Meet the Arab-Israeli, Palestinian women making an impact on society

“I want to see more women from the Arab sector at work so that they can improve their social and economic conditions.”

CLOCKWISE: Nivine Sandouka, Amoun Sleen, Julia Zaher and Sameera Rada Emran. (photo credit: Courtesy)
CLOCKWISE: Nivine Sandouka, Amoun Sleen, Julia Zaher and Sameera Rada Emran.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 Julia Zaher is an Arab-Israeli businesswoman, philanthropist and former schoolteacher. She is owner and CEO of Al-Arz Tahini, a tahini manufacturing company in Nazareth. An advocate for diversity and women in the workplace, her company employs a large number of Arab women, in addition to Jewish, Muslim and Christian residents.
She continues to work toward empowering women in all fields and motivating them to join the labor force, Zaher notes from the outset. 
“I have long been encouraging Arab women to join the labor force,” she said. “I want to see more women from the Arab sector at work so that they can improve their social and economic conditions. I have also been very supportive of people with disabilities in order to incorporate them into Arab society.”
Zaher wishes she could say that Arab society is better off today. 
“Unfortunately, our society has not changed and we still need a lot of support in all fields.”
In her view, Arab women are not different than the rest of the women in the world. 
“Arab women are very talented and capable. They can be successful in all fields, but they still need the support of society to achieve their goals.”
According to Zaher, the coronavirus outbreak has had both a positive and negative impact on her and on Arab women as a whole.
“In the beginning there was fear and uncertainty, especially because this was a global, and not local, pandemic,” she noted. “We have taken precautionary measures and banned non-workers from entering our factory. For me, it wasn’t easy to be away from friends and family.”
On a positive note, Zaher said, the coronavirus taught her how to take advantage of time. 
“We have a lot of time to handle our matters,” she explained. “We learned how to manage things through Zoom, which I believe will stay with us for a long time. My only hope is to see our Arab society in a better situation.”
NIVINE SANDOUKA, a resident of east Jerusalem, describes herself as a professional aspiring to achieve social justice, peace and gender equity.
An expert in the field of program development, management, peace-building and gender issues, she currently works with the German Association for Development Cooperation – AGEH. She also runs a grassroots-based initiative called Judi – From Me to You that aims to connect women and volunteers in several civil society organizations.
To pursue her passion, she is the executive director of a newly established NGO called Our Rights – Hoqoqona in Jerusalem, focusing on the civic and political rights of Palestinians in the city, especially women.
“I work with a German organization in the field of peace-building,” Sandouka said. “Generally, I also pursue my passion to create positive change and thus I voluntarily run an organization to achieve Palestinians’ civic rights.”
Sandouka believes the situation of Palestinian women is “worse than ever.”
“Unfortunately, our society lacks morals and values,” she lamented. “It has become a society run by division and judgment. It is a society that is passive in the sense it is unable to embark on a process of real change.”
Sandouka hates the idea of being labeled a victim. 
“Unfortunately, Palestinian women face many challenges: political Islam, patriarchy and occupation. They have to fight to overcome these three obstacles. For me, life is a big challenge.”
The coronavirus has affected life for her and most women. 
“Today I work mostly from home. In addition, I have to cope with my new role as my son’s teacher and school, while doing my work. This year, however, I decided to take control of things; no more Zoom calls in the evening and more meditation. I have also decided to spend more time with my son. It is still challenging, but we have to make the best of it.
“I hope life goes back to normal as soon as possible. I want to go back to seeing my close friends and family and travel.”
NADIA HARHASH, a Palestinian journalist and author from east Jerusalem, is known for her criticism of Palestinian Authority leaders and corruption. As a result, the mother of four has received numerous threats. Last year, an unidentified arsonist set her car on fire in front of her home in the Beit Hanina neighborhood.
“Palestinian women continue to face many challenges,” Harhash said. “Our entire life is one big challenge. However, I am here to live up to my expectations. I cannot do that without fulfilling my own aspirations. We are born to be free, to make life better. In my case, it is not taken for granted. 
“Life is a daily struggle for women like me. After all, I am a mother, and it is not just about me; it is about this generation that is growing and deserves a better life, to live better.”
Harhash is determined to pursue her role as a writer with the hope of improving living conditions for women and all Palestinians. 
“My role is to write, and I’m doing it with all my might,” she affirmed. “It is not an option. I cannot sit aside and blame destiny or politicians for my miserable life. I cannot wait for a savior that will take us to safety and freedom. I see injustice, suppression and corruption, and I resist them and face them through my writing. If I don’t write about these issues, I will be complicit in them. 
“It is often risky, but somehow the more fearless you become, the more powerful you are seen.”
Harhash is not afraid of threats and intimidation. 
“Fear is our worst enemy and I try not to allow it to find its way into me,” she added. “I am a mother who wants a good future for her children. This does not happen by providing proper shelter, education and a sophisticated lifestyle. Rather, this happens in a society that respects its people through equality and justice. And as a human being, woman, mother and Palestinian, I don’t accept less than this.”
As far as Harhash is concerned, the status of Palestinian women is no less grave than the status of Palestinian men.
“You cannot have a healthy society without having strong, capable women,” she said. “Strength needs freedom. Freedom, unfortunately, is not a term that is simply practiced in Palestinian society. We live in a vicious cycle of oppression from all directions. Consequently, the struggle of women has become one of survival, and not liberation. 
“Ideologies covered with fundamentalist and religious slogans have infiltrated our society in the last decade. When we look around us, we see a whole different set of rules that are imposed on us. It’s as if we’ve been hijacked by ideological norms that became the law; tribal norms have become part of the law. One can only imagine where women are situated in such a set of rules, where patriarchy is the only given rule.”
The past year, Harhash said, will be remembered as the year when everyone wondered about the pandemic’s impact on their lives. 
“The outbreak of the coronavirus has forced us to come face-to-face with our weakness and helplessness as arrogant human beings. On the other hand, the pandemic also gave us the opportunity to reconnect with nature and realize how simple life is. For me, this was an amazing experience. Staying at home helped me develop my own capabilities. I experienced creativity as I never dared before. I was able to reconnect with my own breath and my hands. 
“My soul was out there celebrating a breath of life with nature. I could hear birds sing as the noise in the streets stopped.”
SAMEERA RADA EMRAN, a social and political activist from the village of Ein Qinya on the Golan Heights, is a bank clerk who in 2018 announced her candidacy for mayor. She is known in her community as a staunch advocate for women’s rights.
“I want to see women play a major and effective role in our society. I want the voice of women to be heard loudly. That’s why I decided back then to run for mayor. I was the first woman to run for office in our community.”
Her decision to run in the municipal elections was met by many challenges. 
“It wasn’t easy for me. I had to put up with many challenges and boycotts. But I was determined to pave the way for women to seek a better future. I wanted to set an example for all women and encourage them to enter public life.”
Emran believes that the conditions of Arab society in general and women in particular have worsened over the past few years. 
“Arab society is still lacking real leadership,” she complained. “We need a leadership that will help us achieve equality and other rights. In my opinion, our women continue to suffer from injustice. I believe that it’s wrong to say that our women have advanced and achieved equality in our society. Today, I can say that women have more responsibilities and fewer rights. Although our women work outside their homes and contribute to the development of our society, we are still sidelined by men.”
The coronavirus, Emran noted, has forced many Arab women to come face-to-face with the hardships of daily life.
“As a bank employee, I have seen the difficulties many people have been facing over the past year. It’s very painful.”
Emran said she was hoping to continue working toward upgrading and strengthening the status of women in Arab society in general and her village in particular. 
“I’m hoping that one day I will be able to form a women’s list that will have influence in our village council.”
AMOUN SLEEM, founder and director of The Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem (Domari), is a prominent female activist who has been representing her small community for the past two decades.
“I believe that in order to build a strong and independent society, I must provide our women with the tools and skills to function independently so they will be able to transmit these mindsets and ethics to their children,” Sleem asserted. “In this context, we provide a business course for women so they can learn how to start their own businesses. We also aim to increase opportunities for women in the labor force. Our women are always eager to participate in new learning opportunities.”
Sleem isn’t satisfied with the status of Arab society nowadays. 
“I really hope our society will change. We want more freedom of expression. We want to see an end to violence in our society. Our women continue to face many challenges in a male-dominated society.”
Sleem noted that many members of her community, including women, have lost their jobs after the coronavirus outbreak. 
“We are doing our utmost to help our people. My group has been providing aid to many families and children. Our goal is to achieve economic, legal, social equality and justice for our community. 
“We want to give a voice to the voiceless.” 