At last week’s rally protesting violence against women, two MCs stood on the central stage directing the event– one a Hebrew speaker and the other an Arabic speaker. The back and forth between the two was accepted as natural was a remark by the Arabic speaker about “12 Palestinian women who were murdered since the start of the year.”
Equally natural was the fact that the crowd in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square had a noticeable presence of Arab women, including devout ones in traditional garb. Anyone present at the rally couldn’t help but feel the change in the air: Arab women holding their heads up high – and not just young, modern ones, but women from all sectors of Israeli Arab society.
Half of the women killed in Israel this year were Israeli Arabs even though they make up just 20% of the country’s population. The death of Yara Ayoub, a 16-year-old Israeli Arab, was one of two murders that sparked the protests.
As Naila Awwad, director of the Association of Women Against Violence, said: “The proportion of Arab women murdered is double their share of the population. Ten of the 24 women murdered this year were Arabs.”
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A figure like that makes it difficult to talk about an improvement in the status of Israeli Arab women. Yet it is impossible not to notice what is happening: Middle class Arab women are making huge strides, and the numbers show just how big those changes are.
The most prominent of those numbers, according to the yearbook of the Van Leer Institute, is the sharp decline in the birthrate for Arab women. The number of births per woman fell from 4.3 in 2001 to 3.1 in 2013, narrowing the gap with Jewish women.
Not counting Haredi women, who have a very high birthrate, other Jewish women have on average 2.6 children. Discounting Bedouin women, with their very high birthrate, the average for Arab women in Israel is now less than three. In the Galilee region, the rate is the same 2.6 as for it is for non-Haredi Jewish women.
The decline in the birthrate reflects the rise of the Israeli Arab middle class and the emergence of large numbers of young couples who think in terms of career and standard of living. They want to obtain an education, work at an interesting and well-paying job, own their own home and have fewer children.
One result has been the rise in the average age at which Arab women marry. Today it is 22 – four years younger than the average for non-Haredi Jewish women. The divorce rate is also rising and is approaching the Jewish rate. The percentage of Israeli Arab women over age 30 who have chosen to remain single has risen to 12%.
The changes Israeli Arab women have undergone are nothing short of a social revolution.
Hadas Fuchs, a research at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, found in her research published this year that the biggest change of all for Arab women in the workplace has been in education: 15% of all students in Israeli higher education are Arab women, much larger than their share of the country’s population.
They are pursuing degrees at a rate 50% higher than the overall population and are disproportionately responsible for the doubling of the number of Arab students in higher education since the year 2000.
Seventy percent of Arabs holding bachelor’s degrees are women; among Jews, women account for 60%.
The education revolution extends to the high school level where girls dominate the matriculation (bagrut) exams among Arab students in engineering and science. The percentage of girls studying traditionally male pursuits in science in Arab high schools is dizzying: In computer sciences they account for 52% of all students, in electronics 55% and in mathematics 59%. In chemistry they account for no fewer than 70% of all Arab high school students in the field
Not everything is rosy: Their test scores on international exams and the psychometric exam for university entrance are still lower than for Jewish students of both sexes.
Moreover, Arab girls don’t pursue sciences after high school, opting for more traditionally female areas of study, such as teaching and paramedical studies. The rate of Arab women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) at university level is very low, which means they won’t be entering Israel’s high-tech sector in huge numbers.
Even so, employment rates for Arab women, which have traditionally been very low, have broken through the 40% barrier this year for the first time ever. While that is still less than half the 82% rate for Jewish women, it represents a five percentage point increase in just one year.
In the year 2001, the labor force participation rate for Israeli Arab women was just about 20%.
That one-year increase is so enormous that it is hard to believe it’s true. But Fuchs predicted it a year earlier, based on the figures she had collected on women’s levels of education.
The impact of a wise and important government policy is also evident here: Resolution 922, which has allocated 10 billion shekels ($2.7 billion) to the Arab society, has created wonders for Israeli society, Jews and Arabs alike.
Iman Seif, who until recently was head of the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab, Druze and Circassian Sectors at the Social Equality Ministry, says the revolution is due to a combination of government policy and the increasing willingness of Arab women to pursue careers.
“Jews think of Arab women as traditional and fearful of leaving their villages to work. But in the Triangle region [of the Lower Galilee] there are hundreds of women who studied teaching but can’t find jobs in local schools. So every morning they get up at 5 and travel to the Negev to teach at Bedouin schools. These aren’t women afraid to leave the village,” he said.
The improvement in the status of Arab women comes with dangers. In traditional Bedouin society in the Negev, where women are far more educated than men, the gender gap has created social tensions. Some warn that it may disrupt traditional society.
The high homicide rate among Arab women may reflect some of those tensions. But last week’s rally shows that Arab women won’t be cowed. Indeed, they are the ones now leading Israeli Arab society forward economically and socially. The events at Rabin Square have made that clear.