They are journalists, educators, and physicians, who until very recently were dependent on the recently-outlawed Islamic Movement for their living. Now they leave behind a void that cannot be filled. An inside look at the women who play a critical role in Israel’s Palestinian society.
By Samah Salaime (translated from Hebrew by Tal Haran)
The outlawing of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel received some attention from the Israeli media, before it vanished from the news cycle. When the movement did make headlines, however, it was portrayed as religious, militant, nationalistic and male-dominated. The truth is that alongside the women of murabitat, who seek to protect Al-Aqsa Mosque from extremist settlers, the decision to ban the group also outlaws the activity of many women who have done invaluable work within Arab society. And yet no one mentions them. So who are the women of the Islamic movement? They number in the tens of thousands, they are religious, they are diligent activists, and are committed to the cause.
Ever since its founding 30 years ago, the movement’s leadership has recognized the immense potential of recruiting women to its ranks and institutions, opening its doors to them (albeit with a separate entrance) in all supposedly “female” areas: taking care of small children, schooling, charity, humanitarian aid, health and welfare, and the realm most tempting for the young women — higher education.
Sisters, not friends
Some say that the movement’s original plan was to build a kind of “self-service” platform for Arab society, namely by creating social alternatives for all the services that the state had neglected for many years. The Islamic Movement decided to give up the never-ending chase after civil equality. Hopes and dreams were thus transformed into working to create an independent, ideological, national and religious Islamic society.
This project began with a gentle and disciplined army of women, destined by their very gender to raise a new generation of Muslims more conscious of their own religion, more educated and more involved. “How can one do without women?” asked me one of the activists. “We are real partners in our activity. All of us gain from this situation – women, men, our entire society”.
In Islamic activism, apparently, everything is permitted – as long as limits are maintained vis-a-vis right and wrong. There is no prevention of activity. On the contrary, the women I interviewed insisted on explaining to me that women are more accessible, less threatening, less power-hungry, and have little political ambition. In other words, they are not men.
When the movement’s activity began in the early 1970s, it was assumed that a religious movement would exclude women and that it would take a long time for women to fight their way in. This was not the case in the Islamic Movement. Muslim women did not have to fight for their place in public activity, festivals, processions or any social project undertaken by the movement. From its onset, the movement adapted itself to “our sisters,” as they are called. In the nationalist Balad or communist Hadash parties women are party “members.” In Arabic, this sounds improper to religious and conservative ears. The use of the term “sisters” neutralizes the sexual connotation and emphasizes the affiliation and commitment among brothers and sisters in the movement.
In the northern faction of the Islamic Movement the issue of women’s political representation is non-existent, since it boycotts the Knesset elections, men and women alike. The southern faction (“Islam-light”) has not had to deal with the unequivocal demand for female representation until the last elections, when it became part of the Joint List.
In answer to the question “Where are your women?” asked during the election campaign, the movement’s General Secretary Mansour Abas answered: “My sister, Mrs. Aida Touma represents our women!” Aida is Christian, but no religious law prevents women from joining public life, as long as direct contact between women and men is avoided.
Haitham Dahla, 48-years old, from the northern village of Tur’an, is a journalist and editor of the magazine Ashraqq (“Sunrise”), the women’s magazine of the Islamic Movement. “About 12 years ago we started our magazine. We wanted to create a platform for different writing for women. We looked at the two leading Arabic newspapers – Al-Sanara and Kul Al Arab. Their women’s magazines are rather shallow, dealing mostly with fashion, cooking and beauty tips. Is this what Arab women need? We wanted to be like the Hebrew magazine La-Isha (“For Women”), for example.”
“La-Isha?!” I asked, amazed, “This is your model?”
“Yes, La-Isha. We sat down to read and research women’s magazines both internationally and from the Arab world, but the closest and most accessible was La-Isha, which addresses women’s issues with serious and respectable content, as well as interviewing women the world over and including items about women’s initiative and successes. We wanted to show women that they can get away from the shallow, Western world and be educated and conscious.
“We have thousands of subscribers and the magazine reaches every village and town. We are five women on the editing team, and unfortunately we have all been fired now.”
I know the movement’s women’s magazine well — it arrives at my parents’ home every month, colorful and lavish. Naturally you will find no images of women with their hair exposed or sporting fashionable swimwear, but here and there are well-researched items about women in Arab society, such as the first woman physician in a faraway village up north, or a project to fight illiteracy in Arab villages, economic empowerment, health, education and more.
I recall once commenting about there being too many blonde children in one of the editions I leafed through as I sat in my mother’s living room. A month later, my mother showed me the change that had taken place in the visual images, as a result. “They do accept criticism, see?” she said, proudly handing me the magazine.
Haitham tells me that the magazine was founded after a group of women began to write a regular column in Saut Al Haq – “The Voice of the Truth.” “We wrote there voluntarily – commentary, poetry, op-eds and reviews of the women’s movement activities, until we decided to start something else.”
I ask Haitham what the men said, whether they really didn’t censor them and whether the women were able to write whatever they wished. “At first the editor read everything and approved,” she says. “He commented here and there, but never deleted anything. We very quickly learned what the ‘red lines’ are.”
And what are the ‘red lines?’
“No politics. We got the message that politics, government, and Israeli elections should not be addressed. The shekjs said we live in a state of laws, and even if we do not like them, we do not cross the lines.”
Now that you are boycotted, is this not considered politics?
“In recent years we have dealt with many things that I consider political, such as raising awareness of the Nakba, documenting destroyed Palestinian villages and their stories, processions to those villages and learning our history. It is political, but not overly so.
“We have published stories of leading women in the process of reviving Muslim presence at Al-Aqsa Mosque, about the mothers of prisoners, and other fascinating issues that we wanted women to read so that they understand what is happening around us. This we consider consciousness-raising.”
“So do we,” I said.
“Perhaps we were mistaken,” Haitham surprises me, “I think we should have founded an association separate from Al Risala, which is responsible for the movement’s communication and advocacy and until recently published the magazine and was in charge of the movement’s website. Had we separated from them, we may have survived the assault.
“What can I say? It’s heartbreaking. Everything was ruined the day the government made its stupid decision, only to show Israeli Jews that it fights against the Muslims on their behalf. Even security officials were against banning the movement, and yet those insane ministers insisted on closing down this incredible project.
“No one can convince me we did anything wrong; everything was done lawfully. The sheikhs have always insisted that there be no violation of the law. We published reports, all the resolutions of the associative committee have been properly documented, how else would we be allowed to function in this country?”
What’s next? What are you planning?
“God knows. I have no idea. At present I report to the unemployment bureau. One of the employees in the movement who was fired came to the bureau with his paychecks, having regularly received a monthly salary of NIS 9,000, along with a letter informing him that he was out of a job. The bureau chief at Kafr Kana said, ‘What is this? I didn’t know you in the movement work in such impeccable order! And with a salary, too!’ He thought that dozens of workers belonging to the movement’s institutions would volunteer their whole life? People do not realize how many homes have lost their livelihood because of this violent decision.” The she adds, laughing, “Israel should begin to pay us unemployment — why not? We have worked hard and paid taxes for years. Now is the time for the National Insurance Institute to begin doing its job. And Netanyahu would be happy!”
A lesson in free hatred
Sawsan Masarwa is the director of the national Islamic Movement’s women’s organization. She is a charismatic, impressive and articulate woman with an master’s degree, with whom it was a pleasure to talk about the leaders of the Islamic Movement, secular women, and Arab Knesset members.
Sawsan has devoted 25 years of her life to building the Organization of Islamic Women, which the state has decided to destroy in a single day.
“Sometimes I wake up in the morning and persuade myself that it must be a dream. By 7:30 a.m. I’m on the road, showing up at the office, driving to branches throughout the country, participating in women’s events everywhere. Some days would begin with the camp we opened in Kafr Manda, followed by Nazareth to give a lecture, back to Umm Al Fahm for a women’s evening, and then back home after dark. At times I worked like a madwoman 16 hours a day. Now there is nothing — I am not allowed to do anything. I drive for two hours to the protest tent near the city market at the entrance to Umm Al Fahm, which was put up following a large demonstration that took place there. At the tent I welcome guests and busloads and journalists from everywhere. I speak, explain, organize lectures and go back home — this cannot be the end.”
Twelve district coordinators, responsible for 689 counselors who presided over 10,000 children worked under Sawsan — of them 6,000 girls who would also attend religious enrichment classes, study tutorials, literacy, and alternative extracurricular activity. “Thousands of girls are impacted by closing down the organization. No one will be teaching them in the afternoons. An intimate social framework has fallen apart. How shall we explain to a young girl that it is the government’s resolution that she will not learn Arabic or have Koran studies?”
As director of a women’s organization in Lod, I myself have worked with girls and women, and was always critical of the mass recruitment of Muslim girls to Islamic Movement activities. What do they discuss there? And what kind of women will come out of there when chastity and wearing the hijab are conditions for entry? Certainly they offer no sex education or radical feminism, I thought. Sheikh Raed Salah’s deputy, Sheikh Kamal Khatib, had always ridiculed the idea that a “woman has a right to her body.” He was contemptuous of the way we work with girls, and the deep chasm separating our values, which is not likely to disappear anytime soon.
On the other hand I thought of certain girls for whom this religious extracurricular project is the only place where they can hang out, in places such as Ein Mahal or Lakia in the Negev. Whenever the Islamic day camp bus would show up at the stop next to my office, I would always be glad to see girls and their mothers happily on their way to visit Jaffa or Haifa.
Who indeed will fill this void of activity? I am not an advocate of religious coercion and the brainwashing of children. I know about the Islamic Movement’s work with children and youth, and I can debate whether it is right or wrong. But as a secular Arab woman from Lod explained when I asked why she sends her daughter to the movement’s girls’ group: “Let her go and learn something with the other girls. Better than sitting at home with her smartphone. Some values never hurt anyone.”
I wondered what this girl was feeling now, following the government’s violent and unilateral ban of all movement activities. Certainly she must feel the state hates and persecutes her. If you have ever wondered how hostility is nurtured among humans, this is your first lesson: if the enemy feels any kind of achievement — lessen its worth and bury any good feeling. This bitter taste is the fuel for hatred and enmity, certainly among youth, who see the world strictly in black and white.
A gift to commercial firms
Nuha is a high school student in Wadi Ara. She is an outstanding student and dreams of being the first doctor in her family. She took the preparatory course psychometric exams in Umm Al Fahm, along with other students from the Triangle area in northern Israel. The course is subsidized and directed by Iqraa (“Read”), an organization that aspires to direct youth toward academic life, supports undergraduates during their studies, encourages student organizing and community empowerment for young people.
This association is not considered explicitly female, but most of the participants in its courses and tutorials are girls. The decision to outlaw the Islamic Movement occurred right in the midst of the preparatory course December exam. Activities came to a sudden halt, and the boys and girls who had studied for hours every day found themselves alone. “We managed to salvage math practice books,” says Nuha. “The authorities would have thought the book was a Koran.”
Outlawing the movement did not exactly reinforce logical thinking among the future college students. The only one to benefit from this move was a commercial firm, which leapt at the opportunity and offered to complete the course at a steep price. Surprisingly, demand was high. “We have no other choice,” says Nuha. “We go on.”
Speaking of first future woman doctors, Sawsan reminded me that the Islamic Movement opened women’s clinics in several villages 15 years ago, which continue to function to this day. “They put up the buildings and received patients for free when these were in need, and with time signed contracts with health insurance companies that were nowhere to be found in certain areas. Where would you find a female gynecologist in a village such as Mash’had?
“When the first women’s clinic was opened in Kafr Kana, no female Arab doctor was found, so they brought in a Russian doctor. Later our own scholarship student completed her medical studies at Hadassah Hospital.
“Look at the emergency medicinal services created by the movement in Kafr Manda. It served all the villages in the north of the country, at a time when ambulances driven by Jews wouldn’t dare enter Arab neighborhoods. Today this problem does not exist.”
The state has not built a single hospital for its Arab citizens. Thankfully there is Nazareth and its churches, which built hospitals for us 100 years ago. The first Arab hospital has been under construction in Umm Al Fahm for several years now. The first floor (of many) has been opened with the help of donations and charity. Al Nur Hospital will be serving tens of thousands of residents of the Triangle area. Perhaps Nuha, too, will work there some day.
Terrorist activity: Helping orphans
Twenty-three thousand orphans and needy citizens are registered in the database of the Islamic Movement’s Committee for Rescue and Humanitarian Aid. I personally send a regular monthly donation to the project, which aims to provide for one Palestinian orphan in every town or village in the occupied territories. Many people outside the Islamic Movement are committed to this project. At first I was skeptical and wanted to know where the money goes. I was told that if my intentions are good, God will put my donation into His account — no interest required, since that is prohibited by the faith.
This information did not suffice, and I was sent the name of the child from a village near Hebron. He was a fifth grader; I received a photo of the boy and the story of his father’s murder. Around the holidays I would receive a cute thank you letter in his own handwriting. Mahmoud grew up, turned 18, and I was notified that I should replace him. Replace? Why? I am already in contact with Mahmoud — who will look out for him now?
“There are children more needy than him,” was the answer I received, “We found you a six-year-old.”
“Wait, could I have a girl, please?” I asked. “I have never had a girl.”
“It’s too late. We have already informed the boy’s mother that we have found him a caretaker.”
This happened several years ago. A week ago I was told to stop my direct donation, after the state has taken over the bank account of the Movement’s humanitarian committee. Thousands of single-parent families will no longer receive aid, and dozens of the project’s employees will bel left unemployed, along with dozens of volunteers.
Thankfully Netanyahu’s government was wise and brave enough to put an end to this terrorist activity at the last minute. Thousands participated in a demonstration protesting the closure of the Islamic Movement’s humanitarian organization, along with the other institutions, several weeks ago. Women and children marched while holding banners that read “23,000 orphans, NOT terrorists.” They too will soon enough join the swamp of hatred.
Where is Hanin Zoabi?
I got back to dear Sawsan and asked her: “What about the women? You are a leader, you will probably find employment, but what about them?”
“They will probably go back home,” Sawsan answered. “For whoever really has faith, this is the hour of trial. We do not need buildings to reinforce our faith in values, in Islam. We are right, we have nothing to be ashamed of. Quite the contrary — we must be proud. Had we not been strong, no one would have minded us. Today we are forced to hide and keep our heads down, but if we judge by the support we have been getting, we are in good shape. Even those who do not agree with us ideologically understand that the problem is not the Islamic Movement. The problem is fascism, occupation, and force.
“This state attacks everything that is different. Today it is the Islamic Movement, tomorrow it will be Balad and Abnaa Al Balad (a secular group that also boycotts the elections). Why has everyone expressed their solidarity with us? Do you think we agree with the communists or the secular members of the Balad party? Not at all. But the Jews stuck us all in one sack and have decided to beat us.”
What about women’s solidarity? Have Arab women come to you?
“I am very disappointed in the Palestinian women’s organizations. How could all those men have found a way to come and make speeches and shout along with us, and not the women?”
Hanin Zuabi was at the Kafr Kana demonstration.
She was there arm-in-arm with the men marching in the front line so she could be seen. Why not come to the women’s lines marching in back? We need her, not the men.”
It’s her statement that the forces should unite, that women should be in front with the men and not stay back. As a feminist I find it hard to accept marching behind. Separation is okay if it brings more women into the struggle, but let them march up front for once, why not?
“No problem,” Sawsan laughs, “The main thing is for them to come along and support us — Zoabi and Aida Touma-Sliman.
They didn’t show up? Impossible!
“They came to the men’s vigil, but did not show up to meet the women of the movement. This is a form of ignoring and excluding, which is wrong for women leaders. I have a hard time knowing that people come from all over — Jewish women, journalists, and even you show interest — yet the leaders of women’s struggle are absent.”
You have set me a challenge now. I am glad you want the women’s organizations with you — it’s a very important message. Perhaps I will speak with Aida and Hanin and see how they respond? I am almost certain they will want to come.
“If you manage to convince them, I’ll organize plenty of women to be present at the visit.”
If you manage to convince Kamal Khatib to stop giving the Arab women’s organizations a hard time then we have a deal,” I concluded.
Member of Knesset Aida Touma Sliman met with women from the movement; the meeting was very successful.
Member of Knesset Hanin Zoabi responded to our query: “When I participate in demonstrations protesting the outlawing of the Islamic Movement, I support both men and women. I participated in most of the Balad party’s delegations to the protest tent, and even if I sat with the men or led the marches along with them and did not go back to the women’s lines, I do not see this as support of men only but of women as well. I act according to my political principles, even when supporting a movement that is very distant from those principles.”
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.