On 5 November, Kayan Feminist Organization and Jusur (Bridges) – National Forum of Arab Women Leaders held the fifth Jusur Annual Conference in Arraba, at the Mahmoud Darwish Cultural Center. The conference was attended by approx. 250 Arab women from different geographical areas, most of whom are active on the community level. The theme of the conference this year was participation of women in local politics. Issues presented and discussed during the conference included: the factors that affect the ways and forms of women’s participation in politics; analysis and evaluation of the present situation from a feminist perspective, as well as from the women’s perspectives; future aspirations, challenges and difficulties; factors that can facilitate the increase of women’s participation; and the tools needed to develop for their active participation in public life.
The Jusur National Forum of Arab Women Leaders represents a grassroots network of locally active women, including more than 40 women from approx. 20 Arab villages, working as part of and in full cooperation with Kayan since its establishment in 2009. The Jusur Forum aims at strengthening and supporting local women’s work, in order to develop and leverage it at the national level.
Opening remarks at the conference were made by Jusur Forum member Haifa Awwad, who spoke about the goals of the event and of its importance. Haifa highlighted that the conference aimed to continue to raise the issue of women’s political participation and to place it on the public agenda—not only in relation to elections. She stressed that there is a need for continuous and intensive work on all levels to effect real and sustainable change and increase the participation of women in local politics. She added that such change would require unrelenting effort at all levels, and that the conference exemplified such efforts on the part of Kayan. Haifa explained that the conference was preceded by countless panels and workshops raising women’s awareness about the importance of their active participation in order to raise their status in society and challenge patriarchal notions that have contributed to their marginalization, to discrimination against them, and limited women’s opportunities for advancing in various spheres of life.
Anwar Mansour, Community Organizer at Kayan followed with welcoming remarks, thanking the women leaders and activists for attending, and thanking the local Arraba women’s group Atiaf, the local council, and the Mahmoud Darwish Cultural Center for their ongoing support and cooperation in everything related to improving women’s status in Arraba. “We at Kayan and Jusur Forum,” explained Anwar, “put two major themes to work on intensively during the upcoming years. The first one is representation of women in decision-making processes and public life in general, and the second is fighting the killing of women and violence against women. What distinguishes our efforts is our community-based nature which can address women from their perspective and address their real needs.”
Speaking on a related note about the importance of responsiveness to community voices, Rooz Khutaba, member of the Jusur Forum and of the Atiaf local women’s group, said that “One of the most important reasons behind the successful women’s activism occurring in Arraba has been the fact that the needs of many different women are taken into account when developing a work plan. What distinguishes Kayan’s efforts is their continuous connection with the field and their insistence on supporting and empowering women of all backgrounds and in all spheres. This has contributed to increasing women’s involvement in Arraba in decision-making positions and influencing decision-makers.”
A lecture on “Gender Politics and Gender in Politics in the Context of the Palestinian Society in Israel” was subsequently presented by Professor Khawla Abu Baker, a lecturer at the Al Qasemi Academic College of Education and the Yezreel Valley College. Prof. Abu Baker presented the findings of a research on women’s representation in politics, stressing that the implicit gender policies in fact prevent women from achieving equality. She explained that society continues to address the issue of women’s political participation in the same manner it always has that has excluded women. Thus, the need is to work on changing the restricting norms and changing discourse. This work needs to be done simultaneously both on the individual and the community levels. This dual approach is the right direction towards change.
The second part of the conference consisted of a discussion panel led by Kayan’s Community Organizer Hanan Khatib on “The Experiences of Women Leaders: Between Dream and Reality.” The women who participated in the panel were Areen Abdi Zoabi, a member of Haifa municipality; Tamam Shalash, a former member of the Arraba local council; and Rina Hindawi, a former candidate for the Majd El Krum local council. One of the most important aspects the panel participants discussed was the importance of women’s empowerment and their belief in women’s abilities along with their readiness to pay certain prices as basic conditions for succeeding in this experience. The participants further stressed that the challenges are numerous. A contributing factor being the patriarchal society which still poses limits on women and does not genuinely believe in the necessity of women’s participation in political life or in women’s abilities to take up these public roles.
The final portion of the conference involved six workshops that addressed three central themes: the readiness of society to accept women in local politics, factors that support women’s engagement in decision-making roles, and the implications of the presence of women in local politics.
Some key conclusions made during the workshops regarding steps needed to promote women’s status included: the importance of efforts to prepare society to be more accepting of the presence of women in local politics and decision-making positions; the importance of empowering women to believe in themselves and their abilities while also being aware of their specific needs and being prepared to overcome barriers of fear; and the importance of the media in highlighting politically active women while having a media stance based on equality that is also a component of a regular agenda that can influence policy both at the local and national level.
Key conclusions of the conference emphasized the importance of women’s participation in the local public sphere and national political arena in particular, whereas, under current circumstances, women cannot achieve real progress on the backdrop of policies that marginalize them, exclude them from public life and restrict them to the private sphere.
While women do in fact participate in public life, they are excluded from decision-making positions, which to date remain nearly exclusively male. Today not a single Arab woman holds a position of local council head. Kayan cooperates with the Jusur National Forum in order to raise social awareness about this topic in order to achieve a tangible change that will guarantee women’s political participation.
For the full photo album of the conference, please visit https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.735106686558437.1073741839.661952743873832&type=3
Translation from Arabic: Tova Reznicek and Khulud Khamis
Editing: Annette McCabe