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Israeli Arab Women Struggle for Empowerment

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Imman AbuElhula and Hussun Fahamne suffer from double discrimination. First, as Muslims in a state dominated by a mostly unwelcoming Jewish majority, and second, as women in a patriarchal and chauvinistic Arab society. But, like many young Israeli Arab women, Imman and Hussun are challenging social boundaries.

A generation ago it was uncommon for Arab women to study in university or college. Women who have a religious background -- like Imman and Hussun -- would finish high school at best and then expected to be at home and play a supporting role to their father or husband.

The empowerment process of women within the Israeli Arab society gained steam as Imman and Hussun -- aged 27 and 22 today -- were growing up. According to a Brookdale Institute, 2009 publication, between 1990 and 2006 the percentage of Israeli Arab women with 13-15 years of education doubled, and the percentage of those with 16+ years of education increased fivefold.

Imman has already graduated from Teacher's College and is currently studying to be an accountant at Rupin Academic Center. Hussun is in her last semester of studies for a bachelor's degree in Political Science and Media at Kinneret College.

They will both finish their academic studies this year and move on to the next challenge -- finding a job in the profession of their choice. Imman plans to start by doing an internship in an accounting office in the Arab sector, and hopes to open her own firm when she gains enough experience. Hussun is already freelancing in broadcast media and her eyes are set on moving to the center of Israel, "where everything in the media happens," she says, to find work in one of the national newspapers or networks.

Both come from religious backgrounds and wear headscarf. By choosing to study instead of staying at home they have already broken a social barrier in their community. The next challenge they face is establishing their desired career in the Israeli labor market, and odds are against them.

Forty-two percent of Israeli Arab women who have at least 15 years of education are unemployed. In comparison, amongst Jewish women who studied the same amount of years, only 19 percent can't find work. Sawsan Tuma-Shukha, a coordinator of Women and Employment Project for the Israeli NGO Women Against Violence, says that most of the Arab women who do find a job, work in positions they are overqualified for. According to her research it is common for Arab women who graduated from university to end up working as a salesperson in a clothes shop or answering phones in a telemarketing company.

Imman and Hussun agreed to be interviewed because they wanted to share the frustration they feel. The video report examines the barriers standing in front of a generation of young, educated Arab women, who are craving for a fair chance to fulfill themselves professionally in the Israeli labor market.

WATCH:

Though they account for 10 percent of the population in the country I live in, until this story I never had a meaningful face to face conversation with an Israeli Arab woman. Unfortunately, like most Jewish Israelis I have very little interaction with Muslim citizens in my daily life, and especially the women have always seemed to me uninviting for any communication.

Getting a chance to sit and talk with Imman and Hussun was a revealing experience. When I met Hussun she surprised me by initiating a handshake, and small talking with Imman I learned we share the same taste in American T.V. shows. Hussun spoke about wanting to be successful before starting family, while Imman -- who is engaged to be married -- emphasized that having children will not mean the end of her career. When I finished interviewing them, I felt we had much more in common than I thought.

Israel has a lot to gain from empowering its young Arab citizens. There have been lately several initiatives to increase the educated Arabs' chances in the labor market, but mostly, the Israeli government and Jewish majority continue to alienate the country's largest minority. Imman and Hussun are part of a generation of young Arabs who are eager to play a positive role in the Israeli society. If 20 years from now these two women have no choice but to be housewives, it will be our loss.

Links:
The Employment of Arabs in Israel, The Israeli Democracy Institute, June 2010
Arabs in Labor Market - An Economic Necessity, Jerusalem Post, November 2007
Comparing Arab Women in Israel and Saudi Arabia, Haaretz, November 2009