Bayan: Arab Women and the Public Sphere in Israel

In this article from the April 2016 issue of Bayan, Tagrid Ka'adan analyzes the impact of Arab women in civil society and politics in Israel.

Ghadia Rinawi-Zoabi, Executive Director of INJAZ. Credit: Ya'akov Sa'ar/Israel Sun

Ghadia Rinawi-Zoabi, Executive Director of INJAZ. Credit: Ya'akov Sa'ar/Israel Sun

Over the last three years, Arab society in Israel has undergone transformative changes in different areas — the family, the economy, education, and culture. A growing middle class has established itself in Arab society, characterized by declining birth rates, women’s employment outside the home, and increased educational attainment.  In Israeli society, Palestinian-Israeli women are part of a national minority, whose civil status is afflicted by inequality in numerous areas of life, including the economy, employment, politics, and education. In addition, these women are subject to structural gender inequality that stems from the patriarchal order that characterizes parts of Israeli society in general and Palestinian-Arab society in Israel in particular. Under such adverse conditions, Arab women have little chance of making inroads into Israeli government institutions, or of being elected for public office or leading the voting public. Has Arab society sufficiently matured to embrace equal political participation of women?  What barriers impede Arab women’s integration into the fabric of Israeli politics?

Before the recent elections, some of the marked obstacles that seemed to hamper Arabs’   integration into national politics were the Arab MKs inability to influence parliamentary work, and the opposition of the Northern Faction of the Islamic Movement to any Arab involvement in the Knesset — referring to Arab men and, even more strongly to Arab women (Haidar, 2007). However, something happened in the 20th Knesset elections: The Joint Arab List made history and achieved significant electoral success as a result of the high voter turnout in the Arab sector.[1] The Joint List is a union of several Arab parties that had typically run separately in previous elections and joined forces in 2014 as a response to the decision to raise the electoral threshold. The Joint List won 13 seats and for the first time in history placed two Arab women in the Knesset — Hanin Zoabi of Balad (this is not her first term as an MK) and Aida Touma Suleiman of Hadash.

In a personal interview with Aida Touma-Suleiman, I met a woman who personality radiated charisma and impartiality. She discussed the problems she faced as an Arab woman seeking a place for herself in Arab society, in the absence of gender equality.MK Touma-Suleiman, 51, was born in Nazareth, lives in Acre, and heads the Knesset Women’s Status Committee, a committee whose is concerned not only with the status of Arab women, but also with the status of all women in Israel. She was selected unanimously for this position, which has never previously been filled by an Arab MK (Cohen, 2015). Touma-Suleiman comes from a poor Orthodox Christian family of nine, and has considered herself a Communist since the age of 21. She said that she first became conscious of  discrimination against women when she was a student at Haifa University, as the first member of her family to matriculate to a post-secondary education.  She submitted her candidacy for head of the Arab Student List but discovered that, behind her back, the organization had determined that it would not be headed by a woman (Eldar, 2015). Touma-Suleiman has recorded historical achievements throughout her political career: she was the first woman to serve on the Supreme Follow-Up Committee of the Arab Public in Israel; she founded “Women Against Violence,” a feminist Arab non-profit organization in which she serves as managing director; and she was editor of the Arab daily Al-Ittihad, which advocates absolute freedom of expression and is managed along communist principles. Her role model is former MK Tamar Guzhansky, who represented Hadash for many years in the Knesset. Touma-Suleiman explains that her public activism is her proactive contribution to a better and more equal world for her two daughters (Eldar, 2015). Gila Gamliel, the minister in charge of social equality, applauded Touma-Suleiman, whom she described as have an extremely comprehensive viewpoint and an “open mind” about issues related to women in general, with special emphasis on Arab women (Darom, 2015). Orna Cohen (2015) believes that Touma-Suleiman’s relatively high slot on the Joint List (fifth place), her relatively young age, her extensive experience in diverse public action, and the fact of her being a woman and a “new face” in the Knesset are some of the elements that account for the Joint List’s appeal for many female and male Arab voters. Cohen’s hypothesis clearly indicates the progress that women have made in assuming public positions in Arab society and the accompanying systemic changes in perceptions.

Unlike the Arab public’s sometimes ambivalent attitude toward national politics, local government is considered to be extremely important. Yousef Jabareen and Muhannad Mustafa both state that the significance of local governments for Palestinian-Arab society in Israel stems from the fact that they are the primary instrument of self-management available to the Palestinian-Arab population in Israel, and a major source of new leadership. Local governments appear to be a more convenient arena of activities for Arab women than the Knesset, both because their active participation in local politics is considered legitimate, and because of the relative effectiveness of political activism in this arena. Notably, local governments are not only a source of influence for women, but also a potential source of employment for these women who encounter difficulties finding suitable employment. Salim Brik states that one of the major challenges facing local governments in Arab society is the clan-based social structure, which results in the appointment of candidates according to kinship ties rather than their potential to promote local interests. The lack of secrecy in elections in many towns and villages also undermines the election of the most qualified candidates. All these factors impede women’s entry into politics, who continue to respect the very clan-based and patriarchal elements that exclude them (Brik, 2013). Another obstacle for women is economic: an election campaign requires financial resources that are often unavailable to women. For men in the Arab sector, national or local politics is a profession and a source of income, while women fill public positions as volunteers. Today, with the exception of the precedent of Violette Khouri of Kafr Yassif in 1974, no Arab women has yet headed a local government in Israel and only a handful of women have served as local council members. 

These circumstances constituted the backdrop to the revived hope that the 2013 local government elections would have been a turning point. Injaz, the Professional Center for Promoting Local Arab Governments, a non-profit that has been operating since 2008, provides financial and organizational consultations to the Arab local governments. The organization analyzed the patterns of Arab political participation in Israel in the 2013 local government elections, and showed that these elections reflected greater involvement of young adults and women, both as candidates and as partners in the public debate preceding the elections. Turnout was especially high and many of the elected heads of local governments were elected for the first time. Also reflecting this revival was a record number of women candidates running for positions on local government councils (Injaz, 2013). For the first time, 165 Arab women from all sects — Muslims, Christians, and Druze — appeared on the electoral lists in 44 local Arab governments. Two lists were headed by female candidates — in Sakhnin and Kafr Qassem. Nineteen of the women were slotted in second place in their lists, 24 were in the third place, 23 in the fourth place, and 14 in the fifth place. Of all Arab women candidates, 34 live in mixed cities. According to a summary by Injaz, success was limited despite the fact that young people and women rallied to the call. Ultimately, only 6 women were elected as members of local councils, and even the high turnout was largely translated into the appointment of clan-affiliated candidates. This outcome may be explained by the political parties’ increasing weakness in the local sphere, the absence organized [political] activities for young people, and the strong impact of tradition that continues to dominate Arab society. The existing order in Arab local governments in Israel, which excludes women almost entirely, remains in place.

The obstacles blocking Arab women’s entry into local and national politics encouraged several of them to seek employment in civil society organizations, even though these are also mainly run by men. 43 year old Ghaida Rinawi-Zoabi exemplifies this trend. A Muslim, she was born in Nazareth and now lives in Nazareth Ilit. Today, she is the general director of Injaz, the organization mentioned previously. Rinawi-Zoabi entered this field after she became exasperated by the inferior municipal services in Nazareth. Critical of Israel’s Arab citizens, she admonishes them for their self-neglect and expresses her envy of the Jews who, as she says, “know how to deal with problems.” She is educated, opinionated, energetic, and is not hesitant about expressing her criticism of both Jews and Arabs. With her impressive skills, she is involved in action in the field designed to improve the local governments in those areas where assistance is possible, notwithstanding the budgetary discrimination and other issues that these local governments cope with (Arlozorov, 2010). Both women, Touma-Suleiman and Rinawi-Zoabi, complement each other in the local and national political arenas, and each does ground-breaking work in her field.

However, these two examples are exceptions rather than the rule. The road to politics and public activism is still largely blocked for Arab women, although there is some indication of a slow change in their status and in the legitimacy of their participation in the political sphere. Arab society in Israel clearly places obstacles in the path of women who seek involvement in public activity, and Israeli society does little to promote Arab participation in national politics in general. 

Approximately one year ago, al-Qasemi College in Baqa al-Gharbiyya held the first course of its kind to train Arab women for effective political activism.  The course was designed to teach participants the tools, knowledge, and social networking skills necessary to create a change.  Attitudes have not yet changed sufficiently, however, and it will take time for changes of perception to trickle down to all levels of Arab society in Israel. The State of Israel can help women compete for slots in political lists by offering solutions that might promote this change, such as proper education in the Arab sector, but ultimately, if all else fails, the only option might be to reserve seats for Arab women in local governments and the Knesset through legislation and create a fait accompli. 

Ms. Tagrid Ka'adan is a lecturer of Islamic Studies at Al-Qasemi College in Baqa al-Gharbia and a doctoral student in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

[1] Voter turnout reached 70% in some places. 


Arlozorov, M. “The era of Arab moaning is over,” Haaretz, June 15, 2010.

Eldar, S., “Aida Touma-Suleiman: Why don’t people compare me to Tamar Guzhansky,” Al-Monitor, March 26, 2015.

Brik, S. “proposed legislative amendments as a tool for rehabitating the Arab local governments,” in Y. Jabrin and M. Mustafa (eds.), Local government in Palestinian society in Israel: Political and legal aspects. Haifa: Pardess Publishing, 2013, 183-149.

Darom, N. “Aida Touma Suleiman is committed to the underprivileged women. Let El Al flight attendants wait,” Haaretz, July 11, 2015.

Injaz Report 2013.

Haidar, A., “Boycotting the elections by the Arab public: A perspective of a decade (1996-2006).” In E. Rekhess (ed.), The Arab minority in Israel and the 17th Knesset elections. Ramat Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 2007, 89-92.

Cohen, O., “Here to make a difference,” Molad (July 8, 2015).