, and just on that score have learned about the advantages of group support and the importance of advertising," she explains as she ponders where to place large carved wooden cars and boxes on her table.
Rawda Masarwa opened a small boutique in her village, Arara, some six years ago. Before joining the Givat Haviva project, her only contact with Israeli Jews was through suppliers to her shop.
"Participating in this project has definitely helped my personal development and growth and has boosted my self-confidence. I am just beginning to realize how much I have developed since joining the group," Masarwa exclaims.
With a head-and-shoulders window dresser's dummy sporting a bright orange wig sitting center-table in front of her, Sima Zilberstein from Karkur arranges her business cards among the hair care products, wigs, hairpieces and hairdressing equipment she sells. Among her clients for wigs and hairpieces are theater groups, opera performers and the Bat Sheva dance company.
What brought Zilberstein, who is also a professional cosmetician, to the Noa/Nuha project? "I was attracted to the idea of doing something connected to running a business with a group of Jewish and Arab women together. After all, particularly in this area, we are neighbors, right?" she says.
Zilberstein admits that she was surprised to discover a very different mentality and way of life among Arab people to what she had envisioned. "The modernization inside the home and the positive relations between women and their husbands where I visited were far from what I had thought," she says as she stretches out a hand to greet Abir Raniyen, a social worker from Baka al-Gharbiya, one of her course facilitators and a graduate of a Noa/Nuha facilitators' course.
Rachel Hershkovits from Kibbutz Gan Shmuel was a nurse for many years at the Hillel Yaffe hospital in nearby Hadera. She decided that she wanted a change of career, and opened up a canine beauty parlor in her kibbutz.
The last course participant to register, Hershkovits says she had good connections with Arab Israeli medical and other staff and patients at the hospital. "I joined the course primarily because I wanted to learn how to run my business, possibly expand it, and before doing so assess what I really have in hand," explains Hershkovits.
With the kibbutz taking care of the economic side of her beauty parlor, Hershkovits had realized that she knew little about the actual running of a business, even though she was operating one. Her dream is to open boarding kennels - the kibbutz is willing to supply premises, but she wasn't sure how to go about it. "For sure I have learned a great deal over the past year, but I also have to say that there were some very difficult moments during the process of our getting to know each other as a group of Arab and Jewish women. Obviously, the course didn't solve those differences, but certainly it strengthened what we do share in common, and that is a great deal. Hatred is easy to develop, but the opposite - to foster coexistence through understanding - is a slow and difficult process," she says.
"Most of the women face the same type of dilemmas, whether with their business, in the home and family or just being women," notes Dagan-Brenner. "Due to the Lebanon war, there wasn't enough time to organize this bazaar the way we would have wanted to, but the women went for it anyway. It's the togetherness developed over the last year, self-discovery and new confidence that brought them here today."
An inspiring name
Choosing a name for the Givat Haviva Women's Center that would appeal to both Arab and Jewish women seeking empowerment was a tall order for the nametag department: The women should feel that the name was representative not only of their feminine community but also of the two separate communities to which they belong.
The word nuha is Arabic for "wisdom." The other half of the name, the biblical Noa, is regarded as the first feminist woman in Jewish history. Born in the desert while the Hebrews wandered toward the Promised Land, Noa was one of five daughters of Zlofchad, the son of Hefer. Noa's sisters were Machla, Chogla, Milca and Tirza. When their father died, they formed an in-house sisterhood to demand their inheritance rights. At the time, Hebrew law stated that an inheritance could only pass to a male member of the deceased's family. Not willing to accept this gender-based state of affairs, Noa shared her feelings with her sisters, and the fivesome decided on a collective sisterly plan of action to get what they rightfully saw as theirs - and succeeded.
An impressive number of Noa/Nuha women's empowerment projects are now underway all over Israel, led by women inspired by the wisdom of women like Noa and her sisters, who wandered in a wilderness of ignorance and discrimination until they decided to make a stand. As will, no doubt, Rasmia, Rawda, Sima, Abir and Rachel.
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