MKs meet Arab women’s rights activists in Nazareth

Glass ceilings in the workplace, domestic violence, and advocacy were on the agenda of this rare meeting.

July 14, 2013 19:45
3 minute read.
Women's rights advocates meet in Nazareth

Women's rights advocates meet in Nazareth 370. (photo credit: Joshua Lipson)

“Violence against women is not a fact of Arab culture. If it’s culture, then there’s nothing we can do. But in fact, there’s very much we can do,” explained Sausan Tuma-Shukha, a representative of Women Against Violence, to a Knesset delegation in Nazareth last week.

The NGO seeks to demolish a popular conception of how Arab women came to be at “the edge of the edge” of Israeli society.

As Tuma-Shukha and other representatives of Arab-Israeli women’s rights groups spoke, calling for a serious state commitment to improving conditions in the Arab female sector, the diverse representation of MKs nodded along sympathetically.

Led by chairwoman MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), the delegation came to the Nazareth headquarters of Women Against Violence at the invitation of director Aida Tuma-Suleiman, taking comment from members of Tuma-Suleiman’s group and several other women’s rights groups focused on the Arab sector. Women Against Violence, founded in 1992 by a group of Israeli Arab female professionals, runs programs in the prevention of gender-based violence, women’s employment promotion, and political advocacy.

Tuma-Suleiman was especially pleased with the results of her organization’s effort, which engaged a polyphonic set of local NGOs and ran the political gamut from Hadash to Yesh Atid.

“We haven’t received anyone from [the] Knesset in about 12 years. And yet, all I did was tell MK Lavie about our organization at a hearing of the Committee for Improving the Standing of Women, and here they are,” she beamed.

MK Dov Henin praised the discussion’s expert participants and pledged to make their case to the state.

“This is my first week on the committee, and I’m very impressed by all the work and planning that has been undertaken on this issue… Sadly, your expertise is being missed by the state. Engels once said that the standing of women is the best indicator of the condition of a society, and I think that’s true here,” he said.

Giving evidence to the group’s breadth of mission, the organization invited activists and experts from academia to present to Lavie’s delegation. Problems faced by Arab Israeli women presented were in the areas of health, employment, and political representation.

Nihaya Daoud, a public health researcher and lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, explained that Arab women are more likely to be plagued by health problems and violence if unemployed or undereducated.

Arab women face disadvantages in Israel that are social, economical, political and cultural in origin, she said.

“We need to begin speaking about Arab women’s health in broad, social terms – not just in terms of health services.

And the health situation of Arab women in Israel reflects their low social standing in every sense.”

Daoud pointed out that between Jewish and Arab women, a fatal consequence of institutional inequality can be seen in the rate of early detection in breast cancer and survivorship rates.

She called for education reform, employment programs, and information accessibility as broad-based solutions to health and violence problems in the Arab women’s sector.

Tuma-Shukha, citing figures from her own research and that of her colleagues, showed the severe impact of non-participation in the workforce on the quality of life of Arab women and on the productivity of the Israeli economy.

Reportedly, an 80 percent of Israeli Arab women abstain from the workforce – including 42 percent of those that hold an academic degree.

In describing the perverse logic of Jewish schools being understaffed and degree-holding Arab teachers underemployed, Tuma-Shukha conveyed her organizations employment initiative slogan: “Their employment, everyone’s benefit.”

By her estimate, workforce non-participation and exclusion of Arab women costs the Israeli economy NIS 21 billion in lost revenue, some of which could be used to fuel a virtuous cycle of improved education in the Arab sector and financial assistance for families well below the poverty line.

Despite the welter of grim statistics, representatives at the meeting waxed ebullient over what they perceived as a new willingness by the government to engage their concerns.

After thanking their hosts for bringing an underexposed perspective to their attention, members of Knesset meandered out to the balcony, breaking za’atar-coated bread with local constituents and pledging to stay engaged with their concerns.

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