If you ask an Arab citizen of Israel what characterizes the election campaign in Arab municipalities, the typical answer is "violence, tribalism and lots of mud-slinging and hate-mongering that repeat every five years." This can explain the absence of young people, intellectuals and successful people in general as candidates in the local elections. That’s doubly true for women.
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But the campaign in the run-up to the October 22 local elections will be largely remembered by the big presence of Arab women, who have shunned tradition and become politically active. The Women’s Coalition, the Arab women’s umbrella group, predicts a 150 percent increase in the number of Arab women on local councils.
Last week the Women's Coalition reported that in Arab municipalities, 165 female candidates are vying for seats; 92 of them are in the first five spots on their party slates. A woman is vying to become mayor of Nazareth – MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad). Since 1948, only one woman has headed an Arab municipality – Violette Khoury of Kafr Yasif was chosen in 1972 by the local council.
Two women will lead party slates in Sakhnin and Kafr Qasem. In other councils, 19 women are second on their party lists, 24 are third, 23 are fourth and 14 are fifth. Thirty-four female Arab candidates live in mixed-population towns.
The female candidates are pushing similar platforms; they seek to address the problems that concern women in the Arab community – employment, domestic violence, rights, education and culture.
The new trend appears to cross regional boundaries, though for the most part it can be seen in cities such as Nazareth, Kafr Qasem, Sakhnin, Tira and Tamra, and two Druze towns, Daliat al-Carmel and Isfiya. In Ramle and Lod, Arab women are on party slates for the first time.
Amal Sultani, a teacher with 20 years’ experience and an activist for women's rights, is second on an independent candidate list for the Tira local council. She admits the task isn't so simple.
"We have to break a few conventions,” she says. “I hope I'll get into the council, but regardless of the outcome, our presence in Tira as active women has already been felt."
'Everyone is courting the female vote'
Sultani is part of an independent party unaffiliated with the three candidates for the mayor's office. In Tira, the election is based on a clear clan division. "Following my decision, other lists have included women, which wasn't an obvious step," adds Sultani.
Meanwhile, Nadra Mansour, a bank clerk, is second on a party list unaffiliated with her clan’s candidate. "There's a lot of pressure, but that won't prevent me from continuing on the path I believe in," says Mansour, adding she was surprised to find that "everyone is courting the female vote. I think we can effect change. Even if the change is small for women, it will mean progress after generations in which women have not been represented in the municipalities."
Aida Toma-Suliman from the organization Women against Violence says all studies in recent years show a sharply increased awareness of the need to support women in the Arab community, and equality in general. This awareness has grown among both women and men; Toma-Suliman says that in recent months, tens of thousands of people have been exposed to the Women's Coalition campaign and have signed petitions.
In the 2009 Knesset election, Balad reserved a seat for a woman, which enabled Zoabi to gain a Knesset seat. This year, Hadash has reserved its fifth slot for a woman, and it has been agreed that Nabila Espanioly will become a Hadash MK next year.
Even though no woman is running for mayor outside Nazareth, many are involved. Mirada Hassoun, a 53-year-old widow from Daliat al-Carmel, is all but guaranteed a seat on the local council. Hassoun notes that breaking down boundaries in a traditional society such as the Druze community isn’t easy.
“I've been socially active for many years, so people know me. Anyone who seeks to contend in this field, whether a man or a woman, has to show a record of achievements,” she says. “For a woman, personal achievement is not enough; she must overcome additional obstacles."
Like Hassoun, the other candidates aren't content with running a passive campaign. They organize women’s meetings and visits with voters in general.