On September 15th, Advocate Alhan Nahhas-Daoud and Community Organising Coordinator Rafah Anabtawi introduced Kayan’s work to students taking part in the Youth Group for Human Rights lecture series of the Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA). Kayan’s joint action with the HRA, now in its second phase, has been particularly close this year.
Rafah began her talk on the issues of gender and the “process of socialisation” with a short introduction to Kayan’s work, the challenges faced by Arab women and the significance of advancing their status in Israel. Youth participants introduced themselves by outlining a specific women’s issue they found particularly interesting. These covered a broad range of subjects and included the place of women within their local communities, the history of the women’s movement, the need for Arab perspectives on gender issues, women’s rights and the law, women’s participation in politics, sexual stereotypes, early marriage, the gap between theory and practice of women’s rights and – described by the participants as a current, “hot topic” – violence against women and honour-motivated murder. Divided into small groups, the students went on to define female, male and human identity and discussed the question of why women demand equality despite arguments that women are essentially different from men.
The students’ characterisations of male, female and human identity were then divided between those that correspond to “gender,” meaning those of a societal nature, and definitions corresponding to “sex,” based more simply in biology. As the former is of a dynamic nature, Rafah explained, the development of society affects how women and men define and identify their places within a community. The students also discussed the phenomenon of ‘traditional role-reversal’ and the feminist objective of realising equal responsibility and opportunity for women and men within and outside of the home. Rafah emphasised that there is no single, ‘united voice’ of the women’s movement. Naturally, different women will have diverse needs. As such, Rafah argued, feminist ideas originating in the West cannot simply be adopted and implemented on a one-to-one basis within the context of Arab women living in Israel. Concluding, Rafah gave an overview of the historical development of feminism, including its various definitions and ideological (liberal and radical) streams.
In accordance with the feminist ideas embodied by Kayan, Alhan introduced the work of the Legal Department and the ways in which these principles are translated into a legal vision. In her talk about the struggle for improving women’s rights, Alhan presented the Law for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment, introduced in 1998, as a case study. According to Alhan, not only did a majority of women not know about this law until three or four years ago, but they also struggled to comprehend that sexual harassment manifests in ways beyond the physical and violent forms such as rape. Strikingly, only a minute percentage of the women who experience sexual harassment actually pursue legal recourse.
The primary goal of the Law for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment, initiated by feminist activists such as Orit Kamir and inspired by rulings on Title VII of the US Civil Rights Act of 1964, is to raise awareness of sexual harassment and encourage women to put forward charges where necessary. An additional goal is to clearly demand that the legal system take earnest steps to permanently eliminate this crime. Alhan described a “system of denial” within the Arab community when dealing with sexual harassment. “We are dealing with a conservative community which officially does not face any difficulties in terms of sexual harassment,” she said. “Yet when I address the issue directly, it is everywhere.”
Sexual harassment, as defined by the law, includes forms of humiliation that refer to one’s sex or sexual orientation, blackmail and other threats with sexual connotation. Such behaviours constitute harassment even if the victim does not perceive it to be, a key distinction in the American law, which is contingent upon this sense of victimisation. It is not unusual for sexual harassment to take place within the context of assymetric power relations, such as between employee and supervisor, teacher and student, etc. A frequent question concerns how one might prove “verbal harassment.” Alhan explained, “Of course there is no certainty to prove it. Usually, the victim is on the weak side of the power relationship, in practice at least. Relationships at the workplace, especially, are not built on equality.” On this note, Rafah added that laws as such cannot respond to everything and are only part of the solution. Education, she suggested, constitutes an essential tool for raising women’s awareness of their rights and encouraging them to take a stand in the long-term fight against sexual harassment.
Feminist NGOs continue to raise awareness despite the high price women often pay when putting forward charges. Not only is a great deal of family support required, but women also face significant barriers in the form of fear of societal judgement or of losing their jobs. Some women do not want their families to know they have been sexually harassed for fear that their male relatives might attack the perpetrator. Female victims commonly ask whether they may decline to testify as witnesses. On this note, Alhan strongly underlined the fact that the harassed woman herself must serve as a witness in her own case – she is in a unique position to describe the specific incident or situation. Kayan, she said, can support women in a number ways when putting forward charges.
The text of the law must be on display in workplaces and include contact information for victims facing sexual harassment. Furthermore, an appointee, preferably a woman, must be designated as a point of contact for issues relating to sexual harassment in the workplace. Since 2008, Kayan has undertaken the challenge of increasing implementation of the law in workplaces. In this framework, Kayan remains in close contact with Arab local authorities, explaining the law and their duty to designate appointees for its enforcement. Due in large part to Kayan’s intervention, 70% of Arab local authorities now adhere to this aspect of the law (from a mere 30% in recent years). Beyond its formal implementation, however, Kayan is also working to ensure the law’s spirit is also realised by urging local authorities to provide appointees critical training and resources. Kayan monitors local authorities’ progress and compliance through regular correspondence, educational sessions and courses designed to enhance the professional agency of appointees. Despite these efforts, many institutions, such as the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labour (which is comprised of 3% female Arab employees), still refuse even to speak with Kayan about this issue.