A student of life

Despite her disability, Laila Abedrabho navigates social, political, and cultural barriers.

For eight years, Laila Abedrabho worked full time at a center for visually impaired women in Shuafat refugee camp teaching Braille, Arabic and religion to blind women, who, she says, "didn't want to learn." For her trouble she was paid the princely sum of NIS 350 a month. Gradually, Abedrabho, who had been blind since age 21, realized she was a victim of discrimination, an injustice compounded by the fact that her boss was also blind. "I was sick of working there and I was sick of the women not wanting to learn," she says. "I decided I had to improve myself and stop working in those type of places… It also pushed me to work for women's rights." Her determination took her on a path that would lead her to earn a master's degree, qualify her to serve as an advocate in the Muslim religious courts and become a doctoral student. Dressed casually but elegantly in a brown sweater and beige pants, Abedrabho, now 40-plus, is an attractive woman. She will not reveal her exact age, but otherwise speaks with great candor. Throughout the interview in a cramped room in the Hebrew University's Learning Center for the Blind, she speaks matter-of-factly and with no sign of self-pity. Despite her sometimes dry manner, her story is moving. A seasoned interviewee, she reveals the basic details of her life fluently and without prompting. When it comes to more personal matters, however, she needs a little encouragement. She had already finished her first year at a teachers' training college in Ramallah when, suddenly and with no satisfactory explanation, she lost her eyesight. "I finished first year and I could see," she relates. "During the vacation my retinas started to fail. I had a few operations but they [the doctors] didn't succeed in returning my eyesight." Abedrabho did not return to college the following year. Instead, when it became clear she was permanently blind, she began to learn Braille. "After that year I returned to college. There I faced my first problem. In first year I studied math and science. In second year, they wouldn't accept me because you have to study in a lab and that's a problem for a blind person," says Abedrabho. Undeterred, she switched to elementary school teaching and earned her diploma "with the best grades." "I was very sorry that I couldn't continue studying and working [in science], but thank God," she says - using the Hebrew expression "baruch Hashem" - "I overcame the problem of blindness and also the problem of studying." The college, affiliated with UNICEF, attempts to place its graduates in suitable jobs. For Abedrabho, however, this was the first encounter with the harshness of the job market. "When they [UNICEF] came to my house and discovered I couldn't see, they didn't tell me outright that's why I couldn't teach, but it was obvious to me. In lower [school] grades you have to write on the board and you have to give them photocopies," she says. "That was the first blow for me - I thought I had finished studying and I would start working." Her teachers at the college, concerned for her welfare, suggested she might find a job if she were to have a university degree. After she finished her BA in Middle Eastern studies at Ramallah's Bir Zeit University, however, she once again had difficulty finding work. Eventually she found the job in the center for blind women in Shuafat. When she left the center, friends who were studying at the Hebrew University suggested she continue her studies there. "They suggested I continue studying… and maybe after I finished studying I'd find a job," she recalls. "I had friends who helped me learn Hebrew." Although she believes the academic level at Bir Zeit University is equally high, by then the second intifada had broken out and traveling back and forth to Ramallah became more complicated. "I decided to go to Hebrew University because it's close," she says. While studying for her diploma and her first degree Abedrabho, who lives in Beit Safafa and holds a blue identity card, would enter Ramallah with a refugee pass. Now, with the delays at the roadblocks, traveling to Ramallah is problematic. If she weren't blind, she explains, she might be able to bypass the roadblock on foot. However, because she must travel by public transport, she is subject to rigorous security checks. It is also because of the security situation that she conducted the research for her master's degree in Jerusalem, and for her doctorate, in Jerusalem and Taibeh. She would have preferred to do it in places such as Hebron and Kalkilya, but couldn't, she says, because she must undergo the time-consuming process of going through the roadblocks by taxi. Having been detained at checkpoints several times, Abedrabho is ambivalent toward the IDF. "I feel the army exploits its position of power and puts us down. It affects us and depresses us. Even documents from government offices inviting us for appointments are not enough to speed us through the checkpoint," she says. "The army still says, after all this time, that it's their job. Maybe the army is pushing the line a little bit." Nonetheless, she believes the true problem lies with the leadership on both sides. "The leaders have the problems; the grassroots want to get along," she says. "In the workplace I have never felt cultural or religious differences. The politicians start the problems. The politicians think of themselves and not the people. That goes for both sides." From 1996 to 1999 she completed her MA in Middle Eastern studies. Her thesis topic was the status of women seeking alimony in the shari'a (Islamic) courts in Jerusalem. For her PhD, for which she began to write her proposal in 2001 and officially began to research in 2002, she broadened the scope of her research to the status of women petitioning the shari'a courts for divorce, alimony and custody and extended the geographic area to Jerusalem and Taibeh. "I have finished the interviews and I'm now writing," says Abedrabho. Though she arrived at the interview accompanied by a student from the Perah student volunteer program, Abedrabho usually navigates familiar areas alone. But to conduct and transcribe research she relies on volunteers, some of whom work with the university's Learning Center for the Blind and others who are involved in Perah. "It's hard work," she explains, "because I have to interview in Arabic and then I have to translate from Arabic to Hebrew and then have to connect it to the literature." Abedrabho believes that, while others have done theoretical research on her topic, she is the first to investigate it in the field. "Most of my work is from a social perspective but I also focus on the legal aspect. I combine them." From a legal point of view she is well qualified to carry out the research. After her master's degree she passed an exam qualifying her to serve as an advocate in the shari'a courts. "I looked for work again after I finished [the second degree] and I couldn't find any. I looked in universities, schools. It was hard. I have a disability, I'm a woman, and you can't find these jobs if you're an Arab," she explains. While researching her master's thesis, Abedrabho was often in the shari'a courts in Jerusalem. There she heard that those with higher education in Islamic law could take an exam to become an advocate in the shari'a courts. While almost all of those who become advocates are lawyers, technically this is not a requirement. "I took the test in front of two kadis [judges] and the legal adviser of the shari'a courts and, thank God, I passed," she says. Because she is blind, Abedrabho would have needed to employ someone to help her read and write legal documents, but she couldn't find work in an existing firm and couldn't afford to open her own office. She even tried to find an unpaid position. "In the beginning I even offered to work as a volunteer and I was told they already had a lot [of volunteers]," she says. "I just wanted to enter the field, but they didn't give me a chance." Though she is accredited to advocate in religious courts, Abedrabho says she, like many other advocates, is not particularly devout. "I pray and fast, but I'm not so religious." She first became interested in women's rights in Islam while studying for her master's degree. In one of her classes, her professor brought in legal documents from the shari'a courts. "I found that even though I'm a Muslim woman [and] I had learned a bit of religion at school, as a Muslim woman, I didn't know the rights that women have," she relates. "I [also] found in my doctoral research that there's a lack of information, a lack of awareness among [Muslim] women about their rights. I hope to help them in this." For example, she says, many Muslim women don't know that a woman is allowed to initiate divorce proceedings. "I decided that I had to go into this field in order to learn more about my rights and about women's rights in general." Despite the lack of awareness of their rights among Muslim women, she says the field is equally open to both genders. "There's no discrimination in this field. It's important to me that there's equality. If someone needs representation, it doesn't matter if it's a male or female [who is] representing." In the Israeli workplace, she feels the sting of discrimination very strongly. "It's not enough that I was in a bad way because I had lost my sight. Maybe any other woman who can see would also have a disadvantage in the workplace because she's a woman or an Arab. In Israel," she says, "they prefer people without 'disabilities.'" Her doctoral research led to a great discovery about Islamic society, particularly the difference between Jerusalem and Taibeh. "From a social point of view, there's a great difference. In the Triangle, although it's inside the 1948 lines, the society is closed, not like in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a mixed place; there are Jews and Arabs. There are [clear] differences," she says. She explains that while her interviews in Jerusalem took one year, due to technical difficulties the Taibeh research took two years. "In Jerusalem the women were more open. If you ask them they'll tell you everything without a problem. There [in Taibeh], because I'm blind and obviously I can't write, I have to record everything and it took a long time to persuade them that it was because I am blind that I was recording." An interviewee's husband once threatened that if she ever published the recording in any way something "bad" would happen. "But as soon as they knew that I was blind and I couldn't write and no one would hear the interview except me… they trusted me, and after certain questions, they talked in detail, even about intimate issues, things they couldn't say in front of a man, in front of a kadi, in front of a lawyer." Travel to Taibeh, although it does not involve any checkpoints, also became a problem. "The bus from Jerusalem to Kfar Saba goes through the airport and they would always make me get off [for checks] because I'm an Arab. Sometimes I was scared of the people who were checking. The university no longer lets anyone - Jew or Arab - accompany me for my research" for security reasons, she says. While initially she would spend NIS 300 a week for both her and her companion to travel to Taibeh three times a week, it cost her NIS 500 return fare by taxi once a week and eventually just twice a month. Completing the doctorate is taking longer than she would like because she needs assistance in transcribing the interviews and analyzing the results. She has help with Hebrew two hours a week from a volunteer from the Education Department; four hours a week from her Perah volunteer and an Arab girl who helps her on a voluntary basis for two hours - eight hours a week in all. "I should work five to six hours a day," she says. "The rest of the time I study alone - I look at stories and the days I'm with a volunteer we read the articles and books I need to read." Until now the government has funded her studies. "But after I finish this year," says Abedrabho, "if I get an extension on my work I'll have to pay." Happily, a recent development has placed Abedrabho in a better position to pay her tuition. For the past few months she has been working 30 hours a month at the Commission for the Equality of Women with Disabilities at the Justice Ministry, translating material from Hebrew to Arabic for a Web site. "This is far from my field, but I accepted it as an opportunity and I didn't want them to say that they offered me work and I didn't accept it." Although she had never translated before, she decided to give it a try. With the help of a volunteer who reads her the Hebrew material she translates it to Arabic Braille. She then inputs it into the computer in Braille and it is transformed into regular Arabic text. "It takes me a long time, but I wanted to work," she explains. "In the end I enjoy the work. It's good work, but hard. This month I hope to finish the translations and afterward I don't know what will happen." She particularly enjoys working with her boss, Dr. Dina Feldman. "She understands people with disabilities, that they have a need to improve their situation." Until now her job has been a secret - she has not even told her doctoral supervisor. "I didn't want to say I was working there because I wanted to try it first. It's hard to say you're working somewhere and afterward to say you didn't succeed. And now I've succeeded." Abedrabho speaks freely about her life since she lost her sight. It is only when asked, however, that she talks about her life before. In a way, she says, it is as if she has led two separate lives - before and after she became blind. "I never thought I would be dependent on [other] people. Sometimes I forget that I can't see. When do I remember that I'm disabled?" she asks. "At times like now when I want to work." She performs chores around the house easily and shops for clothes with minimal assistance from salespeople. Born and bred in Beit Safafa, she has three brothers and two sisters. "They are all married and only I live at home with my parents," she says. "Mom and Dad are now old. My father is 78 but he still volunteers at the National Insurance Institute to help the elderly fill in forms, among other things." Her mother, who has had cancer for 16 years, is being treated at home. She lost one of her breasts and the cancer has now spread to her lungs. "I don't only work on my doctorate, I also work at home," Abedrabho says with a smile. Both in the home and out, Abedrabho has made a lot of progress since she lost her eyesight. "I won't say it wasn't hard," she concedes. "That was what surprised me - that I got around the problem."