For Arab Women, Owning a Business Means Social, Economic Advancement

Yoav Stern
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Yoav Stern

Seven years ago, Madiha and Muhammad Haj Yihye moved to a new apartment in Taibeh. They searched for an exterminator before the moved in, but could not find one available. "There was not one exterminator who was able to come; this drove me crazy," says Madiha Haj Yihye. "That was when I told my husband we had to open such a business."

She learned the trade, and received a Health Ministry license authorizing her to carry out extermination work in places including factories. This apparently makes her the first Arab woman exterminator in Israel.

Through her business, Haj Yihye also traps snakes. "It's not at all scary," she says. "Most of the snakes are not poisonous." She has no complaints about the on-the-job dangers, but rather about her Arab clients. "They call us to trap a snake and think it's our hobby, not a service for which one has to pay," she says.

Haj Yihye's company is "environment friendly," and she now employs her husband, who left his agricultural job to work under her. He says he has no problem with his wife being the boss. "Why should I be ashamed of it? You have women in the army and in every place," he said, serving refreshments to the guests and then going to take care of the children.

Madiha is one of a group of female Arab business owners participating in a career advancement course sponsored by the Citizens Accord Forum between Jews and Arabs in Israel, in cooperation with the Industry and Trade Ministry and the Joint Distribution Committee. Anat Reisman-Levy, deputy director of the forum, explains that while most employment-oriented courses focus on training the unemployed or giving incentives to large employers, small businesses - including those run by women - are often overlooked.

Only 17 percent of Arab women work outside the house. "The equation is clear: if there are two breadwinners in one family, the family will be able to break the cycle of poverty," says Reisman-Levy.

All the women participating in the course seek to gain Jewish customers; following the events of 2000, the number of Jewish visitors to Arab communities has plummeted. Lubna Abu-Bakr, whose family just opened a dress shop on the main road of Kafr Kara and owns a family sewing workshop, says she has quite a few Jewish clients who come from the neighboring communities and that she would be happy for more.

Even though she herself dresses traditionally, including a head scarf, Abu Bakr, a design course graduate, creates dresses that are very revealing, intended for both Arab and Jewish women, and sells them at low prices. She says she learned to sew from her mother. "People hear about the quality of our fabrics and they know we are open to new design ideas. We promise to treat our customers well," she says.

While once she had no idea whether her business was making money, whether her prices were right and whether her workers' rights were being met, things are different now. "Everything is organized, because I now have notes about how everything should be run," she says. She took the bookkeeping away from the men in the family, and now keeps close track of the financial side of the business.

Women are entering the business world in response to the completion of the separation fence in the Triangle region. When the fence was completed, residents lost access to markets in the West Bank, which had been an important source of income. For women in traditional Arab Israeli society, who often do not leave their villages, this is a great step forward - but also an added burden. They must mind their enterprises, but cannot neglect their duties at home.

Saida Fanadka, a businesswoman who was born in Umm al-Fahm and now lives in Kafr Kara, says that without the help of her husband's family, she would not have been able to manage her business. "My children, since birth, are used to me working. If they need help with their homework, I send them for tutoring. I clean the house before I leave for work in the morning," she says.

She owns two carpet and furniture stores, in Umm al-Fahm and Kafr Kara, and recently opened a gym in the center of Kafr Kara. "At first, my husband opposed the idea. But when he saw I was serious, he started to accept it," she says.

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