BY SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Originally in The Jerusalem Post Magazine
Majd Ashhab looks up from her optometry instruments. “Honestly, I never faced discrimination in the workplace,” she says. “It is more common that people say, ‘Oh my God, this is the first time I talked to an Arab,’ or ‘You don’t look like an Arab.’ One time, though, I do remember I had a boss at a different job I had, and he said, ‘I don’t want this Arab working here,’ until he saw that I was a good employee.”
Ashhab, whose friends call her Maggie, is one of many Arab women employed in various jobs in Israel. A young professional, she is studying optometry at Jerusalem’s Hadassah College and works as a saleswoman at Opticana in the city’s Mamilla Mall. The college has seen an influx in recent years of Arab women studying for practical degrees and finding work part-time in west Jerusalem.
But despite appearances, Arab women face numerous barriers, some of their own making, in locating employment. Ashhab recalls that “in east Jerusalem, only a small percentage of Arab women know Hebrew. They have only a few options for work. The [Arab] neighborhoods in east Jerusalem are really places for living, not employment. On the other hand, I can work anywhere I want because I know Hebrew, English and Arabic.”
ACCORDING TO a study conducted by Yosef Jabareen and presented at the 18th Caesarea Forum, “the participation of Arab women in Israel’s labor force is one of the lowest in the world, currently standing at 21% as compared to 57% among Jewish women.” The study also found that unemployment among Arab women has “many and varied ramifications, including greater poverty; the underutilization of the market’s economic potential; wider gaps between Jews and Arabs… increased alienation from the state and its institutions; and the impairment of the status of women in general.”
Jabareen argues, based on his research, that 43% of Arab women would be willing to accept employment immediately if it were offered to them. The insinuation of much of the research is that institutional discrimination is holding Arab women back. More than half of the country’s 1.4 million Arabs live in Haifa and the Galilee. Although 82% of Israeli Arabs are Muslim, those living in the North are the most diverse population, with large numbers of Druse, Christians and Beduin living in almost 100 villages and towns.
Al-Zahraa is one of the main Arab women’s organizations in the country. Based in the sprawling Arab city of Sakhnin, it works on numerous programs in empowerment, education and advocacy for Arab women.
Thirty-three-year-old Jumanah Essa-Hadad speaks with a soft southern accent that she picked up growing up and studying in South Carolina and Virginia. The daughter of Arab Christians from the Galilee who moved to the US, she studied at Virginia Tech and decided, after falling in love and marrying a local man, to move back home in 2004. She is studying toward a PhD at the University of Haifa and works as a resource development coordinator at Al-Zahraa. “They were looking for a grant writer, and their focus on public health appealed to me, so I took the job,” she says.
Coming from the US, where most women work, she was shocked when she arrived and found that employment was so low in her community. “The number of [Arab] women going to college is actually increasing, but the number of women being employed is staying the same,” she notes. “What really surprised me is the number of girls who go to school to become teachers, just so they can find a teaching job that is easy, local and culturally accepted.”
She argues that one of the main barriers for women finding work is transportation. “Sakhnin is considered a major [Arab] city, but there is almost no public transport. If I wanted to commute from my home in Eilabun [an Arab Catholic village] and take the bus, then it takes me two hours just to get there. For a lot of Arab women, it is so hard to get to another town, like Haifa or Karmiel, in the end it is easier for them to not take a job if it isn’t really high pay, because it takes so much time commuting and they need to find a place to put their children.”
One issue the women face is the high cost of day care. According to Essa-Hadad, most day-care centers close at 4 p.m. and even those that are open are prohibitively expensive. “I have twin girls, and until they were three years old I was paying half my salary for day care,” she says. Al-Zahraa has worked to find solutions that fit the Arab female community. “There is a lack of Arab women employed in government jobs, and I think it is very hard for them to find work in these [fields],” explains Essa-Hadad.
With a lack of representation on planning committees, “there is the added problem that the state institutions don’t understand the needs of the Arab community and take into account its cultural aspects.” The cultural aspect is one that the official statistics don’t reveal. The Arab community is conservative, and the notion that a woman would commute by herself far away to work in a foreign environment and return home late is not altogether accepted. This is particularly a problem in the Muslim and Druse communities.
According to Al-Zahraa director Wafa Shaheen, the unemployment situation among Druse women is the worst in the Arab sector in the North. This might seem surprising, since Druse men serve in the IDF and become assimilated into the wider Israeli culture.
Essa-Hadad believes there are differences between the Muslim and Christian communities as well. According to her, about 40% of Muslim women in the Galilee wear head scarves, and that percentage is increasing. “Muslim women with head scarves face a barrier to employment – for instance, in a Jewish shopping center, and especially in a clothing store,” she points out. Christian women, who generally come from a more educated and less conservative background, not only seek out work further from home, but have an easier time getting jobs in Jewish areas.
“There is a mall in [Jewish] Karmiel, and I see young Arab girls working there. It is more acceptable for Christians to go to a place like that,” she says. “I don’t know Muslim women who work there, but I know that a lot of Christian girls from the village of Rama work in Karmiel.” Al-Zahraa has worked on practical solutions to bring jobs to the Arab community.
Essa-Hadad says, “There is a scientist in Sakhnin who works in bio-tech named Sobhi Bashir, and now one of our major projects is working with him to develop an organic soap factory that requires engineers, and in fact we have a lot of women here who have engineering degrees from the Technion and they ended up teaching or doing other jobs that are not suitable for their education level. He has agreed to employ women in cooperation with Al-Zahraa, and the municipality has dedicated land for the factory. Hopefully in the next two years it will be up and running.
We are expecting that 10 women with degrees will be employed there. And at least 20 to 30 women will work in other aspects.”
THE SITUATION in the Negev is more dire. Hala Abu Shareb is a smart, opinionated woman who works for an NGO that markets the weavings of Beduin women in the Negev town of Lakiya. Born in Beersheba to a Beduin family from Rahat, she is a graduate of Ben- Gurion University. She always wanted to work, but she recalls that the prospects for women like her were generally only to be found in teaching jobs. “I didn’t want to be a teacher like the rest of my community. I didn’t have great faith in the education system in the Arab [Beduin] area, because it is very low for some reason,” she says. “I wanted to contribute to my community in a different way, to do more than teaching and to change things.”
She heard about an NGO called Sidreh that needed someone who spoke English and Hebrew and had a driver’s license. “I said, ‘Why not?’ It seemed like a good opportunity.” Sidreh was established in 1998 and works in several areas to improve the situation of Beduin women. One of the main projects entailed opening a weaving center for Beduin women. Abu Shareb explains that “we give women the chance to earn some income by using their existing weaving skills, because we have a high rate of unemployment, 90%, and because 80% of those over 30 are illiterate.”
The reasons for the unemployment, according to her, are varied: “First of all, today you have to finish at least 12 years of school to get a job, and many Beduin women did not complete all those years of school…. Maybe 30% of Beduin women speak Hebrew – and I’m being generous. Women under 30 years of age have higher levels of literacy, but still they are literate only at a basic level. Fewer than 5% of Beduin women have driver’s licenses.”
This last statistic is significant. Since public transportation in the Beduin communities is not very developed, or is nonexistent in some cases, it means that women can’t leave the villages to find work. Because they don’t speak Hebrew, can’t read and don’t have an education, many of them also face an iron barrier to finding employment.
The NGO has attempted to solve this problem by providing weaving jobs to 70 women. This is a skill they already possess, and since many of the women have children, the Lakiya center makes sure they can work at home. “They don’t work 9 to 5,” says Abu Shareb. “We give them the wool and the patterns and they weave at their own houses.”
The Negev Beduin, of whom there will soon be 200,000, have undergone radical changes in the last six decades, from a mainly semi-nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary one. With one of the highest birthrates in the country, they currently live in seven governmentplanned towns and more than 40 unrecognized villages.
Abu Shareb explains that “when we used to live in tents, the women used to do everything in the home. They had a full partnership, they used to trade things, like camel’s milk, with other tribes, and they were making bread. The woman wove the tents and built the home. She used to make all the stuff in the home and take care of the children and planting and bringing water.”
In those days, of course, the woman was still considered statistically “unemployed” from the standpoint of the state, but she was employed in her own community. Sidreh wants to give the pride of self-employment back the women. “We want to give women some independence.
That is why we are hiring them and giving them the chance to work,” Abu Shareb says. “When [a woman] works, her self-esteem is higher, she feels she is producing something for herself. Some of them help their daughters to go to college [with the money they earn]. We support mainly women who, if we weren’t here, I don’t know where they would get an income; most of them are illiterate. We also have women who are over 50 years old. Some of them are divorced, and most of them are in polygamous marriages, so their husband has more than one wife, and the women we employ are neglected.”
SISTER HORTENSE Nakhleh’s former students recall her as a stern principal and nun, but that veneer melts away when she consents to an interview about how her Rosary Sisters school seeks to educate and empower young women. As she sits behind a large desk in her office in the main administrative building of the school in Beit Hanina, the quiet and air conditioning contrast with the bustle and oppressive heat in the world outside.
Beit Hanina is a sort of Arab Beverly Hills north of Jerusalem. A part of the municipality since its borders were extended after the 1967 war, the neighborhood has developed in the last 20 years as a suburb of choice for a wealthy mix of the most educated Arab citizens in the area. The school, located on the main road of the community, is the flagship of a network of Rosary Sisters private Catholic schools throughout Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. The order, founded by a local Arab woman in the 19th century, is one of the few Arab female Catholic orders in the world.
Sister Hortense was born in 1960 in the Galilee and studied Arabic language in Beirut. She understands English, but speaks through a translator to make sure her statements are clearly understood. “In Beit Hanina, we educate about 1,800 Muslim and Christian girls,” she says. “Until 10th grade, the girls study all the normal subjects. At that point they have a choice to do more rigorous study in science or literature. We look at the student’s English level and commitment and decide, with the student, which choice is better for them.”
The decision to encourage young women to study science, a subject in which most Western women struggle to succeed, contributes to empowering Arab women. “This is our mission, pioneering education for women so that they will fill important positions in society in the future,” Sister Hortense explains. “Our former students actually are filling important positions in councils, pharmacies, as engineers, doctors, teachers, [in] business administration, NGOs and even in banking.”
Increasingly the school has found that its graduates want to study at Israeli universities, rather than in Jordan or the West Bank. To that end, the nuns began providing Hebrew instruction and sending girls to orientation at the Hebrew University. Sister Hortense shows a stack of papers on her desk, on top of which is a letter from Bar-Ilan University expressing interest in accepting girls from the school.
Rosary Sisters imposes a strict dress code that does not include a head scarf for the Muslim students. They take the girls on field trips throughout the year to places in Israel and abroad. “We talk to the girls about the detrimental effects of early marriage and encourage them to pursue a career and continue their studies,” says the principal. “Based on our experience as a school, from the year 1977, when the first girls graduated here, [fewer] than 1% of the graduates actually did not pursue studies after.”
EXTRAORDINARY CLAIMS require extraordinary proof. Majd Ashhab, who graduated from the Rosary Sisters school several years ago, remembers the exacting standards and the encouragement to continue studying and seek out work. The Ashhabs are a large family whose origins, like most Arabs in east Jerusalem, are in Hebron. Her father was from the political Left, and he encouraged all his four daughters to work and study. “First I worked for my dad in Beit Hanina, and also in E-Ram,” she says. “When I began university, I moved to Top Shop in Mamilla, where I was for seven months, and then I went to work in Nautica before finding my current job at Opticana.”
For Ashhab, work was an obvious choice: “My mom studied biochemistry in Russia and worked in Hebron.
My aunts and sisters all work. Almost all my [Arab female] friends have jobs.” The reality of unemployment in the Arab sector seems to be a problem of education. She reiterates that “here in east Jerusalem, only a small percentage of Arab women know Hebrew. This is a barrier; since many of the jobs are in west Jerusalem, they have only a few options for work. Also, the pay in east Jerusalem is very low. If I took a job there, I might get just NIS 10 an hour.”
Ashhab agrees that the head scarf can be an issue in finding employment. “No one wants to hire a woman with a head scarf. I have friends with scarves; they want to work in stores here like me. Some of them tried to find work, and they were not accepted by Arab or Jewish managers.”
Noya Awiedah, 23, also a graduate of the Rosary Sisters school, had a similar experience to Ashhab’s. She comes from a more conservative Muslim family and chose to study medical labs at Hadassah College. Now she is taking a break from her studies and working at high-end jewelry store H. Stern in the King David Hotel. Awiedah has strong opinions about the situation facing Arab women.
“First of all, most of them want to work, but if they find a perfect husband, they probably choose not to,” she says. “There are some who are forbidden [by their family or husband] to work.” She sees the barrier as being multitiered. Aside from the difficulty of finding work in east Jerusalem that pays the same as similar work in west Jerusalem, “transportation is a problem as well.
Employers will pay for Egged [buses], but… the Arab buses [that cater to east Jerusalem residents] don’t sell monthly passes, so I lose NIS 10 a day just to get back and forth.” She, too, cites Hebrew and head scarves as problems. “Some women who wear head scarves are not even that conservative, but employers definitely discriminate against those women.”
However, a lot of women choose not to search for work, she says. “I have many girlfriends who are unemployed, but I don’t know why. Maybe they didn’t search enough, or maybe because they are Arab. I remember I had a cousin from Shuafat who wore a head scarf, and she felt she could not work because of that. She wouldn’t even think about it.”
Other issues that Awiedah confronted were choosing jobs acceptable to her family and returning home from work late. “I wanted to work as a waitress once, but my father and mother thought it wasn’t decent, it is like being a servant,” she recalls. “I remember once I took an Arab bus home at 10 p.m. and I was the only woman. All the guys stared at me with a dirty look and I felt so uncomfortable.” But she is optimistic: “Things are changing; 10 years ago no Muslim women worked in west Jerusalem. Some Muslim women find it uncomfortable to work with men, but if she wants to be independent and make something of herself she will get over it. A woman should go and work.”
ARAB WOMEN can be found working in every sector in the country, from administrative work in the Immigrant Absorption Ministry to cleaning the dorms at the Hebrew University. In interviewing these women, I found them employed at McDonald’s, City- Pass (the company operating the Jerusalem Light Rail), The Gap, Lerner Gym, April cosmetics, Gali, Castro and Naaman home furnishings, to name just a few places.
Almost none of the interviewees encountered much discrimination in finding work, but all felt that other Arab women, particularly those with head scarves, faced hurdles. What unites nearly all of them is that their families accept their choices and that their jobs meet their need to return at a normal hour, since most Arab women live at home with their families.
Tel Aviv University professor Dan Ben-David, the executive director of the Taub Center, has carried out research showing that education is a key factor in employment for Arab women. “The difference in employment rates among Arab and Jewish women disappears very quickly when they are educated at the same level,” he says. “The problem is that very few Arab women are educated.”
However, many of the women interviewed disagree to some extent. Al- Zahraa’s Shaheen argues that there are many Arab women in the Galilee who have completed college or university and can’t find jobs commensurate with their education level. Another issue is informal employment or work in the gray and black markets. Ben-David estimates that the “shadow economy” in Israel could total as much as NIS 190 billion. Some of this economy is concentrated in the Arab sector. If a large number of women are employed informally, this might mean unemployment is not as severe among them as studies claim.
Most of the women interviewed agree that some Arab women work in daycare facilities, family businesses, cleaning and other jobs that go unreported. However, none of them feel it is a significant percentage. “Sure, some people are paid under the table, but less than 30% of the working women are employed in this way,” states Ashhab. What the interviews reveal is that the central obstacle to Arab women’s employment is the distance of the work from their community and whether the conservative culture views that work as suitable. “No woman would ever work at Abu Shukri [the popular humous restaurant],” says Ashhab by way of example.
Muslims who graduate from public schools seem more likely to be unemployed, while those in private schools, especially Christian schools, tend to find work, and their employment rates, like those of Christian Arabs, mirror the Jewish community’s.
One woman whose story bucks the trend is 25-year-old Yasmeen Salameh from Beit Hanina. A charming, slightly shy woman, she is a manager at the McDonald’s in Jerusalem’s prestigious German Colony and hopes to study computers at university one day. As she runs back and forth to take customer orders, read through temperature guidelines and prepare a schedule for her employees, she explains, “Most of our employees are Arab, and four of us are women. It is true that sometimes I encounter racism here, but never from my fellow workers or the management, only from customers. They get annoyed at slow service and shout about ‘Arabs!’ since they see I have a head scarf.”
Salameh believes that the statistics showing that many conservative Arab women don’t look for work are wrong. “Almost every woman I know works,” she says. “The real problem our community faces is that many women can’t find good, decent-paying work, because many are not well educated, and there are very few jobs in our neighborhoods.”
She also thinks it is essential for people to understand that racism is not community-based: “The Arab or Jewish community isn’t racist, individual people are racist. I’ve worked with Jews in so many places and had great friendships with them. The conflict is something that takes place at the highest levels.” Back at H. Stern, Awiedah looks across the table of gleaming gold and silver jewelry. It is a slow night at the King David Hotel.
“I worked at Gali, the shoe store, I did telemarketing for 013 Internet, but here I am a shift manager,” she says. “What can I say, every girl like me loves diamonds.”