'Empowered women could combat Islamic extremism'

Israeli Arab women earn an average of NIS 2,000 less a month than Jewish workers.

muslim woman 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
muslim woman 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Empowering Arab women would help prevent increased radicalism within Muslim society in Israel and the Middle East, according to Ephraim Halevy, a former head of the Mossad and the National Security Council. "If women are truly empowered in politics and society and are thus allowed to become a major social force in the work place and within the family, the direction of the future of the Middle East will be much different than it is today," said Halevy, He was speaking at a conference on the empowerment of Arab women at the Hebrew University's Shasha Center for Strategic and Policy Studies, which he now heads. Halevy said it was important to empower Arab women because their increasingly dire economic situation exacerbated the growing radicalism within Muslim society. "I am of the opinion," said Halevy, "that women's empowerment in Arab society is a key factor in determining the future of the Middle East." A wide range of speakers highlighted the need to bring together government, academia and social organizations to advance the status of Arab women. Women, men, Arabs and Jews discussed topics ranging from sexual abuse, to strategies for improving the representation of Arab women in the Israeli work force, to specific work that social organizations were doing throughout the country. Attendees examined the traditions within Muslim society that prevent women from obtaining work and education outside the home and what the Israeli government and social organizations could do to in this area. One step was to improve employment opportunities, said Esther Dominissini, director-general of the National Employment Service. Just 18 percent of work-age Israeli Arab women participate in the work force, compared to 60% of Arab men, according to the Employment Service "The representation of Arab women in the work force is dismal," Dominissini said. "This is much lower than representations of other groups in the work force. It goes without saying that when people are not working levels of poverty increase." Israeli Arab women earn an average of NIS 2,000 less a month than Jewish workers. "We must improve education, work collaboratively with Arab leadership and develop a long-term plan that will facilitate the implementation of policy that will allow Arab women to take an active role in the Israeli work place," Dominissini said. During a panel discussion on civil society, speakers said Arab women were perhaps society's most under-privileged socioeconomic group, since they suffered from both racial and gender discrimination. Rachel Liel, director of the Shatil NGO, said empowerment would not come just from above. Arab women must work to empower themselves so they could utilize the services offered by the government, she said. "We work with more than 80 Palestinian women's organizations [both in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority]," Liel told the panel. "Our model is not doing their work for them, but providing them with the tools they need to obtain empowerment within their own society." Panelist Mervat Omari, an Arab woman and co-director of a multi-cultural feminist organization meant to provide education to Arab women in Wadi Ara in the North said, "This conference is so important for us as women who work in the field because it provides the opportunity for us to speak with those in the government and academia." Halevy said Arab women were doing "spectacular" work and said, "It is not the role of Israel to become a beacon of wisdom to Islam. But, I do think we are performing a service by highlighting alternative and moderate aspects becoming [increasingly] present in Islamic society."