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Arab Feminists in Israel Refuse to Let the Struggle Fade

Samah Salaime was interviewed for this article on Haaretz. Read the article here or on the Haaretz website:

The murder of an Arab teen, Yara Ayoub, will change Arab society’s attitude toward violence against women – activists hope. Even they were surprised by the response to the national strike protesting violence against women.

December 20 will mark two years since the murder of Wijdan Abu Hamid from the Druze village of Kisra-Sumei in the western Galilee. Abu Hamid, 17 years old at the time, was stabbed to death in a park near her home, and her classmate’s murder trial, also 17 at the time of the murder, is currently underway.

Then too, the murder of a young woman, a high school student, in the middle of the day only a few dozen meters from her home, shocked not only her quiet village – but Arab society as a whole. With wall-to-wall condemnation from women’s organizations, local rallies in the town and in schools, and widespread protests against violence in general and violence against women in particular – then too there was a sense of awakening.

Today, two years after the murder, Wijdan’s father, Bahzad Abu Hamid, admits that despite all the empathy back then, he and his family have remained almost alone and the wound is still bleeding. Abu Hamid is present at every court session and to follow all the details, but the uproar in the days after the murder, which created a feeling of solidarity and of a shared fate, has ceased. The murders, however, haven’t.

Two weeks ago, Bahzad visited the home of Yara Ayoub in the village of Jish, only a half-hour drive from Kisra. “True, Yara’s murder has still not been solved and there are not any indictments, but the circumstances are quite similar: A young and innocent woman, a [high school] student, almost the same age, was murdered close to her home and the suspect is a young man too,” he told Haaretz this week.

“I came to support the parents, but there was almost no way for me to comfort them. I know that they too will remain alone with the bleeding scar because nothing will bring back their daughter,” Abu Hamid said.

Tens of thousands of women and men attended demonstrations across Israel on Tuesday to protest femicide and violence against women. The day of protest, which was also a national strike, was sparked by the recent uptick in women’s murders - 24 women murdered by family members in 2018, a 30 percent rise compared with previous years.

Protest against violence towards women in Be'er Sheva, December 4, 2018. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Abu Hamid is following the public struggle, and he very much hopes that this time it will continue and produce real results: “At the time, I hoped that Wijdan would be the last, but I’m sorry that the situation is getting worse. Someone here needs to come to their senses – the government, police, religious leaders, the entire society – enough.”

Powerful actions

The question of how to continue and how to leverage the recent awakening in order to achieve results is keeping women’s organizations and activists in the Arab community busy. The response to Ayoub’s murder - along with that of 12-year-old Silvana Tsegai in Tel Aviv - and the protests these murders sparked throughout the country, symbolize a turning point in the Arab community too.

The chairwoman of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List), says that “the protest in the Arab community was a strong expression of a great deal of accumulated anger and frustration, which broke out with great force after the murder of Yara Ayoub. Civil society, along with the [Arab] leadership, must continue protesting in order to harness the entire public – including activities in schools and community centers for youths,” she said.

“The women’s protests show that only powerful actions can create a new agenda,” Touma-Sliman added.

Women’s organizations in the Arab community admit that they were surprised by the scope of the protests and the massive turnout. “The first support for the strike came from the Taibeh municipality,” Naila Awwad, director of the Association of Women Against Violence, said. Then the cities of Tira, Jaljulya, Kafr Bara and Kafr Qasem joined in too. The municipalities allowed women to strike without docking their pay, and the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee and mayors supported as well, she added. “In our eyes, this was another turning point, real action and not just slogans and statements, especially because about 60 percent of the workforce in local municipalities consists of women,” Awwad added.

Manal Shalabi, a researcher and feminist activist who is the chairwoman of Ad’ar, an organization that opposes the murder of women, said that success will be measured from now on “by the perseverance to continue fighting and the determination to continue our social and community action and the work on the ground. It will also be measured through our ability to translate actions and protests into a work plan intended to protect women and girls.”

A political base

Women’s struggle in Arab society is seen as a fundamentally political struggle, too. During the last two weeks, the struggle and the news headlines focused on violence against women, but under the surface questions are rising.

Haaretz has discovered that Arab women’s organizations demanded that representatives from Jewish settlements in the West Bank not participate in the central rally in Tel Aviv, for instance. “Our call was clear and unambiguous – we are not asking the heads of the settlements to join in the struggle and declare a strike in the settlements,” Awwad said. “Those who occupy and oppress another people – in this case the Palestinian people – cannot and do not have any right to be part of the struggle for women’s rights.”

The fight for women’s rights does not come at the expense of the battle for human rights, and there is no room for any repression in the feminist battle, which is political, Awwad added.

A protester holds a photo of Samar Khatib, who was murdered in May, Tel Aviv, December 4, 2018. Credit: Moti Milrod

The Balad party, part of the Joint List, released a statement this week, saying it is impossible to separate women’s struggle against violence and the struggle against the occupation and oppression of another people. “The women’s protest is the right step, but it is a protest that has no moral foundation because it is impossible to protest the murder of women while remaining silent about violence and murder that is a direct result of the occupation and blockade of the Palestinian people,” the statement said.

Samah Salaime, a feminist activist and the founder of Arab Women in the Center (Na’am), opposes this specific claim, but agrees that in the end the struggle is also political. “Every feminist struggle is a political struggle,” Salaime said this week. “Our Jewish friends know this too. We will reach this conflict at a certain stage. We really don’t need preaching on the ‘moral foundation’ for the protest, not from the Palestinian side and not from the Israeli one. We don’t need to teach Palestinian feminists what the occupation does to women and what women’s rights in Gaza look like under the blockade. Military oppression and gender oppression are linked. To us, the Palestinians, it is completely clear,” she added.

“Jewish feminists who want real partnership have learned the rules of the game and learned that the boundaries of Palestinian women must be respected. We will continue the struggle together,” Salaime added.

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