Reality vs reality shows

Is recent increased presence of Arab-Israeli women ‘Big Brother,’ ‘The Models’ a sign that they are becoming more like Jewish counterparts?

By MARAM MASRAWI
March 7, 2011 23:03
3 minute read.
big brother hudeda 248.88

big brother hudeda 248.88. (photo credit: )

There are those who argue that the presence of Arab-Israeli women on recent “reality” programs testifies to a profound change in Arab-Israeli society in general, and among Arab women in particular. Admittedly, when Arab women can be seen in sleeveless shirts and miniskirts on Big Brother, or modelling in programs such as The Models, or winning beauty contests and singing Hebrew songs in prime time (albeit with an Arabic accent) – one can be forgiven for thinking a revolution is taking place.

But is this really a sign that Arab women are becoming closer to their Jewish counterparts, or does this represent a desire by TV producers to make Arab women appear more familiar to a Jewish audience? In fact, developments within Arab society suggest traditional patriarchal attitudes toward women are becoming even more firmly entrenched.

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Two trends are indicative of this entrenchment: The marriage age for women has dropped, and more are covering their hair with the hijab.

Surprisingly, these developments are occurring along with a rise in Arab women’s level of education and an increased desire to join the work force. This seeming contradiction sends a complex message to Arab women: Yes, you can study and leave the house to work, but only once you have submitted to traditional patriarchal behavior and dress codes.

Moreover, attempts in the past few decades to empower Arab women by encouraging them to get an education, to work and play a role in public life have not translated into real equality. Thus, for example, the number of Arab women who succeed in integrating into the workforce is limited to 19 percent, with half of those working in education. Forty-three percent of female Arab academics are unemployed, and Arab women constitute the poorest segment of Israeli society.

IN ACADEMIC and public discourse, the marginal place of the Arab woman is mainly attributed to her social, cultural status within a patriarchal society. Some of the arguments focus on the role of the state and its institutions in helping preserve a patriarchal tradition precisely because of a respect for cultural differences.

Thus, Arab women find themselves caught between the burden of tradition and patriarchy and a multicultural hands-off attitude by the state. In this case, national identity (i.e., belonging to a national minority) and Arab tradition work together to reinforce a perception of Arab women that is conventionally feminine – that is, either maternal or sexual.

Although Jewish women tend to fare better overall, there is still much left to be desired from their perspective as well. In some cases, in fact, the status of Jewish women is even worse than that of Arab women. Arab and Jewish women both pay a heavy price for the ongoing conflict between our peoples. The price is twofold: Women are kept out of the centers of decision making, and they are expected to put their need for gender equality on hold. Women are repeatedly told that gender equality is secondary to the more pressing demands of national survival.

International Woman’s Day is an opportune moment to urge both Arab and Jewish women to work together. We can and must develop an agenda that cultivates compassion and tolerance as the building blocks of a language of dialogue which will challenge the aggressive discourse that dominates our reality. We must take a clear stand by exposing the political, economic, social and cultural links that constitute the sophisticated mechanism preserving the current balance of power.

Arab and Jewish women, who represent half of the population, must have an alternative plan to struggle for equal rights. We must fight together for our rights in the work place and in education; we must work to bring women into the Knesset and into the centers of decision-making, and thus break the male domination of social and political processes.

Women – both Jewish and Arab – can bring a richness to the discourse that goes beyond the television screen. We would do well to merge our struggles for gender equality, and equality between the two peoples on the grassroots and political levels. Women, who bring life into the world, have the right and duty to preserve it, and should therefore be included in all decision-making processes.

The writer is a lecturer and researcher at David Yellin College in Jerusalem, and at the Al Qasemi college in Baka al-Gharbiya. She lives in Neveh Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. This article was published in cooperation with the Common Ground News Service.


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