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Persimmons and Empowerment


N INTERNATIONAL Women's Day, March 8, 2007, a group of Arab women will march down a Tel Aviv avenue. All are farm laborers organized by the Workers Advice Center (WAC-Ma'an). Israeli feminists and leftists will join them. The aim of the march is to bring the status of Arab women to the center of public attention.

Two years ago to the day, WAC undertook a campaign to bring Arab women into the labor market. This move resulted from the recognition that their non-participation was a main cause of poverty in the Arab sector. There was another factor as well: after years of social activity with Arab women, WAC had understood that work is the key to emancipation in their personal lives.

Women's Day Poster

In 2005 the Center established a Women's Forum, which defined two conditions that must be fulfilled if women are to be able to work. First, the State must create jobs and organize the necessary infrastructure, including transportation and child-care centers (both are almost non-existent in Arab locales). The second condition pertains to Arab society, where both sexes must undergo a change of perspective concerning the role of women.

WAC has devoted itself to fostering these conditions. We have exerted pressure on government officials. We have also pressured farmers to hire Arab women, rather than importing laborers from distant lands who arrive unorganized and without rights. After dozens of meetings with farmers, we have managed to place about 150 women in registered agricultural jobs at a legal wage (which is still too low). In this way we have shown that there are people here who are willing and able to do farm work. We are trying, of course, to open jobs in other industrial sectors as well.

But labor alone is not enough. A new consciousness is needed. WAC, together with Hanitzotz Publishing House (HPH), has initiated five empowerment groups in the villages of Kufr Qara, Baqa'a al-Gharbiyya and Kfar Manda. Below I recount my conversations with the women in one such group.

For more than a year, fourteen women have been meeting once weekly in an empowerment workshop at the WAC/HPH center in Kufr Qara. This is no small achievement. Most arrive after laboring for six to eight hours in harvesting, pruning or packing. This is followed by housework, child care and cooking. By the time the empowerment session starts at 6 p.m., the women are exhausted. And still they arrive, like clockwork. One by one they enter, women in their thirties and forties, dressed for the occasion (with one exception they cover their heads). All week they've looked forward to this meeting.

The village's conservative mindset does not help. The fact of their working at all is looked down on, and it's not even "respectable" work like teaching or clerking, rather "just" manual labor. In a society where a woman is supposed to give without requesting anything in return, it is hard to see where they find the strength to take two hours each week for themselves, or how they manage to accustom their families and neighbors to the idea that these two hours belong to them as their right. On this point, says Amneh, one of the group's veteran members, "For me the WAC Center is like a gas station. I arrive empty, fill up, and then I have the strength to go on."

After more than a year of farm labor and empowerment meetings, I asked the women how the sessions have affected their lives. They are taking part in a workshop called "Every Woman has a Story." It is led by Denise Assad, herself a storyteller. The women collect village folk tales and learn to tell them before an audience. In the end they will publish them as a booklet.

Storyteller Denise Assad and WAC workers in the empowerment shop. photo by Challenge

Apart from enjoying the stories and learning to tell them, the women also analyze their hidden messages. These often contradict the spirit of empowerment that the program seeks to foster. Assad points out discreetly how the folk tales perpetuate the traditional roles assigned to woman.

When I ask Amneh how her family reacted to her going out to work, she answers: "I always wanted to work, regardless of our economic situation. It's boring and isolating to stay home. I felt I wasn't producing anything. But my husband's family thinks it's disgraceful for a woman to have a job. What saved me was our financial situation. That's what enabled me to work. Even the children pressed me to stay home. Finally, I said to them, 'You want to make do with 3500 shekels a month? And what about your clubs, the computer, the school trip?' Then they understood there wasn't a choice."

Jalia remembers one of the activities from last year. They decided to hold the workshop in a caf? near the entrance to the village. The idea aroused debate. Was it suitable for women to go to a caf? without their husbands? In the end, all except one decided there was nothing wrong with it. As Jalia tells the story, however, this was not the view of several young men there, who "came up to us and said that it wasn't right for a group of women to sit and drink coffee unaccompanied. I also recall that once when I drove alone in Um al-Fahem, a driver stopped his car and began asking me what I was doing driving alone, as if I was committing a crime."

The fact that most of the women in the group lack higher education once played a major part in the way they saw themselves, but no longer. Most wanted to continue studying, but their economic situation did not allow it. Amneh explains: "I lacked self-confidence. I was disappointed with life. I thought that because I hadn't gotten a degree, I had no chance to advance and do anything significant. Today I know that a lot can be done."

WAC's Wafa Saleh sorts peppers at Moshav Gan Yoshiya.
photo by Challenge

Buthaina adds: "Often when I'd hear a woman say that her son was studying engineering, I'd clam up. I'm a farm worker and my children aren't educated. Today I'm no longer ashamed. I'm proud of who I am. A worker too has value, not just people with degrees."

Jalia continues: "We feel that we're getting an education here. A world is opening. For instance, we start each lesson with fifteen minutes of yoga. In the beginning it made me laugh. Also, I didn't know how to tell a story. I'd read a story in a book without adding a word of my own. But now, when I learn a story by heart and tell it, that turns me into someone, a kind of actress, and I enjoy it more. If I can tell a story to a small group, I'll also be able to address a big audience."

Amneh sums up: "We've become closer to one another. The personal story of each of us expresses the course of a life. There's no need to market it, counterfeit it or dress it up; it has value for its own sake."

Dalia touches on a point that many have mentioned: "Once I thought my problems were so hard. I pitied myself. But when I hear the problems other women have, I see life in different proportions. The friends in the group give me lots of strength. I've also learned to make contact with my kids in a different way. I relate to them with respect and understand their needs better. I've gotten very close to them."

Buthaina tells how the art of the folk tale taught her to deepen her connection with people. "Instead of making do with, 'What's new?' it's possible to open a conversation in a way that leads to something significant. I tell my husband what we've studied and ask him to tell me stories he heard from his mother when he was small. What a shame, he doesn't remember a thing! I've also taught him yoga."

I ask whether the husbands feel threatened by the empowerment meetings and the new perspectives. "On the contrary," says Jalia. "I tell my husband everything I've learned here. Sometimes I'll tell him one of the folk tales, and he'll tell me the same story in a different version. He encourages me to come. He says he wishes he could join."

The women have become the hard core of WAC's activities in Kufr Qara. Once a month they take responsibility for organizing a bigger public event in the village, inviting the wider public. They don't miss a single WAC occasion anywhere.

After a year of meetings, the question arises, "What next?" Amneh has thought about this. "Only when our movement grows and spreads will we be able to feel our real power. We'll be able to establish a women's council with representatives from every work group. We'll hold national meetings. In order to make this happen, we need to make house visits. We need to enlist new members and invite them to start working, to unionize within WAC, and to take part in the workshops."

Denise Assad also sees the change that is taking place. "It's slow, but it's happening. There are women who were ashamed to talk, and here they have gained self-confidence and learned to. They've also learned to listen, to respect the opinions of others, to come on time, to conduct an orderly discussion. Today the women stand out as a homogeneous group, and they're very supportive of each other."

Assad alternates with Samia Sharqawi, a gender consultant, in leading the workshop. Sharqawi notes the new linguistic expressions that have cropped up among the women, such as "in my opinion" and "I think that…" It is no usual thing for an Arab woman to refer to herself or her opinions; she is taught that her sole place is the home, where she is to deal with family issues only. In the WAC center the women begin to speak as a group, to say "we." Sharqawi thinks that this happens more quickly here than in other women's groups she guides, "because they work together [in agriculture] and take part in other activities of the organization. In WAC they find a team of activists who value them. That works like a magic spell."

Sharqawi points out that the problems of the women cannot be separated from those of Arab society, which is undergoing a general retreat. "If a real change is to take place, there needs to be empowerment for men as well as women. The women's weak point is that they see themselves as worth less than men. Anyone who thinks that he or she is less than someone else will suffer as a result. One can say that the whole of Arab society in Israel suffers from a negative self-image."

As a result of the success with the first women's group, a second was started in Kufr Qara in November 2006. Now three more are getting underway: in Kufr Qara (for young working women), in Baqa al-Gharbiyya, and in Kfar Manda.

Sharqawi calls for patience. "The women are caught in a culture trap. They see new things in the WAC Center, but it's no easy matter to change their lives outside it. I have no doubt, though, that they are becoming a factor for gradual social change, basically because of the example they provide.

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