A Light in the Dark: A Druze Woman’s Campaign for Representation in Local Government

Roaa Khater examines the political campaign of a woman from the Druze villages in the Golan Heights during municipal elections held there.
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The town of Majdal Sham, Golan Heights (Wikipedia Commons)
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The town of Majdal Sham, Golan Heights (Wikipedia Commons)



The status of women in Druze society has improved in the last two decades. A multitude of Druze women sought post-secondary degrees, received driver’s licenses, pursued employment outside the home and even applied for executive positions.  These pacesetting women returned to their villages and set an example for other women of how gender roles can be changed and how traditional boundaries can be broken. Druze teachers became role models, and tried to use their position to influence societal norms – to eradicate marriage at an early age, and to encourage study at university and working outside the home. Their profession lent them the legitimacy to promote change (Weiner-Levy, 2011).

Nevertheless, Druze women still face numerous obstacles which mainly stem from the fundamental values of Druze society. The story that follows details the candidacy of ʿAida (her name has been changed), a Druze woman who ran for mayor of her local council in the Golan Heights, and focuses on the existing gender-related practices and their alternatives, which accompanied the duration of her campaign for office. 

ʿAida’s candidacy is first owing to the education she received from her upbringing. Although her determination to blaze a trail for Druze women in society was carried out legally, and without broad support, in spite of this, she met with resistance from prominent figures in the religious community and from parties with influence in the political arena.  The gender practices that were utilized against ʿAida were closely related to the religious-cultural-political background of Druze society, and were expressed through thinking patterns, behavior, and actual actions. Alongside these practices alternative measures were taken, including the recruitment of supporting parties and persuasion.

ʿAida’s candidacy for public office testifies to the nature of the processes of gender change in society: when the process is complex and touches upon religious-cultural aspects, broad forces must be recruited to institute the change, like women’s organizations who can assist in opening the “black box” of social practices deemed to be gender taboos.

Local Politics in the Golan Heights
Subsequent to the Six Day War, with the occupation of the Golan Heights, the minority group of the Druze therein came under Israeli rule. The Druze are an ethnic minority in a politically contentious region, replete with internal conflicts and influenced by external factors. In Israel, the Druze are concentrated mainly in the Galilee, and have been citizens for generations. Conversely, the Druze of the Golan Heights are permanent residents with the right to obtain Israeli citizenship. However, few have opted for naturalization, and the Druze community of the Golan Heights and the Syrian Druze community continue to intertwine their family networks through marriage. It’s fair to say that the identity of the Druze of the Golan Heights is unclear.  

After Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights under the Golan Heights Law of 1981, the Druze who lived there were offered Israeli citizenship. The Druze treated the law with gravity, especially since it would force them to become Israeli citizens instead of Syrian citizens, as they had been until then (Shalev, 1993). Accepting Israeli citizenship was tantamount to burning bridges with Syria, and they feared for their fates, as well as the fates of their family members who lived in Syria. Few chose to become Israeli citizens, and those who did where ostracized by their community which prevented them from participating in their activities and ceremonies.

For these reasons, there has apparently never been a process of democratic elections in the Golan Heights. Approval of the local council was handled by submitting a nomination through an open call, which was then approved by the Minster of the Interior.

ʿAida: The Practice of Change
The conversation with 'Aida reflected the complexities of gender-related practices: ʿAida is not only a woman, but a woman in traditional society. The attitude toward her is dictated by the specific social-cultural context. Women are affected by this attitude, and their lives are led in the shadows (Martin, 2006).

ʿAida is in her forties, a married mother of five, from a large and respected clan in the Golan Heights. She has a bachelor’s degree in education, and worked in education for several years. In the early 2000s, ʿAida decided to submit her candidacy for the local municipal council in her village. In her opinion, her candidacy to the council was perceived as an attempt to control men, “an embarrassing thing, a woman-man,” as she put it. In order to avoid embarrassment, a woman should stay in a safe place, namely, her home. Women who heard of ʿAida’s candidacy for the position saw a stark contradiction between personal and professional spheres, a contradiction which was expressed in one of the questions directed to her: “How will you manage a household and promise everything to your family and manage the council at the same time?” According to ʿAida, each of her detractors justified his opposition in keeping with his image, practices which at their core, exclude women: “The religious wave the flag of religion and tradition and the seculars wave the flag of family values and motherhood.”   

There is no doubt that this practice relates differently to each gender in the specific political system: it attempts to keep women in a safe space, in her familiar environment, while men belong to the public sphere, in short - presence and representation for the men, and absence and non-representation for the women. In terms of political organization, the head of the local council is perceived as a leadership role, and the men are firmly opposed to transferring authority to a woman. According to ʿAida, if a woman were to be selected for the position, she would have to be present at conferences and meetings with men, and to work with men, and to be away from the house – just like a man in the position.  The content of the work, the method, the power associated with the position, the responsibility and authority, are all meant to be the same for men and women. Nevertheless, ʿAida faced a religious-cultural barrier which she expressed in the question: “How can a woman be at the center of decision making and dictate policy for men?” This barrier resulted in her exclusion from running for the position. 

The issue at hand is exclusionary practices on the basis of gender. At the beginning of the process, ʿAida was an equal – she decided to submit her candidacy following an open call for nominations from the Ministry of Interior. ʿAida contends that during the process, powerful detractors from within the political system and outside of it attempted to hamper her candidacy. She believed in her power and ability to advance from education to politics, and she believed then and still believes now that women should leave the home, gain an education and become economically independent. ʿAida is, in fact, an agent of change in Druze society, but her detractors tried to induce her to undercut her belief in her abilities, and to exclude her from the nomination.

Additionally, in a society as ethnically, religiously, and culturally complex as Israel’s, it is difficult to distinguish ʿAida as an agent of change only through the prism of being a woman. In Israel, different sub-identities exist within the gender of women: Jewish women of Middle Eastern descent, Jewish women of European descent, Arab women, lesbians, and more. These female identities combine with other narratives, for example, the Zionist narrative. Palestinian women will certainly feel differently about that narrative than Jewish women, because for them, Israel’s Independence is the nakba, the great catastrophe. Every sub-gender responds and functions from within its cultural heritage (Herzog, 2005). ʿAida tried to advance herself by breaking the boundaries of gender and transitioning to politics, a territory considered to be masculine: the mayorship was meant to afford her power, authority, and responsibility.  

ʿAida acted out of a desire to change Druze society’s attitude toward the status of women. Her belief in the power and independence of Druze women is resolute, and says she even dreamed of a political career as a young woman. Her candidacy and desire for change originated not only from her being a woman but from her being a Druze woman. She preserved all the elements of her identity: she studied and worked, and at the same time she married, had children, and managed her household.

It is important to note that ʿAida belongs to one of the few families in her village with Israeli citizenship. The connection with Israel exposed her to different possibilities for women and woke in her the desire for change. Thus, the tactic of running for a position in the male dominated sphere of politics was motivated by additional factors.

Despite the exclusionary responses to her candidacy, ʿAida did not try to change her tactics. She did not try to run for another position, or withdraw from the race. Although she will not serve in the role, she brought about a change in the society in which she lives.

In conclusion, the event of ʿAida’s candidacy for mayor of the local council showed it impossible to separate the socio-cultural context from the results. The candidate sought to shatter two glass ceilings: being a woman, and being a Druze woman from the Golan Heights.

ʿAida set a precedent, and as she demonstrates, a Druze woman’s decision to run for an executive position was a bold one which is not to be taken for granted in the context of Druze society. The measure affected Druze women; even if they disagreed with her actions, ʿAida provided a different perspective on woman’s place in society. ʿAida is of the opinion that although the affect may have been nominal, at least women were challenged to “finally come out of their shells.” In my opinion, even an act with minimal impact lays another stone on the path for multi-cultured women to advance in society. Although ʿAida was removed from the list of candidates for the local council, her decision to reach for the highest echelons has paved the way for other Druze women to do so as well.

The transformation of gender in Druze society is highly complex. Not only are the perceptions surrounding the place and status of women in society anchored by deeply engrained thought systems - religion, history and culture add additional barriers that complicate changing the status quo. Consequently, the struggle is complex, slow, and requires patience.  Even though the Druze religion accords its women many rights – it requires Druze men to treat women as equals, prohibits polygamy, and compels divorced men to pay alimony (Falah, 2000), however, the status of Druze women still requires change, as proven by ʿAida’s unique journey.


Ms. Roaa Khater is an MA candidate in the Department of Women and Gender Studies at Tel Aviv University. Her thesis deals with the consolidation of personal and political identity among Druze women of the Golan Heights in a bicultural society.


 

Works Cited

Weiner-Levy, N (2011). The Quiet Revolution: Druze Women Transforming Gender Roles. Arabs In Israel Update: Women in Arab Society in Israel (pp. 26-29), Editors: Uzi Rabi and Arik Rudnitzky, Tel Aviv:  Tel Aviv University, Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation.

Falah, S. (2000). The Druze in the Middle East. Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defense.

Shalev. A (1993). Peace and Security in the Golan Heights. Tel Aviv: Papyrus, Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies.

Herzog, H. From Gender to Genders. Israel Studies Forum, 2/20 (2005), pp 69-94.

Martin, Y, P. Practising gender at work: Further thoughts on reflexivity. Gender, Work and Organization, 3/13 (2006), pp 255- 270.