As part of the events marking International Women’s Day on Thursday [March 8], Amal Abu Sayyaf, a doctoral student at the department of social work at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, will step up to the podium at the United Nations in New York and discuss “The Empowerment of the Arab Woman in Israel” to delegates, both male and female, from around the world.
What drew you to this topic?
“My grandfather was the head of the local Arab community. He was head of the Workers’ Union in Haifa and worked closely with Abba Khoushy (the city’s first mayor). I was raised on the values of equality, respect, and coexistence, but not all of the women are at the same place where I am today. It’s about time that someone got up and spoke out on their behalf. We need to hear the voices of people who care.”
A resident of Haifa, she's married and has three daughters. She is writing her dissertation on the topic of “Building Peace through Knowledge in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.” She has been advocating on behalf of Arab women who suffer from family violence ever since she began her academic career at the university, and her activities in this particular field continued into her Master’s degree.
“Arab women in Israel are caught in an ever declining social status,” she explains. “The fact is that over half of the women murdered in Israel are Arabs, and that this is more than twice their percentage of the total population. These Arab women are crying out in anguish. They regularly face violence and even murder in order to protect their families’ honor.”
Amal adds: “Each and every woman must know that they have somewhere to turn the moment they are abused. There is an address where they can receive the necessary protection. They must understand that they have nothing to fear as long as they speak out. These women must be supported. Those women who do speak out must be ensured that they have a supportive environment.”
Abu Sayyaf is fully aware that this is no easy task. Many Arab women who suffer from serial violence succumb to circumstances and maintain their silence. They have good cause to feel that they cannot complain about physically abusive husbands and that they have nowhere to turn. Worst of all, in a society where the man is omnipotent, women who complain about their husbands are likely to be reviled and shunned, sometimes even by their own families. But Abu Sayyaf does not limit her accusations to husbands and other physically abusive men in the family. Her greatest complaint is about society at large, which shows a degree of tolerance toward the phenomenon out of some vague concept of “cultural relativism.” “For years the police treated the murder of Arab women as a cultural issue and social norm,” Abu Sayyaf says in frustration, “when it should be treated as outright murder so as to ensure that the perpetrators are punished by law. On the other hand, the police claim that the main reason for the current situation is a lack of cooperation from women who suffer abuse and their reluctance to speak out.”
Amal’s mentor at the university ever since she began studying toward her M.S.W has been Professor Julie Cwikel, the founder and director of the Center for Women's Health Studies and Promotion at Ben Gurion University.
“Julie asked me how I was able to balance being a Muslim woman with a family with constant studying, while at the same time being so socially active and involved,” Abu Sayyaf said. “Julie then told me that some Bedouin women do attend the university, but feel uncomfortable about it. She wanted me to speak to these women, to see if I could help them. She wanted me to tell them that they are realizing their full potential and to explain to them how that does not conflict with anything else, that they aren’t doing anything wrong, that what they are doing is perfectly fine …”
Abu Sayyaf cannot stress enough that, last year alone, 32 women were murdered in Israel and half of them were Arab women. This is an enormous number, particularly when considering the percentage of Arabs in the total population. “Harming women means harming society as a whole,” determines Abu Sayyaf. ''The social status of Arab women in Israel is only deteriorating. The sense of peril that they feel, violence, and personal safety are all very sensitive issues for them.”
Besides a discussion about “Empowering the Arab Woman,” a conference will also be held by the U.N. Human Rights Commission on the status and rights of women, which are blatantly denied in various cultures and places around the world. Amal plans to emphasize that the principles of human rights and social justice are the cornerstones of her chosen field: social work.
Along with such phenomena as “honor killings” and all forms of spousal violence, Abu Sayyaf also condemns the practice of polygamy, which is especially prevalent among the Bedouin of the Negev, where it accounts for 20% to 36% of all marriages.
According to her, these phenomena are much more than just the subjects of theoretical discourses about the status of women in society. In a very significant way, they are an expression of the violation of fundamental human rights. “The U.N. defined ‘human rights’ as rights that we possess by our very nature, without which we cannot live a basic human existence,” she explains. “As a result of this, the International Federation of Social Workers declared that ‘Social work, by its very definition, has always been a profession dealing in human rights, and that its most fundamental belief is the essential value of every human being. One of the goals of social work is to promote a just social structure that offers people security and the opportunity for self-improvement, without infringing on their personal dignity.”
Abu Sayyaf not only points out the problems. She also offers solutions. “The lives of women in Arab society can be improved by putting a stop to the forced marriages of minors and by helping women to achieve economic independence. But these goals can only be achieved through education and learning, along with far-reaching changes within the society. It is only natural that an educated woman is far less likely to be told what to do. A self-sufficient woman will not be told what to do either. The decline in violence against her is a direct consequence of these factors.”
Abu Sayyaf can take comfort in the fact that over the past few years, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of Arab and Bedouin women in the departments of social work and education in various universities throughout the country. This is especially true of Ben Gurion University. The school, which is located in the Negev region, does not keep official statistics about the number of female Arab students for the simple reason that students are not categorized by nationality or religion at the time of registration. On the other hand, unofficial data show that the number of female Arab and Bedouin students has grown by hundreds of percentage points, so that they now make up over one-quarter of all students registered in these departments.
Once they complete their studies and return to their towns and villages, those same women are expected to serve at the forefront of the struggle to improve the status of women in Israeli society in general and in Arab society in particular. Thus Amal Abu Sayyaf is hopeful.
Are you excited? After all, you are an Arab woman from Haifa who is about to address the entire United Nations.
"I am excited, but the overwhelming feeling is that I am at the forefront of a major breakthrough. Americans know nothing about the situation of Arabs in Israel. I am making a breakthrough on behalf of all of the Israeli Arabs who follow the law while maintaining their particular way of life. Our goal is not limited to empowering women. We want to empower all people.”
What is your opening sentence going to be when you address the United Nations?
“Nasrin Musrati was just 26 years old when she was shot at close range by her husband. She left two children behind, ages 4 and 6.”
Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, and has reported on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. He has published two books: Eyeless in Gaza (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and Getting to Know Hamas (2012). Follow him on Facebook.