Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz appears to have been unaware of some important facts when he said at a recent conference on discrimination that Arab society in Israel is partially responsible for the low levels of employment for Arab women.
Nearly 11,000 Arab women with college degrees are unemployed, according to a study carried out by Yaser Awad of Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, on Arab women in the employment market. Some 58 percent of these unemployed women place the blame for this on a shortage of work, while only 29 percent attribute it to cultural reasons, according to a study conducted by Dr. Yousef Jabareen of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology.
To underscore Steinitz's point, the finance minister added that the low rate of participation of Arab women in the labor market was characteristic of societies in Arab countries. But here too, he was not being precise.
The number of Arab women employed in Israel is very low compared to the total number of women who are employed in Israel - 21.1 percent compared with 51.3 percent. On the other hand, the rate of female employment in Saudi Arabia and Oman - two countries generally considered to have low female employment rates - is 29 percent and 27 percent, respectively. The rate in Morocco is 41.9 percent, and as high as 63.3 percent in Mauritania.
These figures are inconsistent with Steinitz's explanations about the "cultural obstacles, traditional frameworks and the belief that Arab women have to remain in their hometowns" that he says "hold back this population's integration in the work force."
It is not difficult to find strong-willed and capable women among the large number of unemployed Arab college graduates whose very decision to leave the house to pursue their studies, with the intention of working in one profession or another, shatter the minister's claims of "cultural" and "traditional" barriers to employment. On the other hand, the poor infrastructure and almost total absence of public transit to and from the Arab villages play a central role in the women's social exclusion and have a negative effect on their ability - though not their desire - to join the work force.
A 2007 survey by the Kayan feminist organization for Arab women in Israel found that the public transit to and from 11 Arab communities in the Galilee and the Triangle region was less developed than the transportation in other parts of the country. The buses do not usually enter the Arab villages, forcing passengers to get on and off the bus at junctions leading to the villages. In addition, the buses only come in the early morning and at the end of the work day. For the most part, the buses run on main thoroughfares and through Jewish towns, and there is only one bus that serves a number of Arab villages, making the ride slow and tedious.
To this must be added the shortage of government employment assistance - there are only 14 Employment Service branches in Arab communities - and the lack of suitable employment training programs. Other factors that contribute to the low employment rate include the shortage of day-care centers in Arab towns (of 1,600 day-care centers for children under 3 that receive government assistance, only 25 operate in Arab communities) and government-supported industrial zones (only 3.2 percent are in Arab areas). In addition, Arab women constitute a mere 3 percent of civil servants, even though the civil service is the largest employer of women in Israel.
The so-called social characteristics the finance minister spoke about therefore only partially explain the low participation rate of Arab women in the work force. The minister has placed the burden of proof on the Arab women while he frees his ministry and the government of all responsibility and ignores the disparity in government assistance cited here, which stems from a government policy of deliberate and consistent discrimination against Arab citizens.
Instead of blaming Arab society and women, the finance minister would do better to be aware of the shortcomings of previous governments and invest effort in setting up programs to encourage employment among Arab women; let him leave the social barriers to us.
The writer is the coordinator of the Gender Studies Project at Mada al-Carmel, the Arab Center for Applied Social Research, in Haifa.
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