She is a trailblazing Arab feminist, a leading activist in the Israeli Communist party. He is the son of a former prime minister, a long-standing member of Israel’s right-wing Likud and a staunch opponent of Palestinian statehood.
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Yet as Aida Touma-Suliman has discovered in her first Knesset term, politics does make for strange bedfellows. And try as she might, she can hardly contain her admiration for the one Israeli lawmaker, a man no less, who was first to volunteer for membership in the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality she now chairs. He happens to be Benny Begin, a former cabinet minister whose father, Menachem Begin, founded the party and led it to its first election victory.
“Benny Begin is one of the few who shows up regularly, and he always comes well prepared,” notes Touma-Suliman. “In fact,” she adds with a chuckle, “he likes to say that he’s my best student.”
Had she been asked a few years ago, acknowledges Touma-Suliman, she would not, in her wildest dreams, have imagined she could have anything to discuss with the likes of this diehard Likudnik. “That doesn’t mean I agree with Benny Begin on everything today,” she remarks, “but at least there are things we can talk about.”
Touma-Suliman, a member of the newly formed Joint Arab List, has made history by becoming the first Arab woman to head an Israeli parliamentary committee. She is also the first Arab member of a non-Zionist party to fill such a role. (Raleb Majadele, of the Labor party, had previously headed the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee.)
With so little parliamentary experience under her belt, she says she was both stunned and delighted to land the appointment. Yet she knows not to make that big a deal of it. “Because we’re the third largest party in the Knesset today, they had to give us one of the committees,” she says. “But they probably don’t consider it a very important committee – otherwise they wouldn’t have given it to the Joint List or to an Arab woman.”
Touma-Suliman may be a newly minted parliamentarian, but she is hardly a stranger to the Knesset, having worked for years in politics, civil society organizations and journalism. “I know a lot more about how things work here than many of the other new MKs,” she notes.
In 1992, Touma-Suliman founded the Arab feminist group Women Against Violence and served as its executive director until just recently. After joining the Israeli Communist party in the early 1990s, she was appointed editor-in-chief of Al-Ittihad, its Arabic-language newspaper based in Haifa. Her party, Hadash, was part of the Joint Arab List that formed before the last elections in March. Born in Nazareth, the 51-year-old widow and mother of two grown daughters lives today in the northern coastal city of Acre.
Though barely a few months into her new job as head of the Knesset gender equality committee, Touma-Suliman is already charting a new and quite radical course. If, in the past, the committee’s agenda was driven by the needs of “privileged middle- and upper-middle class Ashkenazi women ” – as she defines them – that is no longer the case. Under Touma-Suliman’s leadership, the focus has shifted from issues like maternity leave and the status of women in academia and high-tech to the plight of poor and oppressed women from the margins of Israeli society – whether they be Arab, ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopian or Mizrahi.
“Everyone in the country is up in arms about the El Al stewardesses who were forced to wear high heels. Obviously I’m going to support them, because I’m going to support all people who are oppressed, whether they be women or men. But is this really where we want to be putting all our attention right now?” she asks. “What about the Haredi kindergarten teachers who are exploited at work and not paid as they should be? What about the Bedouin women in unrecognized villages whose homes are being demolished and don’t have a roof over their heads? I want to make our priority those women who don’t have the knowledge and power to articulate their problems or to resist oppression.”
It is not by coincidence that Touma-Suliman mentions ultra-Orthodox Jewish women. Since assuming her new position, she has taken a particular interest in their plight and has already invited many to appear before her committee. When she talks of Israel’s most oppressed groups, she also tends to lump them together with Arab women.
Do you see a sort of sisterhood emerging between the two groups?
“I don’t like that term because it’s often been used to silence different voices inside the feminist movement. Besides that, we don’t really know much about each other. Arab women don’t know much about Haredi women, and Haredi women don’t know much about Arab women. So rather than talk about a sisterhood, I’d rather talk about mutual interests and mutual oppression.”
Another top priority for Touma-Suliman is addressing problems that arise from marriage and divorce law in the country. In Israel, marriage and divorce are under the jurisdiction of the relevant religious authorities. Jewish couples, for example, can only get divorced through a rabbinical court. According to Jewish religious law, if a man refuses to divorce his wife, she cannot get out of the marriage. The plight of such woman has been a major focus of women’s rights organizations in Israel over the years. Does Touma-Suliman see herself taking on this very Jewish-specific cause? “If they would like me to represent them in this struggle, that would be an honor,” she says. “And if they want me to support it, I obviously would take the lead in that.”
Asked if she believes any important legislative initiatives will emerge from the current Knesset, considering its political and religious bent, Touma-Suliman responds: “Sometimes when the situation is so bad, even small achievements are big things. In that case, even defending, stopping or postponing certain types of legislation is a great achievement.”