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Arab women made history in Israel's local elections. Here's how they did it

A record-breaking 26 Palestinian women were elected to office in Israel’s local elections. Despite the unprecedented numbers, there is still a long way to go.

Arab women made history in the last round of local elections in Israel held in late October. A total of 26 Arab women were elected across the country, including the first Druze and first Bedouin woman, respectively, as well as an unprecedented four female heads of political parties.

In the past months, civil society and women’s associations banded together to encourage more Arab women to participate in local elections and exercise their right to vote. (Full disclosure: the organization I manage participated in that campaign.) The political fortress that Arab men have built for themselves in this country is still impenetrable, and it will take time before its gates are open to women. And yet, it seems that the old guard of local politicians in Arab communities has finally understood that women are on the rise.

The tide has been changing over the last decade, manifesting in several ways. The first trend is that more youth, women, and educated Arabs are fed up with the failed “council of wise men” approach. Liberal voices have pushed for more progressive perspectives and candidates, which sometimes includes feminism. The second trend reflects a wider, pan-Israeli development: a shift from party politics toward broader coalitions built from grassroots activists. These coalitions can be based on family ties; in more optimistic cases, they are based on the shared goal of improving local services, such as education, welfare, health, housing, etc.

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In a conversation with Vera Baboun, the first female mayor of Bethlehem, I sought to understand how it was possible that women were so politically integrated in the Palestinian territories (four women serve as mayors, four more are deputies, one heads a district, and four are village heads), while in Israel, Arab women are still fighting for the opportunity to run in local elections.

Baboun believes it has something to do with resisting the occupation and the role women play in that struggle. What more, under the Palestinian Authority, there is a legally-mandated quota that women make up a third of any political list. Palestinian women were supposed to hold significant...

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When a Palestinian, Muslim woman went on Israeli Big Brother

Shams, a hijab-wearing, Palestinian woman went on the Israeli reality TV show to teach Jewish Israelis about her humanity. She was naive to think she’d succeed, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support her. 

It’s hard with these Palestinians everywhere, even on Big Brother. I admit and confess, I know next to nothing about the reality show. When I was approached a few months ago in an attempt to interest me in participating in the show, I was amused and laughed at the very mention of the crazy idea. The network representative who tried to persuade me to come to the audition told me that if I wanted to convey a message to the people, this was the best platform. I want to convey a message, I replied, “Just decide who counts as the people, and I will consider.”

I explained that the participants in the program, especially the women, are objectified, and why this is contrary to my feminist ideology. I received, in return, an explanation that there has been a conceptual change — this time there will be a “big sister”. I quickly realized that there was no chance that the message would be conveyed in a telephone conversation, so I elegantly refused the offer. Since then, I have wondered, who is going to be the Arab woman to raise the ratings for Big Brother. Who would nonetheless dare to enter this artificial human laboratory, a beehive of Israeli Jews looking for instant fame?

And indeed, on the first episode of the show, a Muslim woman entered the Big Brother house — with a hijab, as the media like to point out. Shams Marie Abomokh, 30, an art therapist, married, and mother of three from Baqa al-Garbiyyeh. I recognized on the screen the woman who, weeks earlier, destiny had brought us together for a long discussion about the role of the Palestinians in relation to the refugees from the civil war in Syria and our relationship to Israeli aid organizations.

I was impressed at the time by a woman who knew what she wanted, articulate, ambitious, and opinionated, who was aware of the complexities of Palestinian identity in Israel, and, like most of us, laboriously refined her identity. Between the sentences and the glances, shone forth a naiveté that stems from a good place of deep faith in human beings and their ability to listen, understand and change. In...

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Bidding farewell to the voice of Palestine

Rim Banna, one of Palestine’s most recognizable and important singers, died on Saturday after a lengthy battle with cancer. She leaves behind a dream of freedom from the occupation, patriarchy, and oppression.

Rim Banna, the singer from Nazareth who enraptured millions died on Sunday after a battle with cancer. She was 51 years old. Arabic social media filled with eulogies written by people from every segment of society.

One of the most famous Palestinian singers in the world, Banna came to be known through her modern interpretations of traditional Palestinian songs — children songs and popular women’s melodies — which she performed in a youthful, rhythmic manner, breathing into them a new life. She was a composer, a creator, and a singer of a rare kind who combined the spirit of resistance to the occupation, the hope for freedom, and the joy of creation to make moving music.

Banna was born and raised in Nazareth. After studying at the Moscow Conservatory, she returned to her homeland and dedicated her life to the project of conserving and reviving traditional Palestinian musical culture. In addition to the songs that she wrote and composed herself, she also put to music the poems of the great Palestinian poets — Mahmoud Darwish, Tawfiq Ziad, Samih al-Qasim — as well as those with whom she wrote, like the poet Zohira Sebag.

Rim sang of the stolen homeland, of the children of the refugee camps, of the bleeding youth of Gaza on the way to freedom. Dressed in embroidered Palestinian clothes and big, antique silver jewelry, she was a musical icon — one of a kind.

She was one of the first artists to call for a cultural boycott of Israel. She could not understand how artists whose work encouraged resistance and called for liberation could, at the same time, perform in an occupying country.

There is not one Arab student who did not did not hear Rim Banna at least once — in a concert at one of the universities, at a protest, a march, or a parade.

In 2009, Banna was diagnosed with breast cancer. She began her battle against the occupier in her body, as she described it. She gave interviews to TV channels and cultural media programs around the world after she had lost her wild, curly hair, and was left with a shaved head, magnanimity, and big...

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The quiet feminist revolution in Arab society in Israel

Despite the hardships, Arab women are making gains in the Israeli legal establishment, local politics, academia, and even in the Islamic Movement. 

I watched as Hollywood stars collectively came out of the feminist closet during the Academy Awards this week. They spoke with pride about the recent #MeToo campaign, and demanded more respect and more funds for films made by women about women.

But why envy the women of Hollywood? There’s enough work to do back home. This past week we also learned that the Israel Prize Committee could not find a single woman who was worthy of receiving the prize, just as an Israeli judicial appointments committee failed in the same seemingly insurmountable task.

Truthfully, as a Palestinian feminist, I don’t care very much about the prize. And yet, as a feminist I still stand alongside Jewish women who demand representation for the vaunted Zionist prize, and wish them success in their struggle to give Israel’s multicultural democracy a facelift.

Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a closer look at my own society — at how Palestinian women in Israel fared in the past year.

A women’s Islamic revolution

Two months ago, the southern branch of the Islamic Movement decided to increase the representation of women on its Knesset slate, including guaranteeing a spot specifically for women, as well as integrating women in its decision-making process. Unsurprisingly, such a dramatic announcement hardly made headlines in either the Hebrew or the Arabic press.

As talk of general elections grows, I decided to see for myself what has changed. It turns out the Islamic Movement has a new party constitution, which was passed overwhelmingly during its last general assembly. And according to the constitution, the fifth and sixth places on the list will hereby be reserved for women.

I asked Islamic Movement spokesperson Mansour Abbas why women are worthy of only the fifth and sixth places.

“Today we are only four representatives in the Knesset. We did not want it to be seen as a woman taking the place of a sitting member of Knesset,” he responded. “This would have led to opposition to the move.”

Before I managed to yell “So what if a woman replaces a man?” he responded: “Women can compete for the first four seats, but the fifth and sixth seats are guaranteed for them. Moreover, the movement decided that it will guarantee a spot for them among the...

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Setting the struggle against gender-based violence back 30 years

A proposed bill to increase the sentences for Arab men who kill women ‘on the basis of family honor’ is not a step forward for feminism, but a step back.

The Justice Ministry recently presented a bill to the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice committee that would define murder on the basis of “family honor” as “aggravated murder,” which requires a sentence of life imprisonment.

At first glance, this might seem like a good change, but it’s not.

For the last two decades, I have been fighting the excessive use of this term – murder on the basis of family honor – to describe the murder of Arab women. Arab feminists from all over the world have struggled to eliminate the use of this term, which bears no actual relation to women’s lives. Books and articles have been written about the relationship between the female body and the “male honor” that tries to control that body. Women’s sexuality, intelligence, even their property have all been thrown together under the meaningless blanket term, “family honor.”

We have proven, case after a case, that a woman fighting for her inheritance, or for her children and her house, or to end a relationship with a drug dealer, is a free woman who can live as she chooses. And yet there is always someone who does not like that. And this angry someone whose honor has been bruised is always a male. It is very simple and has nothing to do with the honor of any man armed with a gun. This is called gender-based crime.

We briefly felt that some progress was being made and had a sympathetic ear among law enforcement agencies, judges, journalists and social workers for our demand to erase this term from the legal-social lexicon of the supposedly progressive and democratic state. I felt moments of solidarity and understanding and felt heard by Jewish women’s organisations and the families of Arab and Jewish victims. Slowly, the struggles against gender-based crime, violent men’s crimes against women for being women, began to intertwine, especially after the shocking week in which five women — two Arab and three Jewish women — were murdered.

And then, one fine day, the conductor of the enlightened and white chauvinist band that rules our lives, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, threw us down the stairs and set the women’s struggle for control of their own lives back 30...

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Arab woman MK attacked by Hebrew media for criticizing army policy

MK Aida Touma-Suleiman, a female legislator from the Arab-Jewish socialist party, criticized the Israeli army’s policy toward Syria, warning that it could escalate to a war that would endanger civilians. In response, one veteran male television news analyst ordered her to ‘sit down and be quiet.’

The Israeli air force has carried out more than 100 bombing incursions deep inside Syrian territory over the past few years, with little acknowledgement from the Israeli media and without suffering any military or diplomatic repercussions.  Meanwhile, Russia and Iran have deployed military forces in Syria, ostensibly to eliminate the Islamic State but in fact to increase their sphere of influence — at the cost of the starving Syrian people.

Israel did open a field hospital for wounded Syrians in the Golan, an act for which it sought — and received — substantial international media coverage that portrayed the country in a very positive light. But this act of magnanimity to Syrian civilians should not be used as a means of distracting attention from the fact that if the Assad regime, or the Russian and Iranian forces that are fighting to support it, had responded militarily to Israel’s many military sorties deep into Syrian territory, a war would have broken out long ago — with all the attendant, and very grave, consequences for civilians who live on both sides of the border.

Last week, this scenario nearly came to pass. The Israeli military downed an Iranian drone that penetrated Israeli air space from Syrian territory. Israel retaliated with an air sortie into Syria, which led to another retaliation from Syria, which shot down an Israeli fighter jet. Israelis were shocked, but they should not have been. This escalation has been heating up for a long time.

Now there are two wounded Israeli pilots and a destroyed fighter plane; and this stings Zionist pride, which has become accustomed to hearing about the heroic exploits of its powerful air force when it carries out strikes against enemies incapable of responding. The army did not even have time to prepare civilians for the long-simmering possibility of war.

The Knesset rushed to express its support for the government “during this difficult period.” Even Zehava Galon, the leader of the leftist Meretz party, tweeted her support for Netanyahu. Those who claimed Netanyahu wanted a war to distract the public from his legal troubles were, she wrote, indulging in conspiracy theories. Netanyahu was a cynic, but he wasn’t evil; he would not arrange for the downing of an Israeli fighter plane in order to divert public attention from his possible indictment on charges of corruption.


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'There's no such thing as a feminist name-change'

When I reverted my surname back to my maiden name, apparently the Interior Ministry decided I was getting divorced. How do you prove that you’re not getting divorced? My own personal brush with Kafka.

I went to the Interior Ministry office in Beit Shemesh to get a passport issued for my adolescent son last week. He is supposed to travel with friends for a ski vacation in Europe, where it is winter, snowing, cold, and expensive. I got there very early so that I could get back to work at a reasonable time. There were only two Arabs waiting in a short queue, the rest were ultra-Orthodox people of all ages. After an hour, our turn came.

“I paid in advance on the internet,” I declared proudly to the nice, sleepy clerk who asked a few questions as he typed on the keyboard. He looked at me doubtfully and said: “According to the computer you are getting divorced, so you need your partner to also consent.” I was shocked.

“I’m not divorced, sir, what are you talking about?”

“It’s recorded here, ‘in divorce proceedings.’ That’s what you declared a few years ago when you changed your surname.”

“I didn’t change it. The name was Salaime-Egbariya and I decided to keep only my maiden name, Salaime. It’s a feminist act, do you understand?”

“I don’t know, you probably told the clerk and she wrote that you were separated.”

“We never initiated divorce proceedings. I’ve been with my partner for 22 years. We are not separated. How is it that we’re registered as separated?”

I began to defend my marital status with all my might, as if my family’s honor had been deeply wounded by the fear that the clerk conjured up. My son, embarrassed by the situation, remembered that he had been with me at the Interior Ministry that day when I changed my surname — he began to argue also and insisted that his parents actually live together.

“Do you have a court’s ruling?”

Kafka in Beit Shemesh

I approached the manager of the Interior Ministry branch in an attempt to explain the situation to her so that she would allow us to move forward with the process of issuing a passport to my nervous son. The woman did not listen and began to recite in rapid-fire: “A woman who changes her name must have a reason. Maybe you are separated? Maybe your husband doesn’t live at home and he has...

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When the IDF protects Palestinians for the sake of propaganda

The army’s new hasbara video is meant to convince the English-speaking world that it protects Palestinians from settlers during the olive harvest, as if the latter were some kind of untamable beasts.

With the beginning of the olive harvest, the IDF has decided to wish all Palestinians a bountiful and safe season!

A new video being spread by the IDF on social media seeks to placate the worries of anyone worried about the safety of Palestinian farmers during the harvest. Focusing on Palestinians in Hebron, the video — with English subtitles, of course — announces to the world that due to the army’s protection, this year’s olive harvest is going smoothly.

The video features an elderly man from Hebron filmed in his grove, where he is able to tend to 90 trees because the army sends soldiers to ensure he can harvest, alhamdulilah. Everything, then, must be fine.

It’s unclear who the army is targeting with this video, and why a Palestinian farmer needs to thank the army for protecting him. After all, he’s only doing what every single owner of an olive grove has done every fall for the past thousands of years: he goes up to the hill, lays out a mat, complains about the lack of olives but says that the oil will be excellent and that, anyway, his olives are superior to those of the neighbors.

This isn’t the situation in Hebron’s Tel Rumeida neighborhood. The banal act of harvesting Palestinian-owned trees has turned into a complicated military mission for soldiers. Why? Because of one thing and one thing only: the settlers. Jewish settlers who threaten Palestinians on a yearly basis, make their lives difficult, and do everything they can to make Palestinians disappear from the breathtaking hills of the West Bank.

Ghetto of olives

Attacks against Palestinians on their land have become routine to the point that the army decided this year to initiate an intricate plan with the Arab fallahin in order to protect them from settler violence — as if the latter were untamable beasts. After all, it’s always easier to control a Palestinian armed with buckets and plastic bags. The Palestinian can be told at what time to arrive and how long he or she have to harvest. They can be accompanied back to their home, with a short stop to be filmed by the army that “protects” him...

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Wonder Women: The Arab feminist revolution on Facebook

Thousands of Arab women on Facebook are sharing, with heart-wrenching honesty, stories of female heroism that don’t always make headlines. Is a new Arab feminism emerging? And what about the new Arab man?

A week ago one of my Facebook friends added me to a group for Arab women. Oh no, I thought. Not another group. But, as usual, I couldn’t resist the feminist urge and went in to take a look.

I found stories of working Arab women of all ages from all over Israel: Muslim, Druze, and Christian, religious and less so, married and single; short, emotional stories along with simple reports, stories full of love and stories of disappointment, stories of crisis and stories of new starts.

In recent years tens of thousands of women have found a home for their stories on Facebook. On the pages of teachers, social workers, nurses, businesswomen, self-employed women, personal trainers, you can find posts about everything.

For instance, I stumbled upon the story of a young woman, Lamis, whose mother died in childbirth, and for her whole life has carried the name of the mother she never saw or embraced or looked in the eye. Lamis, who grew up with a physical disability, describes the difficulties she has faced since she was born prematurely, and the various stations of her life. Today she runs a program for youth with disabilities from the Arab community. The name of her program—“I can.”

A woman with a snake tattoo

Hanan, an amazing woman in her thirties, attached to her story a picture of her arm with a tattoo of a snake and a staff, the symbol of medicine, next to the words: “I promise to return there.” She started medical school, had a crisis, was in a serious accident that left her half paralyzed. She swore that if she got out of it she would go back to medical school and realize her dream. Over the years she worked as a first responder, got her bachelor’s degree, and now is finishing a masters in medical research. She gathered her strength and decided to make a U-turn in her career: to go back to medical school and the clinic she promised herself. She is in the midst of preparing for the big step.

I found women who left cushy jobs to fulfill childhood dreams. Fitness and healthy living trainers, a cycling trainer for women, a...

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The young Arab women on Israel's hasbara dream team

A young Arab woman on a propaganda delegation to the United States sparks a storm in the Arab world with an interview in which she praises Israel’s democracy, which she says liberates Arab women from their primitive society, and which 90 percent of Arabs pray to live under.

Dema Taya is a young Arab Muslim woman from the village of Qalansuwa in central Israel, who recently traveled to the United States as part of a delegation belonging to the Israeli hasbara group, “Reservists on Duty.” An  interview with Taya on the Arabic television channel Musawa has more than two million views and led to a barrage of responses, parodies, and discussions in Israel and across the world.

The interview made its way to the Arab world as well and a longer, well-edited version found a home on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s official Facebook page. Right-wing websites called to rally support for Taya, while Arab sites ridiculed her in every possible way.

So what is this young woman’s story, and why did her interview arouse such anger?

Taya is one of six people chosen to represent Israel on a 12-campus tour across the United States. The main goal of the tour was to combat BDS, bring about a change in the way students think about Israel, and prove that it is not an apartheid state. A young, sweet Arab woman who praises the state is a good way to whitewash the occupation and the racism that so bothers American Jewish liberals.

I am not sure Taya regrets the interview, in which she made every possible mistake — from her choice of words to actually knowing the facts, including about the Arab world and Arab society. If that were not enough, she also made a few mistakes in her native language, leaving no room for doubt that she learned to recite a few key sentences, the kind we hear from every Jewish Israeli who takes part in hasbara.

‘I don’t talk politics’

Taya insisted on telling the interviewer, Ramzi Hakim, that she was not there to talk politics. The Arab minority in Israel has nothing to do with politics, she said, “I don’t care about occupation and the territories.” Apparently, as long as there is work for Arabs as doctors, lawyers, and teachers — Israel is a democracy. Arabs have the right to vote, that’s enough. Taya is a member of the Zionist enterprise...

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How Bedouin women were exploited to 'Judaize' the Negev at NY Fashion Week

An organization that settles Jews in the Negev, and with a central role in the story of displacement at Umm al-Hiran, enlists a famous Israeli designer to team up with Bedouin women for a NY Fashion Week fundraiser. The problem — nobody told the Bedouin women what they were up to.

Israeli designer Aviad Arik Herman, who made headlines earlier this year for designing Culture Minister Miri Regev’s famous “united Jerusalem” dress, entered into a blossoming “partnership” with Bedouin women culminating with a dress on display at New York Fashion Week this week, according to an article in Hebrew-language news site Ynet. The story, it turns out, is not as heartwarming as one might believe.

According to the article, the Or Movement enlisted Arik Herman to present an embroidered dress, designed by him and produced by the women of Laqiya. The Or Movement’s purpose is to settle the Negev and Galilee with Jews, and is behind the core “seed” community of Hiran, a Jewish-only town slated to be built on the ruins of an unrecognized Bedouin village called Umm al-Hiran.

So how did a group of women from unrecognized Bedouin villages, who are fighting to stop the demolition of their homes, come to cooperate with an initiative working to displace Beduoin just like them?

Asma al-Saneh, head of the The Association for the Improvement of Women’s Status, Lakia, the organization that runs “Desert Embroidery,” told me the Bedouin women had no idea in what they were taking part. “We never thought we would fall into such a deceitful trap. We never made headlines for our good work, and now this ruins our reputation.”

How was the contact made between you and the designer?

“A guy called and said he was a major designer and needed help. He came to us, at first alone, and introduced himself as a world-renowned designer who wants to present a dress in New York. He asked for help and brought the materials with him. He was a client like any other. He didn’t say he was making Miri Regev’s scandalous dress, and we had no idea who he was.

“Before he came to pick up the dress he asked if he could film. I thought it was good for publicity. I didn’t understanding who the people he brought with him were or why they were so silent. The next morning I woke...

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The Right's plan to beat Palestinians into submission

The good news: the Right has a plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The bad news: it’s as racist as you think.

The truth is that that there is no future in the Middle East for Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich’s new political program, which seeks to completely erase Palestinians from the river to the sea. There is no place for his plan here, nor anywhere else in the world. There will never be a place in this world for Jews alone without any room for “non-Jews.” I hope this is obvious to everyone.

But before you jump from your seat, let me be clear: Jews, like all people, deserve a place where they can live with dignity and in peace. I did not establish these facts, nor did the millions of Palestinians who were here before the establishment of Israel and who aren’t going anywhere.

What can you do? This is the universe in which we live. In 2017, there is no state on earth that is racially or religiously “pure.” There are two models for this kind of regime: the first is the Vatican, the second is the territory controlled by Islamic State.

Thankfully, ISIS’ mission is a difficult one that isn’t going as planned. Humans migrate across the world through water and land, reaching new places where they can live with other people. It is not always easy, and often depends greatly on the prudence of the nations and states that take them in. Just like in this country, where Jews lived in pre-state Palestine, and which took in millions of Jews after the 1948 War.

The problem arose with the relentless desire for complete and utter control by Jewish Israelis — who arrived here for various reasons — over the land, its resources, and its people. Everything must surrender to the Jews. In my opinion, this is what perpetuates the conflict between the Palestinians and the Jews in the region. No fence will help; no barbed wire will bring security to Jews who desire control, some of whom believe God granted them exclusive rights to this land.

But soon this will end. This week we learned about Smotrich’s “plan to end the conflict. Remember, this is the man who wants his son to be born in a sterile delivery room, where no black person can lay a hand on him, where no midwife will cut his umbilical...

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What are Israelis willing to do to end violence against Arab women?

Another Arab woman was gunned down by a masked assailant. What are you, Arabs and Jews who respect the police and just want peace, planning to do about it?

Another woman joins the list. This time it was Siham Azbarqa from Lod who was shot in her home on Monday and died from her wounds the following day. Once again it was a masked gunman with a silenced pistol who managed to take another life, leaving a city of 30,000 Arab citizens in total shock. Siham was murdered not far from where Dua’a Abu Sharkh was killed in front of her four children half a year ago.

Dua’a was also murdered by a masked gunman with a single shot to her head. The same fate put an end to the lives of Lilian Masoud, Yasmin Abu Sa’aluk, Amal Khalili, Abir Abu Katifan, Narmin Mughrabi, Sundus Shamruh, and many others. All of them killed by anonymous gunmen — all of them left to die in a pool of blood that had to be cleaned up by their grieving mothers.

And what are you, the readers, Arabs and Jews who respect the police and just want peace — what do you intend to do about this? Because Siham was murdered. She is no more — just like many other Arab women.

Come to one of our protests and perhaps you will finally feel our desire to live. Your momentary solidarity might provide temporary hope to a woman or young girl who is suffering. But when will you understand that our struggle is for your sake too? For the future of women in this cursed place? For the future of humanity itself?

Let’s start reporting ‘terrorists’

Palestinian women here are fighting for life, others are fighting for freedom of movement, equal pay, freedom of speech, representation in politics, etc. Our struggle belongs to everyone. And anyone who deludes herself into believing that this has nothing to do with her life may find herself facing down patriarchy, oppression, and violence all by herself — either now or further down the road.

Are we, Arab women in Israel, not worthy of a life of safety without guns?

Tell me the truth, because I am willing to accept the ugly truth. I would rather live with the fact that my life does not interest anyone than live a fantasy that I am equal to every other citizen of this state.

Do not...

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