On Sunday, in a 7:1 decision, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned efforts by the far right Otzma Yehudit party to disqualify Ibtisam Mara'ana from running in the upcoming national elections.
Mara'ana held the seventh position on the Labor party ticket in the coveted “Arab” spot until Israel’s Central Election Committee voted on 17th February to ban her from standing in the March 23 election.
Candidates can be disqualified for denying the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, inciting racial hatred or supporting an armed struggle against the State of Israel.
Otzma Yehudit accused Mara’ana of inciting the murder of IDF soldiers for refusing to observe the two-minute siren on Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and terror victims – based on a Facebook post she wrote in 2012, reflecting on what it was like to drive on when the country stood still. She has since apologized on social media, and noted that that she now stands for the Memorial Day siren.
Even before the vote, Jalal Bana, writing for Israel Hayom, accused her of entering politics without "an established record of public advocacy," declaring she held little attraction for Arab voters.
While an attack from the racist far right on an Arab left-of-center candidate is business as usual in today’s Israel, the extent of the backlash against Mara’ana may have less to do with her platform and more to do with her gender. In 2009, Haaretz considered her one of the ten most influential women in Israel for her work as an award-winning documentary filmmaker and activist.
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Mara’ana’s films explore the lives of Arab women in both Israel and in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza. They have critically examined the double bind that Palestinian women experience in Israeli society, where they are victims of both the occupation, and of patriarchal values within Palestinian society.
This perspective culminated in two award-winning films. In her 2007 film, "Three Times Divorced" (2007), Khitam, a Gaza-born Palestinian woman has an arranged marriage with a Bedouin from Israel. She bears him six children, but after experiencing domestic violence and abuse, she wants to leave, only to discover that since her husband never secured an Israeli I.D. for her, she has no official standing or citizenship recognized by the Israeli government or police.
Thanks to a draconian law passed in 2002, as a Palestinian married to an Israeli, she has no chance of winning legal status or citizenship in Israel. If she divorces him, she loses her right to stay in Israel – and thus becomes ineligible for any services available for Israel’s battered women – as well as custody and access to her children.
Mara'ana’s documentary captures the impossibility of life for a woman who is forced to return to her abusive husband again and again because she has nowhere else to go.
In her later documentary, "Lady Kul El Arab" (2008), she follows Angelina Fares, a Druze model forced to withdraw from competing in the Miss Israel beauty pageant due to a murder plot hatched by her uncles. Here, Mara'ana returns to the theme of gender-based violence inside the Arab community.
This particular story became far more sinister when Fares’ sister Jamila, known as Maya, was murdered in a so-called "honor killing" in 2011.
Mara’ana, a friend of the family, served as its spokesperson in the wake of the murder, engaging with the press and speaking against the apathy not only of the Israeli authorities but also of the Palestinian authorities, who condone violence against women when it is framed as a "legitimate" defense of family honor. She spoke out publicly against the failure to investigate this kind of gendered violence, and to hold men accountable.
These documentaries, her role in them as a filmmaker and then advocate for the women in the Fares family, are central to Mara'ana’s life and career. They speak to her role as an activist on behalf of women, and her call for structural change through political and legal measures.
For all women in Israel, whether Arab or Jew, the experience of gender-based violence, and the chains imposed on women by the monopoly of male-led religious courts on issues of marriage and divorce, continue to infringe on women’s human rights.
Mara'ana has a strong history of advocacy on these issues. She shows that women’s domestic situation, their experiences of violence and their oppression by patriarchal systems must be examined independently from the all-encompassing umbrella of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Mara'ana is explicit in recognizing the ways in which Palestinian men have used the conflict as a way to silence Palestinian women protesting against their treatment by powerful men closer to home.
Responding to the tragedy of her friend Maya’s death in an interview with Haaretz shortly after the funeral, Mara'ana talked about the need for a form of subversion: to prevent the overarching Palestinian national narrative obliterating other injustices and power asymmetries such as violence against women.
She offered a powerful internal critique of grassroots patriarchal institutions. Drawing on the ways the Israeli authorities punish terrorists and their families for attacks, often by demolishing their homes, she calls for similar treatment for those who commit violent acts against women:
"I despise this [Arab] leadership and the traditions…there is room for taking stronger steps. I am in favor of legislation. If someone murders his wife or his sister, the entire family must bear the consequences. Let them destroy his house so that he won't have anywhere to go when he is freed from jail. Today murderers like that are set free and parties are thrown in their honor at home. It is simply shameful."
It shouldn’t even be a surprise that Mara'ana is being attacked by men for saying what is apparent to women in Israel – that the authorities consider it more important to commemorate the dead than protect the living.
For the Labor party, currently headed by the proud feminist Merav Michaeli, Ibtisam Mara'ana is an obvious choice for the ticket. She has a lot to offer women in Israel, and she can start by working on laws that currently fail to protect women from male violence – whether they are Arab or Jew.
No wonder she must seem such a threat to Israeli and Palestinian men that they are setting out to destroy her political career before it has even started.
Rachel S. Harris is Associate Professor of Israeli Literature and Culture at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. She is the author and editor of several books including "Warriors, Witches, Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema" (2017). Twitter: @Hebrewlit