Much of the world was shocked by the news last Tuesday that the Pakistani Taliban had shot fourteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai, a courageous activist who spoke out against Taliban efforts to repress education for girls. The shooting highlighted the heavy oppression Islamic extremists seek for women, and the inhumanity of a movement willing to kill an innocent child in the name of ‘jihad’.
Other incidents of female oppression due to extremism have also been making headlines. In Tunisia a woman was charged with “immorality” in a public place, after she reported being raped by two police officers. In Egypt, in an interview on Egyptian television, Sheik Muhammed Saad al-Azhari, a member of the Egyptian constitutional committee, spoke out against any constitutional clause against sexual trafficking, on the grounds that this would prohibit child marriage, domestic violence and spousal rape (see interview, captured by media watchdog organisation, the Middle East Media Research Institute).
Meanwhile, an Egyptian teacher allegedly victimised 12-year-old girls for failing to wear a headscarf. In Syria, there are reports of systematic rape being used as a weapon of war. In Saudi Arabia women still cannot drive, and in Iran women are being forced out of many university courses. Sadly, the list goes on and on.
While women are suffering from extremism throughout the Middle East, Israel remains an exception where all women, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity, enjoy equality before the law, and despite some shortcomings, the most substantial social equality in the region, comparable to virtually any country in the world. Israel’s Declaration of Independence grants “all Israel’s inhabitants equality of social and political rights irrespective of religion, race or gender.”
This significant point is sadly often lost in the headlines about Israel. But one Israeli-Arab woman, Boshra Khalaila is trying to draw attention to this important issue, as she travels around the world as an advocate for Israel. The Times of Israel featured an interview with her:
“Boshra, a secular, independent and patriotic Israeli Arab woman, defies stereotypes. She grew up in a liberal home in the Arab village of Deir Hana, in the Galilee. Her first contact with Jewish Israelis came at the age of 18, when she enrolled in Haifa University. There, she had to speak Hebrew for the first time. And it is there that she started to develop her political conscience and her attachment to the State of Israel.
‘I am married and doing a master’s degree [in Tel Aviv]. I am a liberal, free woman, with all the rights that I could enjoy. I compare myself to other women my age in Jordan, the territories, Egypt, any Arab country. They don’t have the rights that I have: freedom of expression, the right to vote. They are forced into marriage at a young age, and religious head covering, despite their own convictions. With me it’s the opposite; I have everything.'”
Ms Khalaila traveled to South Africa with a small group during Israel Apartheid Week to lecture at four university events, as well conduct public discussions and media interviews. The Times of Israel reported:
“… Boshra and her team had to deal with widespread ignorance about Israel, compounded by a campaign of demonization waged by pro-Palestinian students. Unlike us, she could counter the anti-Israel Middle Eastern students as an Arab herself, in Arabic.
‘[The pro Palestinian students in Johannesburg] had built fake barriers and put up all kinds of slogans demonizing Israel and accusing it of Apartheid, of being a child murderer and the like. There were awful pictures, pictures with dead children, [it was] really terrible.’
Boshra and her team were generally not welcome. ‘They didn’t even know that there was such a thing as Israeli Arabs. They accused us of being Jews. Some people were hostile, they told us ‘get out,’ ‘we don’t want to hear from you.’ [Some] were even more unwilling to talk to me because I am Arab and was seen as a traitor, but this was only a small part of their group. Others, thankfully, came to listen; they were open-minded about it.’
Boshra and her team delivered a number of lectures, told their personal stories, dialogued with students and gave interviews. ‘You want to defend yourself from people that tell the world that [Jews and Arabs] travel on different buses and study at different schools and that there is segregation,’ she said. ‘That just isn’t true: I study in same educational institutions, ride the same buses, shop in the same supermarkets. Everything that they say is absolutely false. And I do feel that I belong to my country.’
Hoping to give South Africans a glimpse of her everyday life as an Arab citizen of Israel, Boshra instead found herself publicly debating politics with a Palestinian PhD student from Gaza, in Arabic.
‘This is what I told him in front of everyone; I spoke in Arabic, and I was translated: ‘I don’t enjoy it when soldiers attack and mothers and babies end up getting killed or injured. It’s hard. But the same is true for Netivot and Sderot, when Kassam rockets hit and, God forbid, someone is killed, it is very hard. On both sides there are mothers and it is hard. I want the Palestinian people to have a country. It’s a natural right. That said, there are all kinds of conflicts within the Palestinian authority, mainly with Hamas, that prevent progress toward a peaceful settlement for the state of Israel and that is unfortunate.’
She added, ‘If there is any Apartheid – in the sense of a flagrant injustice – in the world, it is what is happening in Syria. Thousands of people murdered…the number of dead doesn’t even come close here.’
Thinking back to my experience in California, I assumed that her message would fall on deaf ears. But she surprised me:
‘Most of the talks ended with a handshake and a hug. To me this says it all. I have to say that it was important that I wasn’t there representing the government of Israel. It was surprising for them to see that I was a simple person, defending my country for the rights that I have and not speaking on behalf of the government. It came across as very genuine. For them, this was huge – to be able to listen to someone who is not from the government, including for the pro-Palestinian students. When you tell them you are a student and not a government spokesman, they no longer see you as an enemy.'”
Ms Khalaila has not found it easy to be an advocate for Israel. She has been attacked in the international and Arab press, and she has received hostile phone calls and Facebook messages. But Boshra appears to be part of a small but growing group of courageous Israeli-Arab woman who are speaking up in support of Israel despite the threats they face.
In addition, Israeli-Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh has written about other inspiring Israeli-Arab women who are making strides in Israeli society. Toameh writes:
“While female Muslims are being abducted, raped, shot, tortured and forced into unwanted marriages in a number of Arab and Islamic countries, 33-year-old Maria Gharra has just become Israel’s first Muslim woman to serve as a police officer.
Gharra, who is from a village in the Triangle area in Israel, is probably one of the most courageous Arab women in Israel.
‘I’m part of the state and I even have no problem singing the ‘Hatikvah’ [Israel’s national anthem],’ she declared shortly after she assumed her new job.
Gharra represents those Arab Israelis who see Israel as their state and believe in its democratic system.
Her story also shows that Arab women often have more opportunities than in most Arab and Islamic countries.
Contrary to common belief, Gharra does not believe that her recruitment to the Israeli police is an unusual act. ‘I never felt different,’ she explained. ‘My working assumption is that we are all equal citizens. This is my state and that is why I want to make a contribution.’
What is even more encouraging is that she has won the support of her parents, who say they are proud to see her serve in the Israeli police.
True, many Arab men already serve in the Israeli police, but this is the first time that a woman has been promoted to the rank of officer.
Amal Ayoub, 36, is one of the women making waves in biotechnology. The founder of Metallo Therapy, a startup developing gold nano-particles to enhance radiation therapy, she is the first female Arab Israeli high-tech entrepreneur.
Dr. Rania al-Khatib is the first Arab Israeli woman to become a plastic surgeon at Rambam Hospital.
These are only some of the success stories of Arab women in Israel.
The past two decades have also seen a number of Arab women elected to the Knesset a right that is denied to Muslim women in some Arab countries.”
The social, economic and political opportunities available to women in Israel – while imperfect, as in all other liberal democracies – stand in stark contrast with much of the Middle East. It is a reality that many Israeli-Arab women are aware of, yet a variety of factors – including a very real climate of fear – prevents these stories from being told. The Israeli-Arab women who do decide to speak up against critics of Israel who deny their equality deserve our admiration for their courage in speaking the truth.