Arab Women's Status in Israel: Stories of Progress and Chang...

Arab Women's Status in Israel: Stories of Progress and Change

March 12, 2018

Over the past two decades, the status of Arab women, a "minority within a minority" and one of the most disadvantaged groups in Israel, has improved considerably. This is evident in both macro changes, such as significantly improved participation and achievement in higher education, and in instances of Arab women across Israel advocating for themselves and undertaking certain leadership and professional roles for the first time. 

The patriarchal structure of Arab society and the minority status of Arab women impact the demographic in a number of difficult ways, such as low employment rates (35% compared to the national average of 80%), fewer women in leadership roles, over-representation in low-skilled and low-wage labor, instances of violence against women (with over 2,000 men serving time for violence against Arab women as of 2016), and polygamy, especially among the Negev Bedouin. 

Overtime, some of these gaps have begun to narrow, which is particularly evident in the educational sphere. The 2017 State of the Nation Report by the Taub Center revealed encouraging improvements over the past two decades in the rates of Arab females with full matriculation certificates (12-28% increase depending on subgroup), and the percent of Arab females in science-engineering matriculation tracks (71-84% compared to 39% of Jewish females), and a significant increase of Arab women in higher education (roughly 50% increase among Druze and Bedouin and nearly 17% among Muslims). These findings bode well for Arab women's employment rates over time, as academic degrees are one of the most influential factors affecting Arab women's access to employment. 

Recent reports by several civil society organizations in Israel have reflected a change in the status of Arab women as well. In February 2018 an update by the Abraham Fund Initiatives (TAFI) introduced three stories about the presence of Arab women in a range of new and unexpected roles and activities. The first story discussed the recent decision by the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement to reserve positions for Arab women in all of its divisions, as well as in political roles and the Movement's party list for Knesset elections. The decision was announced during the Branch's 19th annual conference, which was attended by an unprecedented number of women, and was widely discussed in Arab media. The Arab media platform Panet, for instance, interviewed "Women Against Violence" Director Na'ila Awad on the integration of Arab women into politics. 

The second story announced the first Bedouin woman to become an ambulance driver, 26 year-old Warud Abu Abed from Rahat. Abed had successfully completed a training course through Magen David Adom, and in multiple interviews conducted by Arab media outlets attested to the support she received from her social network and family. She has since begun serving as an ambulance driver in her home town of Rahat.

Lastly, TAFI reported that for the first time in the history of the Arab town Umm al-Fahm, a local female soccer player was accepted to Israel's Women's National Football League. Twelve year-old Likka Sammi Jabarin, who attends the bilingual school Bridge over the Wadi of the Hand in Hand school network, told interviewers from a range of Arab media outlets that she has been playing soccer for the past six years with the support of her family, despite the disapproval of much of her community. Likka tried out for the team along with a substantial group of Arab girls, but was the only one accepted.

In the civil society sphere, an Arab and Jewish-women led initiative made waves in January 2018; the Women Initiating Change group—led by A New Way in partnership with the Lod Municipality and support of the US Embassy—conducted a TED-style event in the mixed  Jewish-Arab town of Lod, during which select women from the community lectured on their experiences of breaking through patriarchal traditions and social expectations to achieve their goals. The aim of Women Initiating Change is to implement projects for the betterment of the Lod community, and its members include religious and secular Arab and Jewish women who represent the diversity of Lod. The Israeli Erev Hadash popular news program conducted an interview with two of the group's leaders, Hilda Kedsa Bahloul and Dr. Orna Rachamim-Katz, who discussed coming together as an Arab and a Jewish woman to foster social change and better understand one another's points of view.  

Following leadership workshops and intensive sessions together over the past year, women from the group have implemented a range of local initiatives. One example is the Modam Bicycles project for bike-riding in nature, where a group of children from the local El-Razi school, mainly girls, were chosen to participate in the biking lessons, with project leaders emphasizing girls' participation in order to show that such activity was not "just for boys." 

Over the past two years, Arab women in government leadership, civil society, and the public sphere have also become increasingly vocal and active with regards to the killing of Arab women due to family disputes, an escalating phenomenon that counted 91 Arab female victims in the past decade, comprising 54% of women murdered in Israel overall - an overwhelming over-representation considering Arab citizens of Israel comprise a little over 20% of the population.

A string of protests throughout 2016 and 2017, led and attended mainly by Arab women, were launched in response to killings of Arab women across Israel, calling out against internal violence within Arab communities and demanding that local authorities and police become more proactive in aiding women under threat. Currently, 50% of such murder cases are unsolved and many dozens of complaints by Arab women have yet to be addressed. One such protest was held in June 2017 in front of the Lod police station following two particularly hard weeks in which three Arab women were murdered in the Jewish-Arab city. The large protest was attended by MK Aida Tuma-Suleiman, who heads the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, and was co-led by women activists from the Lod-based Na'am (Hebrew initials for "Arab women in the center") organization for the empowerment of Arab women in mixed cities, founded by Samah Salaime Agbariye. The protests have received wide coverage in Israeli news outlets, drawing attention to the issue and its severity. 

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