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