'Being a Druze Divorcee Is Worse Than Being a Widow'

Hiham Arayda, 38, sat in her large house overlooking the Carmel forests this week and considered with some satisfaction the past dozen years of her life - 12 years since her divorce. Her eyes filled with tears when she told about those years. She was not ready to tell everything. But she is proud of her decision: to leave the house, even though she left behind four children, the youngest four months old and the oldest four years of age.

"I thought that at first I would leave and then I would fight for them. I could not suffer any longer," she said. Druze women seeking a divorce, she says, find themselves trapped, precisely as she did 12 years ago.

Her escape, it turned out, was a lot easier than she had thought it would be. She immediately informed her parents that she was returning home "so no one would say that it was an affair with another man," she explains.

She then informed the relevant social services and began her struggle for her children, which lasted several months: Ten days after she left, her brothers-in-law brought the baby, a month and a half later, her two daughters followed and four months later, with police help, her eldest, her son, joined her.

From that point on her own struggle began: for housing, work, education for the children. The family helped her to build a home on their land.

For the past 12 years, Arayda has been publicly active for the rights of divorced Druze women. She will be one of the key speakers during a seminar on this subject that will be held today at the Israel Bar Association office in Haifa. The seminar is organized with the cooperation of the Women Lawyers for Social Justice association, the Law School at Haifa University and Kayan, a Haifa organization promoting the rights of a civil society.

In recent years Arayda has worked as a volunteer in helping other women, in addition to her full-time job. She says that it is always worth trying to save the marriage, but if there is no choice, there is another way.

The standard notion in Druze society is that it is the woman's responsibility to find a way to maintain the family unit.

"To live as a divorced woman is worse than being a widow, who is at least regarded with some pity. A married woman is sometimes expected to suffer violence in order to preserve the family, and most of all not to divorce," she says.

Moreover, women who are divorced normally have to leave the home. The reason for this is that often the couple lives close to the husband's family. According to custom, Arayda explains, the divorced couple cannot see each other. "The woman must always leave," she says.

"The villages today are large, and lack public transportation, employment and public housing. The problems for a divorced woman in the village are greater than for women in the city, but they have no possibility of leaving. That's all they need," Arayda said with a bitter laugh.

Regarding religious law and its relation to Israeli law, attorney Samy Hir, from the village of Yasif, who specializes in family law explains: A child should live with his mother so long as he needs her.

"The outlook is that a boy must become a man, and this means he has to work. A preadolescent girl needs to be under her father's aegis," he explains.