The Price of Attending College: Female Arab Students in Israel Encounter Harassment, Threats

The stabbing of a student at a university in Jenin highlights the dangers for women who maneuver between the conservative society at home and the liberal atmosphere on campus

Women walk on campus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem on the first day of the school year, October 22, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

An Israeli-Arab woman was critically wounded after being stabbed last week in the West Bank city of Jenin, near the campus of the Arab American University, where she is a student. The man suspected of stabbing her is a relative who arrived to the Palestinian city that day from her family’s hometown in northern Israel.

Relatives said that the stabbing was prompted by rumors and gossip about the young woman, which spread from the student dorms in Jenin to their small community.

The phenomenon is painfully familiar to female Arab students, both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories, many of whom pay a high price for their studies when men tell – or threaten to tell – their families about their improper behavior, even if it’s fabricated.

Beside the damage this does to their reputations, it can lead to physically harmed. The women have to cope not only with the specter of rumors against them but the fear they won’t be able to disprove them. According to some experts, many female Arab students are under such intense pressure that some consider stopping their studies.

M., an Arab student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva, says that she comes from a liberal home. But M. says she fears that her own more open attitudes reinforce the prejudices among some male Arab students. Some of them see it as a license to harass her, she says, and she has suffered from harassment for months, including “threats and even an attempt at blackmail. They threatened that they would post photoshopped pictures of me in which my head is pasted onto a nude photo.”

Attorney Abir Bachar.
Abdullah Shamma

M. turned to the police and complained about the student who had threatened her. “But that didn’t help,” she said. “What did help was the help I received all along from my parents and friends.” But despite the support, M., like other female Arab students, agreed to speak to Haaretz only on condition of anonymity. She says that she knows other students who regularly suffer from similar threats and harassment.

A recent study of 160 female students in Israeli universities and colleges by Zeevik Greenberg and Dafna Sagiv-Reiss of Tel-Hai Academic College helps shed light on the many difficulties these women face, especially those who experience life on the seam between the largely conservative patriarchal societies where they grew up and the more open and liberal academic world where they study.

According to the study, these students struggle with the attitudes they encounter among some of their male Arab counterparts, and the sense of an unequal balance of power. “The male students do whatever they feel like, there’s nobody to restrict them – on the contrary,” said one of the women interviewed for the study. “The female Arab student is restricted in leaving home and in her behavior.” Female Arab students are exposed to intimidation, threats and pressure that originates in the men’s ability to report on their behavior and lifestyle to the extended family that has remained in their home villages and towns.

Greenberg argues that “the threat, the intimidation and the silencing used against female students are the male students’ way of preserving their gender status and power in the traditional society, and opposing the processes of change it is undergoing.” He adds that the traditional patriarchal structure “assumes additional significance when this violent male control affects [the women’s] daily behavior and emphasizes values of modesty and tradition and preserving the family honor.”

“Behavior that is considered ‘reckless’ is subject to external supervision and has a strong public dimension,” he says. “The woman’s good name and that of others who are connected to her, like relatives, are one and the same. The women’s fear is not necessarily due to their behavior, but because they are afraid that false information will be spread about them, which they have no way of proving is false.”

The pressure enables the male students to control the lives of the female students with no opposition, says Greenberg, adding that “some of the female students are living in great distress, in an intolerable system of pressure” that leads some of the women who were interviewed for the study to think about discontinuing their studies.

However, he explains that the limitations change depending on what kind of background the student comes from. “In well-to-do secular families the limitations are more flexible and permissive, and more liberated behavior may be considered unusual but also reversible and temporary, whereas for a student from a family in distress, the behavior is seen as an irreversible personality trait that merits individual and collective punishment.”

A double life

Attorney Abir Bachar, a feminist activist who herself is Arab Israeli and who has also represented victims of sexual assault, agrees with the conclusions of the study. She says that Arab women in the public space always look to see if an acquaintance or someone from the village is in the neighborhood, and censor their behavior: “One will refrain from smoking and another will decide not to attend an event in certain clothing and a third won’t sit with a guy in public, so that it won’t be reported to her family.”

There are also issues with living away from home. She completed her studies at the University of Haifa in 2001, and her father allowed her to live away from home on condition that she live in a convent, “because he knew that there’s supervision there and they lock the room at 8:30 P.M. And I come from a relatively less conservative home. Others leave home to study and feel that life is on hold. Every report that reaches the family about any behavior when you’re living alone in a rented apartment is seen differently than that same report is seen when you’re living with your parents.”

Bachar says that the claim that the university is a liberating place and women who come from a conservative place feel more comfortable there is in many cases an illusion. “It’s a place where you come with all the restrictions from home and try to prove to everyone that you didn’t disappoint them, and that even when you lived alone, you observed the rules. In the best case, when the women decide to live as they see fit, they are simply forced to lie on the outside and behave according to the accepted codes, when in fact they rebel against the codes and conduct their lifestyle as they wish, but with quite strict censorship. This double life is exhausting, because you’ll always feel that you’re hiding something – as though you committed a crime.”

B., a female student in a college in the north of Israel, says that many students lead a double life: At home they obey the conservative rules and at the university, “You wouldn’t know it’s the same girl.” She doesn’t think it’s a question of religious observance but sees a connection to the use of the social networks. In her opinion, “The networks are dangerous. There’s a lot of fraud, in terms of names, too. There are girls who open profiles with fake names because of fear. But I don’t think that’s unique to our society.”

The network of social supervision of Arab women on campus, outside their family circles, the village or the neighborhood, is becoming more sophisticated in the hands of the younger generation – the self-appointed guardians at the gate, says Samah Salima Aghbariya of Na’am, an organization that combats violence against Arab women. She says that male Arab students are accumulating the power of supervision over young women, who are supposed to be grateful that they “allowed” her to study or to live away from home. This balance of power emboldens the men, who quickly identify an opportunity to exploit and harm the female students.

“The female Arab students have been bringing about a revolution in the academic world in recent years, and their number is steadily growing,” explains MK Yousef Jabareen of the Joint List, a member of the Knesset Education Committee and a researcher of Arab society. “Higher education in the universities in Jordan and the areas of the Palestinian Authority have also expanded the options in light of the supportive social atmosphere in an Arab environment. This success of the female students will have positive consequences on Arab society in the near future, in terms of the scope of the integration of young Arab women and their contribution to society and the economy.”

Jabareen believes that the social pressure described in the study is “a product of the tension that characterizes processes of social change, and of changes in the social balance of power between men and women in Arab society. This pressure is liable to become exacerbated as young Arab women assume positions of power and demonstrate independence, and that’s why it’s important to give them as much social support as necessary in light of the attempts to cause them to regress.”

But the reason for creating the rumors is not always clear. Several of the students in the study also connected the false rumors about them to their academic success. One of them says that she suffered harassment from other women who are studying in a less prestigious track. “It’s due to envy,” she says.