A brave woman, among men

Fureidis resident Ibtisam Mahameed works with coexistence organizations to promote peace and further women’s rights.

The women of TRUST-Emun 521 (photo credit: Courtesy TRUST-Emun)
The women of TRUST-Emun 521
(photo credit: Courtesy TRUST-Emun)
Although in Israel “equal pay for work of equal value” often applies more to women living in Jewish communities, a few outspoken women in the country’s 1.7 million Arab and Druse populations are finding ways to break out of their traditional roles, coexist with their Jewish counterparts, and create better opportunities for their own people.
Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics in 2009 show that Arab women have much higher unemployment rates than their Jewish counterparts: 14.28 percent for Arab women, versus 8.54% for Jews. In an article presented by Merchavim, the Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel, between 8,000 and 10,000 Arab teachers are unemployed due to not being able to find work teaching in Jewish schools, largely because of “double discrimination” by both school administrations and objections by Jewish parents.
Enter into this picture Ibtisam Mahameed, 61, an Arab peace and women’s rights activist, and mother of three from the Carmel mountain community of Fureidis, just “across the wadi” from Zichron Ya’acov.
Mahameed was an average Muslim housewife from this 11,000-strong Israeli-Arab community; but due to the increasingly disturbing inequalities among the Jewish, Arab and other minority populations, decided in the early 1990s she needed to do more than just stay at home and take care of her family.
Mahameed’s efforts have since resulted in her receiving a number of humanitarian awards over the years, including being chosen Woman of the Year by the Israel Woman’s Parliament in 2007; sharing the Unsung Hero for Peace award issued by the Dalai Lama in 2009; and being awarded Woman of the Year in Women’s Leadership by the committee for choosing People of the Year in Palestinian Society in 2010.
Continually on the move due to her busy schedule, she found time for an interview with Metro in Fureidis, which means “paradise,” and the place where all her activities began. “Following the end of the first intifada, I and a few other concerned women – including some from neighboring Zichron Ya’acov – decided to try to do something to bring people together for the sake of peace, more equal opportunity, and to create an atmosphere of mutual tolerance,” Mahameed says.
From very humble beginnings, Mahameed and her companions formed the first of several interfaith and cultural organizations whose goal was to bring people together to talk about their differences and try to find ways to coexist in what remains a very intolerant and unfriendly environment. The first of these organizations, the Brotherhood Peace Foundation, began with Mahameed and “two Jewish women from Zichron Ya’acov.” It later grew to more than 100, and now more than 1,000 come to their meetings. “Following the second intifada in 2000, more and more people, mostly women, began to come to our meetings,” she says.
One of the main discussion and project topics is the inequality of Arab and Druse women in the workforce and in politics.
“Arab women have traditionally been confined to home and have not had the chance to get a good education in order to obtain better jobs,” she says. “For example, in my generation there was no high school in Fureidis, and many people – especially women – could not leave the village and go to larger towns to study. But now there is a good high school, and after graduating, students can go on and study in places like Beit Berl Teachers College, to Tel Aviv and even abroad. We have a woman doctor and a lot of lawyers. There is now a lot of advancement in the career fields and women don’t exclusively stay at home as was customary before.”
To add credibility to Mahameed’s contention that Arab women have not had enough opportunities to become better educated, as well as find suitable employment, a 2007 survey carried out by Kayan, the feminist organization for Arab women, had a lot to do with dispelling theories espoused by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz regarding why fewer Arab women are found in the workforce.
Steinitz had stated that low percentages of Arab women in the workforce were largely due to “cultural and traditional barriers to seeking employment.” The Kayan survey, carried out in 11 Arab towns and villages in the Galilee and the “triangle,” found that the public-transportation system to these communities is much poorer than to Jewish communities, thus preventing many women from being able to travel to school and work. In addition, there are only 14 branches of the Employment Institute in Arab-populated areas, as well as inadequate day-care services for children.
Traditional Arab culture with respect to women being free to leave their homes to study or work – and particularly, to join women’s activist groups – is still somewhat of a factor, however. An example of this was when Mahameed became a member of the SHIN organization, the Israeli Movement for Equal Representation of Women. She says she had to receive the consent of her husband, Subhi, to join SHIN, which later became the partner organization for empowering women in Fureidis and other communities. SHIN and other women’s organizations have enabled her, she says, to encourage her three children to acquire a higher level of education, thus opening up better career opportunities.
“I have a daughter and two sons. My daughter, Faten, 31, is a high-school teacher in Jisr e-Zarka. My oldest son, Shukri, 29, is a technician at Bezeq International; and my second son, Muhammad, 26, has just completed his studies in health sciences at the Wingate Institute, near Netanya. Students in the Maki Namir High School in Fureidis are getting high grades for the third consecutive year,” says Mahameed, who began her own studies at a somewhat more advanced age. She now has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology.
However, she explained that although there has been marked improvement with regard to education, employment remains problematic, as does women’s involvement in politics. “Forty percent of the revenues in my municipality go toward education. But despite this, there is still high unemployment among trained Arab women – especially teachers – who cannot find positions because Jewish schools will not hire them,” she says.
“Arab women are still not involved with politics. Ours is still the Arab-family society – the hamula, or clan. This is not what I choose. There are women, for example, who work in Arab municipalities like Fureidis, but not in positions of authority,” she adds.
STATISTICS FROM the Employment Institute show that only 3% of civil-service jobs are held by Arab women, even though the civil service is one of the largest employers of women in Israel. Arab women make up about 10% of the country’s population.
Aside from the issues of education and employment for Arab women to enable them to have better opportunities, Mahameed says she feels that the organizations she is involved with are very important with respect to seeking ways to bridge the gaps of misunderstanding among peoples of different faiths and ideologies, and bring them closer together.
One of these, a Jerusalem based NGO called TRUST-Emun, is committed to building mutual trust and understanding through one-on-one programs and activities – especially women-led activities. TRUST-Emun’s Executive Director, Elana Rozenman, says that she has great admiration for women like Mahameed who have been able to encourage many Arab and Druse women to learn Hebrew, study and acquire skills that enable them to either find work outside their communities or start a business. “They get out of their homes and into the work environment; and as such they become powerful role models,” says Rozenman.
In addition to being involved in interfaith organizations in Jerusalem and elsewhere, Mahameed has created a women’s center in Fureidis, known as the Hagar and Sarah Peace Center for Women’s Activity, which her husband built on the first floor of their three-level home and helped her establish.
“My husband established the center in Fureidis at his own expense,” she says. “Many Druse, Jews and Christians come to Fureidis to attend sessions. I also take them for a tour in the town.”
She adds that busloads of people arrive from all over the country, and from abroad, for sessions from March until August. “There are between 50 and 100 people attending each time. We give them a meal and sleeping accommodations, and conduct talks within a circle about what is happening in the country, as well as in our village,” she says.
Another issue that is frequently dealt with by Mahameed at her center is the treatment of Muslim women by Muslim men. “The historical tenets of Islam gave women much more equality. But over the years it changed. Islamic conservatives want Islam to return to the ‘old way’ of the Caliphate, in which women suffer much mistreatment and abuse,” she says. “What is known as ‘honor killings’ is often the end result of this abuse. Family honor is not a tenet of Islam. I am against abuse and killing of women for any reason.”
Aside from holding sessions at the center, Mahameed and her husband host visitors in their home, including outside dinners during the summer months.
Another local project initiated by Mahameed is Women Reborn, dedicated to giving local women encouragement and support to pursue employment, higher education and community involvement. Through this project, she works together with the SHIN organization to improve the lot of Arab and Druse women, who face significant barriers in their male-dominated society.
“We have a course named ‘political leadership’ that we received from SHIN,” she says. “It deals with leadership for women through education. Although there is development of women in the villages, it is much different than in the city. In the villages there are not many work opportunities, causing a lot of unemployment. This is true not only in Fureidis but all over the country. As a result, about 10,000 Arab women teachers are now unemployed.”
TRUST-Emun joined with Mahameed’s Center for Hagar and Sarah and the Druse group Mada (“horizon” in Arabic) for a combined event on International Women’s Day, on March 8. The two groups met again to commemorate the Arab World’s Mother’s Day celebration on March 21 by meeting in the Garden of the Mothers in Daliat al-Carmel, created in memory of the 44 people who lost their lives in the 2010 wildfires in the Carmel Forest, a number of whom were Druse.
“We will walk slowly around our garden honoring each of the 44 trees that we planted there in memory of those who perished in the fires. We will share food that women will bring and visit homes of the Druse women nearby,” says Mahameed.
The issues that she is so involved with are far too often experienced by Jewish women as well, particularly by those from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. But given this reality – and what sometimes appear to be almost insurmountable obstacles – Mahameed continues to meet other women in interfaith groups like TRUST-Emun, knowing that these efforts to create mutual understanding and cooperation between peoples will eventually bear fruit in the wider Israel population.
“My family lived originally in Tantura, a village on the coast that was occupied by Jews in 1948; and we later settled in Fureidis. Although I am an Israeli citizen and carry an Israeli identity card, I still feel rooted in my Palestinian origins. But we are all people living together on this little piece of land; and as such, we have to find ways to coexist with each other,” says Ibtisam Mahameed.