All too often, the widely divergent positions of the people whose lives have been entangled in the conflict are subsumed under the positions of governments or other official representatives…As a result, alternative visions of what peace might even look like are restricted to the narrow formulations of those presently in power. (Sharoni, 1995, p. 151)
In a traditionally patriarchal society, women are generally relegated to the margins during public processes; this is certainly the case for Arab women in Israel, who face discrimination by the state, but also within their own male-dominated society. Women who seek to challenge the barriers imposed upon them by racist and misogynist systems are forced to navigate complex social and political realities in order to do so. Kayan seeks to activate, empower, and support Palestinian women who envision a community whose members have equal access to avenues of self-determination. By cultivating change from the grassroots, Kayan has helped to establish dozens of groups of women activists across the Northern and Central regions of the country. Yet while many women’s groups have been working within their communities for years, they remain vulnerable to the upheaval that results from intracommunity, national, and international conflicts.
In an effort to safeguard the gains of women-led community organizing amidst conflict, Kayan seeks to know more about the conflicts occurring within Arab communities in Israel and why women are excluded from resolution processes. Throughout the past few months, staff members have met with women in the field to learn more about how intracommunity conflicts affect their lives and activism. Since 1999, Kayan has been working with a group of women in Maghar, a village of approximately 20,000 Druze, Muslim, and Christian Arabs in Northern Israel. In 2004, these women began advocating improved mobility within Maghar, one of many Arab villages in Israel that had been deprived of public transportation. Despite all of the challenges facing them, within one year, they were celebrating the introduction of a new public bus service they had initiated. Around that same time, conflict simmering between members of the community escalated rapidly and led to riots lasting nearly a week. Serious injuries and significant damage to property resulted. In a recent discussion with Kayan, the women of Maghar recalled their fear as a result of the chaos and noted that in addition to the physical and material damage, the residents of the village had suffered psychologically. Apart from imploring their children not to participate in the rioting, as women, they had been virtually cut off from any role in ending the violence. As religious leaders attempted to quell the chaos, the women activists remained isolated from one another. A few of the Christian women left the group altogether, the majority of which is Druze. When asked if the community reconciliation work done immediately afterward repaired Druze-Christian relations, group members said that although the physical violence had stopped, tensions remain – bubbling under the surface, nearing eruption once again. In another interview concerning women during intracommunity conflict, a woman in the Arab village of Sulam aptly noted that despite being so invested in the prevention of violence, mothers, wives, daughters and sisters are excluded from opportunities to do so.
As advocates of the increased participation of Arab women in public processes, the time has come for Kayan’s efforts to include conflict prevention and transformation. Results from focus group interviews with women in the field indicate that Arab women currently have no place in communal conflict prevention, de-escalation, or transformation. Though many women are able to influence male family members who partake in such processes, they are generally not involved in efforts to promote peace in their communities. Kayan seeks to empower Arab women to develop improved peacemaking and conflict prevention methodologies that can serve to enrich the changes these women are affecting in their communities. Kayan’s exploration of this issue began officially in the summer of 2011, when it welcomed Conflict & Dispute Resolution graduate student Megan Leatherman to the staff. Around the same time, Department of Community Work Coordinator Rafah Anabtawi participated in an intensive Conflict Resolution course at Coventry University in the United Kingdom and brought back with her a rich archive of knowledge. Megan’s internship with Kayan was designed to assist the organization in developing its own awareness of this issue in order to articulate a shared vision of change. To do this, Megan facilitated all-staff workshops throughout the Fall of 2011 that explored themes of conflict and conflict resolution, the context of Arab women in conflict, and organizational capacities that might be used in designing a new program to address this issue. Megan and the Department of Community Work conducted two focus group interviews with Kayan’s Forum of Arab Women Leaders and met with empowerment groups in various Arab villages to hear about women’s experiences of intracommunity conflicts.
Kayan also held exploratory meetings with local activists and civil-society organizations including the Arab Human Rights Association. Rather than work in isolation, we seek to engage a broad spectrum of stakeholders in order to understand the needs of the community, complement existing initiatives, avoid duplication, and ensure a diverse range of input and contributions from women and men alike. This issue reaches all parts of the community and therefore requires an inclusive, holistic approach.
Kayan intends to incorporate new curriculum designed to prepare Arab women to contribute to increased peace within their communities into its flagship personal empowerment and community organizing initiative, Jusur (Bridges). Before this curriculum can be designed, however, we need to know much more about intracommunity conflict among Arabs in Israel and the exclusion of women from conflict management. Kayan is well aware of the complexity of this issue, and therefore seeks to strengthen its capacity to engage with it. In partnership with experienced research partners, Kayan will facilitate a comprehensive study to explore perceptions of conflict, mechanisms for conflict resolution, and the participation of various stakeholders. Study findings will be published in an Arabic-language report and disseminated to members of Arab civil society, including the women of Jusur. Eliciting information directly from Arab women leaders is also vital to the development of this program; in 2012, Kayan will facilitate a two-day conflict transformation training seminar for the Forum of Arab Women Leaders. As expressed by a member of the Forum, “There are a lot of conflicts going on in many villages, and it escalates to violence very quickly…a group of women could take an active role in preventing these conflicts, but we need to know how.” Not only will such training provide the Department of Community Work with a better sense of the skills that are relevant and useful for Arab women in this domain, the participants will also develop their capacities to engage effectively in times of conflict. In a poignent affirmation of the importance of this domain to their work, members of the Forum stressed that a leader who lacks a fundamental role in conflict transformation cannot in earnest be considered a leader at all.
Kayan looks forward to embarking on this new venture, a journey that will no doubt challenge and enlighten us tremendously. By acquiring the data and capacities necessary to implement this new program, we hope to empower Arab to contribute to peace in their communities. As feminist conflict resolution scholar Simona Sharoni expresses, marginalized members of society are too often silenced at times when their perspectives are most needed; Palestinian women in Israel not only have a right to take a role in conflict resolution, their participation will be a catalyst for the prevention of violence and the mending of broken communities.