Slowly but surely

An Israeli-Arab woman from Wadi Ara is on a mission to win equal rights for women.

Amna Knanna 88 248 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
Amna Knanna 88 248
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
Growing up in a traditional Muslim family in Wadi Ara was not easy for Amna Knanna. In her teens, she began to struggle to break away from restraint imposed upon her by her father and brothers. "My father was very much the traditional, patriarchal figure. On the other hand, he also encouraged me to do things that were not exactly what would be expected - so in a way, he was holding back me with one hand and pushing me forward with the other," Knanna explains to a group of seniors, members of the the Association for Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), who recently attended a three-day seminar at Givat Haviva. In her late teens, Knanna became dedicated to the women of Kafr Ara, trying to make them more aware of how they could improve the quality of their lives. She began to organize courses in cooking, hairdressing and other skills - even how to change a flat tire! "In a way, I used to feel that I wasn't working with the women, but with the men through the women," Knanna says with a laugh. She admits that the men in Ara had demonstrated quite a bit of hostility toward her when she first began her mission for change. "My father had a lot of pressure put on him by other older men in the village. That wasn't pleasant for him or me, but I was determined to alter the way women were seen and also how they perceived themselves," she explains. Head covering became an issue when Knanna was still living at home. To appease her father, she would wear a scarf when leaving the house. But after driving out of Ara, she would discard the head covering - generally chucking it on to the back seat of her car - but she would replace it when she returned to the village. "I needed to do things my way but also be careful not to be disrespectful," she comments. Prospective marriage partners were another subject of father-daughter conflict. The defiant and increasingly independent Knanna, who has seven brothers and sisters, flatly refused to adhere to her father's wishes on that score, spurning all his suggestions of this or that son of their village or a surrounding one. However, after a minor car accident in which the two drivers exchanged details for insurance purposes, Knanna knew she had met her man. Today, Knesset Prize-winner Knanna lives in the village of Kafr Kara in Wadi Ara with her husband, Walid, a welder, and their sons. The five-minute journey from Ara to Kara has taken Knanna on a long, twisting road of newfound freedom, nurtured by her natural rebelliousness and an extremely open-minded husband. Fifteen years ago, when Knanna married and moved to Kafr Kara - which these days comprises 16,000 residents, as opposed to the 3,000 or so of Ara - she felt alienated. Large extended families make up the townsfolk and even though she came literally from just down the road and around the corner, she was an outsider. Her desire to bring about change rocked the clannish boat. Kafr Kara is well-known for boasting an above-average percentage of medical doctors and university graduates among its residents, many of whom are women. Infrastructure and services for the village residents appear to be at a much higher standard than most communities in the Wadi Ara region. The locals' pride in Kara ("pumpkin" in Arabic) runs deep. The village is also home to Bridge Over The Wadi, the only Jewish-Arab school in Israel located in a Muslim Arab village (other Jewish-Arab schools run by the Hand In Hand organization are in Jerusalem and Misgav, in the Galilee). But even with the relative openness in Kafr Kara, Knanna met with not-so-subtle pressure from certain quarters and received messages not to interfere. In the beginning, even women from the more traditional ranks of the community rejected Knanna's invitations to come over for coffee and a chat. "There's a chronic shortage of places for women to meet, with no community or study center for adults. So it seemed natural that we would open up our home to those who really sought to learn and implement change," explained Knanna, stressing that her husband had always supported her efforts. A graduate of the Noa/Nuha Center for Women and for Gender Studies at Givat Haviva, leadership studies at Bar-Ilan University and Na'amat community leadership courses for women, Knanna overcame social pressure by working slowly but surely. In 2003, she set up the non-profit organization For You Awareness in the ground floor of her Kafr Kara abode. She hasn't looked back since. The center offers local women a diverse program of courses, experiences and study tours, encounters with Jewish Israeli women living both in their vicinity and further afield. It often hosts groups of Israelis - such as the 30 AACI seniors who came from all over the country - and some overseas visitors. "Through the activities we have here at the center we hope to see women take their rightful place as equal partners in all aspects of daily family life, work and society. Through education and cultural activities, [we hope to] bring about positive change for future generations. "We are striving to build a society of equality, no differences between gender, religion or nationality, and we will continue to work ceaselessly until we realize that vision," Knanna declares.