Reflecting on more than a decade of grassroots empowerment of Arab women in Israel, we wish to portray Kayan’s character, development, and richness to our supporters in a more special way. So we decided to launch a three-part series that aims to do exactly this. The following first article on Kayan’s foundations aims to illustrate our historical background. Articles on Kayan’s vision and methodology will follow in January and February 2012 respectively. Enjoy!
“Getting to know Kayan” – Part I: Foundations.
The establishment of Kayan-Feminist Organization is a story of Arab women taking up the mantle of a worldwide feminist movement and, in time, discovering what it would mean for them to have full ownership over their part of it. The founders of Kayan emigrated to Haifa in the 1980s from the outlying villages in pursuit of that particular category of space in which a woman might practice the novel freedoms of urban life – higher education, a career, and greater personal choice concerning one’s daily life. These women gravitated toward a feminist movement that had also made its way to Haifa from afar. The movement was technically bi-national, though by no means proportionally so. Brought to Israel by Jewish women of European and American origins, early feminism in Israel was characteristically reflective of its western counterpart. By natural extension, imported models of action contributed much to the early shape of the Arab women’s movement in Israel.
The 1990s in Israel were years also punctuated by a groundswell of Palestinian consciousness-building and the mainstreaming of an agenda of Arab cultural autonomy. Many of the activists pursuing women’s equality were at the same time engaged in strengthening a nascent Arab political infrastructure. For the first time, it was articulated that the state – of which Palestinians in Israel were full citizens – bore democratic obligations to support the institutions and programs through which Arab citizens might exercise their distinct civic aspirations.
Arab feminists in Haifa engaged these issues with fervor and excitement. By 1997, they had founded a forum, comprised of approximately 20 Arab women from Isha l’Isha (the leading bi-national feminist organization in Haifa), the Haifa Rape Crisis Center, and the Hotline for Battered Women (which closed in 2006). This forum of women explored notions of cultural autonomy and debated the seemingly inherent tensions between feminism and nationalism. They did not default automatically to the founding of an Arab feminist organization of their own; they wanted first to explore in earnest the implications of their unique context. As feminists, should they allow one aspiration to supersede the other, or were Palestinian nationalism and equality of Arab women complementary ideals?
At the core of the feminists’ internal debate was the notion that if equally effective avenues for action existed in the bi-national context, why should they, as feminists, establish something explicitly Arab? No limitations had been set upon their activities; vis-à-vis their Jewish counterparts, they had been free to pursue their agendas of change with full freedom. Some attributed the desire to found an Arab women’s organization to nationalist sentiment, an expression of Palestinian belonging. But this rationale was deemed insufficient; such a move would have to be grounded in the actual needs of Arab women at the grassroots.
Arab women face multiple layers of discrimination, both as members of a marginalized national minority and as women within a patently patriarchal Arab society. With limited opportunity to participate in the workforce, four in five Arab women in Israel continue to fulfill a traditional domestic role within the domain of the household. Women who aim to challenge this traditional model, seek opportunities for self-realization and actualize novel expressions of self-determination typically encounter an environment that is ill prepared to support such a step. An Arab woman’s choice to pursue an alternative lifestyle comes with a multitude of pressing needs, but in Israel, requisites of adequate transportation, employment opportunities and avenues of exchange with likeminded women go largely unfulfilled. Positions of influence and access to resources remain almost exclusively in the hands of men. Consequently, Arab women in Israel have less access to frameworks of decision-making and assert less meaningful influence within political processes. Such endemic barriers to equal participation in the public sphere have long threatened the personal status and security of Arab women throughout society. Haifa’s Arab feminists reasoned that durable solutions to this socio-economic crisis would require an essential recognition of the interconnectedness of myriad factors and address social – in addition to political – obstacles to the advancement of Arab women.
The feminists envisioned widespread social change and the molding of a society that is equal, just and secure, free of violence and racism, coercion or discrimination, which would secure for its citizens – women and men alike – the freedom to choose one’s own lifestyle, actualize each one’s potential and express one’s self free of social and institutional obstacles. After much debate and thoughtful consideration, in 1998, Kayan-Feminist Organization was officially established as an agent of social change for the promotion of the status of Arab women in Israel. Their consensus for the establishment of an Arab feminist organization acknowledged a perceived need for ‘role modeling’ and the incorporation of feminism into the Arab public discourse from within. Yet the most significant contributing factor may simply have been that the Arab feminists wanted to create something of their own. Rather than joining an institution already in place and filling a niche therein, they gained full ownership – and it was remarkably empowering.
If you have enjoyed reading the first part of our “Getting to know Kayan” – series please check out the next article illustrating Kayan’s vision on feminism, empowerment, and leadership to be released online in January 2012.