Forging forward

One Druse woman’s journey in her fight for higher education.

Randa Abas (photo credit: Courtesy)
Randa Abas
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘It was after I had my first girl that I understood the need to invest more in education,” says Dr. Randa Abas, a female Druse resident of Julis.
She reflects on the moment she made this life-changing decision, at age 22 when her daughter was three. “I felt that I was missing tools to educate my girl... that I needed to progress in the field of education,” she tells the Magazine.
Abas explains that back then, in the ’90s, this was a monumental step for a Druse woman to take. Born in Kafr Yasif, she moved to Julis when she married and describes the community she lived in as “very traditional,” finding it hard to accept that a woman could go out and work or pursue higher education.
“Women’s honor is one of the most important elements in Druse society,” she told the audience at the launch of Western Galilee College’s new business school last month, the institution where she completed her first degree in education and now works as a lecturer. “Women must stay close to home. They can’t be around strange men, and must be accompanied by a family member when traveling outside the village. Women can’t learn in academic institutions located far from home; every Druse woman who chooses to leave her village and seek higher education and a career is punished by a religious ban.”
Abas and her husband were served this punishment when they decided she would pursue academia. A religious ban means non-acceptance into the religious circle, which includes losing the right to read religious books or pray in the khalwa – the Druse house of prayer.
This was a sacrifice the couple decided to make. “I felt that if we wanted to change our society and live in a healthy world based on tolerance, coexistence, respect, love and knowledge, we must invest in education,” she relates.
Abas took on the duty of leading education in her area, coordinating a women’s club to help provide women with the tools they need for life and intellectual development. After she graduated from Western Galilee College, she qualified to become a teacher at Tel Hai Academic College, and in 1992 began teaching in Abu Sinan. “The more teachers, students and parents I met, the more I saw I must learn.”
One of the most painful hurdles she had to overcome was when her eldest daughter came home from first grade and told her that her friends wouldn’t talk to her or play with her, because she was “godless.” To add to the societal norms Abas was already breaking, she had decided to learn to drive, in order to get to and from university.
“I was like a rebel – many of my relatives didn’t even speak to my husband and me, and my daughter needed to deal with this. But we told her that one day she would be proud of it,” she says, attributing much of her strength and perseverance in the face of so many hardships to her supportive husband and parents.
Abas emphasizes that her decision to become part of the modern world was not mutually exclusive to preserving her tradition and culture. She notes that when it came to doing her master’s, she decided she wanted to study in Tel Aviv, but opted for Bar-Ilan University over Tel Aviv University as she felt it was closer to her world, catering to a relatively large religious population.
Despite the fact that most of the religious students are Jewish, she says she felt more comfortable with other traditional people, who wear long skirts and the like.
In both her MA and PhD programs at Bar-Ilan, Abas was the only Druse student, and in 2007 she became the first Druse woman to receive a PhD from the university.
Throughout our conversation Abas repeatedly stresses that today’s situation among the Druse, in terms of women’s place in education and the working world, has improved by leaps and bounds. She recalls a turning point in 2010, when the community’s religious leader invited her to take part in an academic event in her village.
During the event, he told its attendees: “Randa has proved to all of us that it is possible to respect and to keep the Druse culture, and be part of the modern world at the same time.”
Abas says it encouraged other community members to accept the idea of letting the women go out to study, and many women told her they wished to follow in her footsteps.
“Today, everyone who didn’t want to speak to me before wants to be close to me,” Abas adds. She estimates that the winds of change began around 2007, when community members started opening up to the idea of women leaving the village to study and work. “Before then, it was thought that if we go out, we will distance ourselves from the society and tradition. But I remained Randa throughout – the Druse woman who respects her religion and educated her children with Druse values. Wherever I go, I will be the same Randa.”
“For example, we aren’t allowed to wear earrings – and you will never see me wearing earrings,” she says. “I don’t understand why, but its not worth it for me to fight about this.”
“But on education, I won’t give up. We always need to find the bridge between our world and the modern world.”
These days, while Druse society remains very traditional and set gender roles are still very much in force, it’s no longer rare for women to drive, study or work.
Abas notes, however, that while many women study for degrees now, the percentage that do PhDs is still low.
“Maybe the new generation will be different,” she says hopefully.