By Saniya More
Israeli-Arab women defying traditions in pursuit of independence
Fourteen-year-old Malak Ghazalin once got into a fight with her teacher that ended with her storming out of class.
“She told me I should be more like girls, that I was so tomboy-ish,” Ghazalin said. “My father had to come to school because I just screamed at her and left.”
Malak is an Israeli-Arab citizen living in Nazareth, a city known as the “Arab Capital of Israel.”
Of the state’s 6.3 million citizens, over one million, or about 16%, are not Jewish. Almost all are Israeli Arabs, who mainly come from families that lived in Israel before its establishment.
Malak wants to become a professional soccer player but faces a mountain of obstacles not only because of the conservative community she comes from but also because she is a girl.
“Men here are allowed to do things that we’re not allowed to, like go out at night, go to parties,” she said outside a busy coffee shop in Nazareth. “We’re not allowed because we’re girls.”
But Malak seldom lets her gender get in the way. When she was younger, she played with the boys, often being called a boy by the girls in her neighborhood.
“Sometimes it hurt, but I wouldn’t listen to them because I wanted to do what I loved to do,” she said. “So they would play with their Barbies, and I would play with my ball.”
Malak explained that Israeli-Arab culture has long associated sports with boys and so very few girls play. She currently plays on an all-girl soccer team but has always wished that she could play on the boys’ team because “they play better.” The neighborhood never hosts games between girls and boys because it’s not allowed, though she said she would gladly take on the boys if she could.
Malak wants to play soccer for a living, but she says she would never play for an Israeli team.
“They focus on nothing here,” she said. “You can’t go anywhere with your gift.”
She wants to apply to universities abroad and be an athlete in a college team. “I would like girls like myself to have the rights they’re supposed to have that I couldn’t have,” Malak said. “I will grow up and gain my rights then come back and make society give them what they deserve.”
A thirst for independence
Shada Ghazalin refuses to pray every day.
“I don’t get the idea of being so religious,” the 18-year-old said. “I love to live my life day by day and not be so connected to these things.”
Hers is an unconventional view in a society long governed by religion and faith.
Shada said she is simply not interested. She’d rather spend her time listening to music, watching “Friends” — her favorite character is Joey — and planning her life after graduation.
Shada has applied to study biochemistry in France and wants to work in a laboratory.
“Why research? It makes me feel powerful,” she said. “I can discover stuff that no one else has. I have the power to know things no one has ever known.”
Shada’s mother is from Jordan and studied nursing. Her father is a contractor and never went to college. Shada said that her parents are very supportive of her pursuing a higher education abroad and furthering her career. Marriage is off the table, at least for now.
“They want us to get educated first, get a job, be more responsible and individual, and then we can get married,” she said. “They don’t want us to get married at an early age because that’s not what our lives should be. It shouldn’t just be like, okay, get married, get pregnant, have kids. They don’t want that for us.”
Shada said her parents are much more progressive than others in the Israeli-Arab community she lives in. It is something for which she is enormously grateful.
“I think they want me to make a change, to get more open-minded, to see life,” she said.
Like Shada, an increasing number of Israeli-Arab women are breaking away from the conventional path of marriage and motherhood in pursuit of higher education and work. But for many, moving away from long-held traditions isn’t so simple.
Empowering the next generation
The heavy downpour did little to drown out Sohayla Aborkeek’s voice as she sat in front of a crowd and told them her story. Sohayla is a 47-year-old Bedouin woman living in Be’er Sheva, the largest city in the Negev desert in southern Israel.
The Bedouin are nomadic people who have historically lived in the desert regions in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq and the Levant. Today, many Bedouin communities, particularly in Israel, are no longer nomadic, choosing instead to live in permanent settlements across the desert.
Although the Bedouin have changed their way of life, they follow the Islamic religion and adhere to a very strict set of cultural norms. According to Sohayla’s experience, men tend to have more power and access to resources than women.
Before Sohayla got married, her sister started a Bedouin medicine business selling oils and herbs. But after Sohayla’s marriage, things changed.
“When I got married, my husband told me not to ask about working,” she said. “Because of that, I stayed at home with no job.”
Not being able to work was a huge source of conflict for Sohayla and her husband. At one point, it got so bad that Sohayla wanted to move out. But because Bedouin traditions don’t allow women to live on their own, she returned to her father’s home and worked for her sister’s business from there.
“My husband didn’t think I would leave home, but I did,” she said.
Sohayla stayed with her father for three months, telling her husband she would come home only if her husband allowed her to continue working. Eventually, he agreed and she returned.
When she came back, Sohayla became the sole breadwinner of the family. It was a tough time, she said.
“I went into a lot of debt because I wasn’t making a lot of money working for my sister,” she said. “My husband started to punish me.”
That was just the beginning of a conflict that would last over six years. When Sohayla’s eldest daughter, Kaothar, finished the sixth grade, Sohayla’s husband wanted her to stay at home. She thought he was joking at first but quickly realized her husband was serious and didn’t want their daughter to go to school. She tried everything she could to change his mind. She even got her father involved, eventually convincing her husband to let Kaothar study until the ninth grade.
Once Kaothar finished the ninth grade, Sohayla told her husband that she wanted her daughter to finish high school.
“My husband started to scream, saying it wouldn’t happen, that he had an agreement with my father that Kaothar could only study till the ninth grade,” she said. Sohayla tried asking her father to speak to her husband again, but her efforts were in vain.
Desperate and out of solutions, Sohayla took her case to the social services of the state.
“I told them I needed my daughter to go to school,” she said. “I said if she couldn’t continue her education, that she be taken to a women’s shelter from where I could protect her.”
When the authorities spoke with Sohayla’s husband, she said he got scared and agreed to continue his daughter’s education but warned Sohayla that a higher education was out of the question for Kaothar.
“I told my husband that I had no idea what would happen in the next three years,” she said. Laughing, she confessed she already knew what was going to happen.
Sure enough, three years later, after Kaothar took her final exams and performed extremely well, Sohayla registered her at the local university. Without a word to her husband, she helped her daughter take all the required standardized tests to gain admission.
Once Kaothar got into university, Sohayla broke the news to her husband.
“He shouted and screamed, making a mess in the house,” she said. It was the last straw for Sohayla. She took all of her children with her to her father’s house, telling her husband she wanted a divorce.
“He realized how serious I was and said Kaothar could go to university,” she said.
Kaothar is now in her first year at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and studies medicine. She said her mother is her biggest role model.
“I take power from her,” she said. “She supports me in everything I do, especially my studies.”
Although her university is only a few kilometers away, Kaothar’s father insists on dropping her off every day. It’s a small price to pay for the chance to have an education, she said.
It’s a chance not many around her have had. Kaothar said she has a friend her age who stopped going to school from the sixth grade. Her friend is married now and will soon have a baby.
“Right now, I want a career more than a family,” Kaothar said. “I want to stand on my feet first.”
And when she is ready for marriage, Kaothar said she will always advocate for herself like her mother did.
“I will speak with my [potential] husband and tell him I want to continue to work and build my career,” she said. “Otherwise, I won’t get married.”
The (im)balance of responsibility
Hiba Younis Ziad says she couldn’t recall the last time she had a moment to herself.
The 31-year-old works eight hours a day, five days a week at Givat Haviva, a nonprofit organization in northern Israel that works to foster dialogue between Jewish and Arab youth. There, she is a coordinator of a program that initiates face-to-face communication between children aged 12 to 18 and teachers from Jewish and Arab schools.
Hiba also has two young boys, a husband and a household she needs to take care of.
It is a lot of responsibility to juggle, but Hiba said she is lucky to have some help from her parents, in-laws and occasional support from her husband, though it still isn’t enough.
“I think I will only get a true balance between my personal and professional life once my children grow up,” she said. In the future, Hiba sees herself becoming more involved politically with a wider community.
Hiba said women in Israeli-Arab society need more support from their families and aren’t receiving enough because of age-old perceptions of how women should behave as well as the role they are expected to play in the family. This, she said, is made worse by the fact that women earn less than men and don’t have as many rights.
“We face barriers, both social and political [ones],” she said.
Regardless of the obstacles they face, more and more Israeli-Arab women are pursuing a higher education. Fifteen percent of all students in Israeli institutions for higher education are Arab women, according to a study conducted at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies
Hiba herself has a master’s degree in the sociology of education. She said her degree has opened doors for her, allowing her to have a career and be financially self-supportive.
Being able to continue her education was the first condition Hiba gave her husband when they decided to get married. “I was pursuing my master’s degree at the time and told him I wanted to complete my degree,” she said. Hiba told him that if he couldn’t give her the space to do that, she didn’t want to get married.
Hiba said she knows many women in their thirties who have yet to get married and are happy living without a husband. According to an article published in Haaretz, the percentage of Israeli-Arab women over the age of 30 who have chosen to remain single is at a record-high of 12%.
There is a great lack of communication in Arab society and people aren’t honest enough with each other about what they want, which Hiba said causes problems down the road.
It is a problem she is trying to solve, not only professionally but also personally.
“Every day, I teach my boys to be a part of their home, to be responsible for taking care of the house,” she said. “More importantly, I teach them to have respect for the women in their lives.”
“Of course education makes me more independent, more strong,” she said. “I have no critical need for a husband right now.”
Maisam Jaljuli has been an activist for as long as she can remember.
Jaljuli was raised in a progressive, politically aware family living in an Arab-Palestinian village in Israel. Jaljuli remembers protesting as a young child in local demonstrations, experiences that she said inspired her to want to create change in her community.
Nearly four decades later, the 46-year-old sits on the boards of several nonprofits and organizations in Israel, one of which is Standing Together, which works to empower women in the Arab society and Israel as a whole.
“It’s more challenging because I am a part of a national minority which faces discrimination. I’m a woman in Israel, and we know women in Israel are really not equal when it comes to work and family issues,” she said at her office in Tel Aviv. “In our society, we are facing a lot of challenges. It’s not easy. You feel that all the time you are struggling.”
But these struggles have done little to deter Jaljuli from creating change. In March this year, Jaljuli received the Walking Man award for activism for her efforts to promote equality for women in the workplace and fight violence against women in Israel.
Jaljuli said there is a lot that can be done to improve Israeli society, especially when it comes to the lives of Israeli-Arab women, but she sees change coming.
“I feel optimistic, especially for Israeli-Arab women. If we compare our situation today to 20 years ago, there have been so many changes,” she said. “People who think you can’t change things here in Israel are wrong. I think most people want change, if we give them hope.”
Malak, Shada, Sohayla, Kaothar, Hiba and countless more Israeli-Arab women continue to fight battles for different victories: to gain an education, for a seat at the table, to empower their future generations. Through their battles, they seek to create change, breaking glass ceilings and shattering status quos.
This piece was written as part of the 2019 Newhouse in Israel trip, where 15 Newhouse journalism students went on a 10-day trip to Israel reporting on diverse topics.
Former Editor-In-Chief Saniya More ’19 speaks five languages and squeals over every dog she meets. She enjoys capturing candid yet poised photos of everyone she meets.