Sewing the Seeds of Change for Israeli Arab Women

It started as a way to pick up some extra cash. But the Jaffa Dolls project has become a symbol of the struggle of Israeli Arab women against the societal constraints that limit their progress.

Akin Ajayi
Akin Ajayi
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Akin Ajayi
Akin Ajayi

Cheerful and colorful, the Jaffa Dolls may seem an unlikely tool for promoting social justice. To be fair, they were initially conceived merely as a means toward an end. “Because they can be made between other commitments, they give a great opportunity for our women to make money in their spare time,” explains Safa Younes.

Younes is director of the Jaffa-based NGO Arous Elbahar, and the handmade creations are the product of the Jaffa Dolls project, one of the organization’s social emancipation programs. A vivid melange of colors topped off with a smile, the dolls are popular with design outlets and museum shops, and they provide a very visible calling card for the organization’s work, which is aimed at promoting the social and economic interests of Arab women in Jaffa. But the handicrafts also embody what might seem a paradox: The fluffy, unthreatening dolls can brighten up a room or a mood, but what lasting impact can they have on the lives of marginalized women?

Established in 2007, Arous Elbahar ‏(“Bride of the Sea” in Arabic‏) aims “to empower Arab women in Jaffa both personally and economically, while promoting their status and their active involvement in the job market and the community.”

The difficulties faced by Israel’s minority populations − which include restricted social mobility, educational prospects and institutional discrimination, deliberate or not − are well documented, as are initiatives intended to address these issues. The real challenge, one might argue, is in shaping solutions from within communities rather than from outside. In this respect, Arous Elbahar claims to have an advantage, using the personal perspective of its principals to work through interconnected problems.

The complexity of everyday life for Arab-Israeli women, steeped as it is in the complications of class, religion and location, is often lost within broad generalizations of class and culture. What is obvious, though, is that they face ingrained chauvinism on two fronts: gender and ethnicity. “You can think of it as double discrimination,” says the Jaffa-born Younes, a social worker by training. “There is the matter of being a woman in a patriarchal society. But then, there is also the matter of being a Palestinian in Israel.”

What Younes frames as the patriarchal bent of Jaffa’s Arab communities ‏(both Christian and Muslim‏) − she is careful to speak from personal knowledge − is limiting in its effects. Early marriage, homemaking responsibilities and limited skills and qualifications add up to dependency and the lack of true autonomy. Beyond that, opportunities for advancement in the relatively depressed Jaffa are limited. Even with both the will and the support to challenge the orthodoxy, the broader social context − think of it as the glass ceiling that Arab citizens struggle to break through − restricts social mobility. The notion that one might look further afield for work, for instance, is largely illusory.

“Even Tel Aviv is like another city,” Younes says, despite the fact that it and Jaffa form a joint municipality. “It is safer in Jaffa. But here, opportunities simply do not exist.”

When Arous Elbahar was founded, the idea was as much to encourage feminist solidarity as to work out simple solutions for complicated problems. It started with a computer class and a weekly women’s club, the latter including workshops and lectures on matters as diverse as women’s rights and financial planning. In essence, it encouraged the development of a space where the personal indeed was the political: Change would only come when Jaffa’s women began to articulate their experiences and to think about what they could do to improve them.

Myasser Seri is a good example. Now in her 50s, Seri found as a teenager that she had a passion for cookery. Although she lacked formal training in catering, she found work and personal satisfaction with a leading food company, demonstrating its products in shopping malls. In middle age, she drew closer to her Muslim faith and started to wear a headdress; suddenly, work opportunities in the Jewish sector dried up, her social circle constricted. “People looked differently at me on buses, in shops, on the street,” she recalls. “I felt apart, alone.”

She first attended Arous Elbahar’s women’s club out of a sense of politeness. “Younes had invited me over and over for a year,” she says. “Not going had started to seem rude.” Seri was surprised and delighted to discover a kinship with other participants, not only in the challenges they faced as Arab women, but also in the determination to find a different path to social and economic autonomy.

How did this feel? “Nice,” she says simply, but a smile suggests more. Not surprisingly, given her background, Seri found her new path through cookery; the circumstances that led to this were unexpected, though. Members of the women’s club took turns providing refreshments for meetings. When Seri’s turn came, her selection of homemade, traditional delicacies prompted interested comment. After explaining the origins of each dish, she discovered that the group members were interested not just in the recipes, but also the personal stories about her life that were interwoven unconsciously into her narratives about cookery; these were seen to be as much a part of the preparation as the ingredients.

Seri now runs a course that she developed in partnership with Arous Elbahar: “Myasser Sadnaout Bishul” ‏(Myasser’s Cooking Workshops‏), which combines cookery and storytelling. It has a demystifying effect, she believes, creating a bridge between their community and the mainstream, between people often blocked in everyday life by stereotypes and unthinking prejudice.

Mentoring schemes

From modest beginnings, Arous Elbahar has grown in ambition and scope. Operating on an annual budget of NIS 350 000, made up in part of grants from the European Union, the New Israel Fund, the Global Fund for Women and the Kathryn Aymes Foundation, with the rest raised through its own activities, its work is split between two areas: economic and community empowerment. The former includes a career development program and mentoring schemes, which match talent with prospective employers. An activism group runs within the auspices of the latter to encourage female community leadership, with a women’s education group promoting higher education.

Overturning the tradition of ingrained assumptions is a principal objective of Arous Elbahar. But can a women’s-only organization effectively challenge the orthodoxy? Younes points out that younger men in Jaffa are relinquishing the expectations of the older generations, and are more comfortable with the notion of women working, earning and asserting greater control of their lives. But for the moment, she argues, they must concentrate on working with women and feminist empowerment. “We can only build from a strong base,” she says.

This outlook has been a strength in other areas, though. Gender solidarity does trump the factionalism inherent elsewhere in Jewish-Arab relationships. A monthly Arab and Jewish women’s club, set up and facilitated by Arous Elbahar, for example, creates the context for women across the ethnic divide in Jaffa to know one another. An Arabic program for Jewish women offers as much a context for familiarity with Arab language and culture as an introduction to the language itself.

Younes points out that feminism can create a space that allows for partnerships on a broader scale. She refers specifically to Ahoti ‏(“My Sister,” in Hebrew‏) a feminist organization for Mizrahi women ‏(i.e., of Middle Eastern Jewish origin‏), with which Arous Elbahar has convened joint workshops. “The experience of an Arab feminist will differ from that of a Jewish feminist,” Younes elaborates, “but we do share the desire to fight for women’s rights.”

But it may be that Arous Elbahar’s effectiveness can best be gauged by the Jaffa Dolls initiative. The concept is that they allow women − up to 50 participate in activities of the NGO during any given week − the chance to monetize traditional skills in their own time. Up to 100 are made a month, and are sold across a number of museum shops and design retail outlets, in Israel and abroad. The promotional material makes much of the individuality involved in the creative process, and of how the handiwork embodies the optimism of their creators. It is a compelling story. But do the dolls actually make a difference, or are they merely symbolic in their meaning, the encapsulation of a user-friendly narrative that serves to simplify complicated issues?

“Twenty percent of our operational budget comes from the sale of the dolls,” Younes replies simply. “We didn’t intend for the dolls to become a symbol of the organization, we are happy it has happened this way, that they prompt people to ask questions about us. But it was first of all a pragmatic way for our women to earn an income.” A simple pragmatic solution trumps catchy narrative each time, one could argue.

Even with both the will and the support to challenge the broader social context - think of it as the glass ceiling that Arab citizens struggle to break through - restricts social mobility.
"We didn't intend for the dolls to become a symbol of the organization," says Safa Younes about the Jaffa Dolls project, but they have succesded in making people ask questions.Credit: Yifat Kidmi Aroati
Even with both the will and the support to challenge the broader social context - think of it as the glass ceiling that Arab citizens struggle to break through - restricts social mobility.

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