‘One Day, Women Wearing Hijabs Will Become a Common Sight in the Knesset’

Iman Khatib is about to make history as the first hijab-wearing woman to serve as an Israeli lawmaker. As her master’s degree and years as a community activist attest, she defies most Israeli stereotypes of a traditional religious woman

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 Iman Khatib from the Joint List, photographed in Tel Aviv, March 11, 2020. “I would like to become the voice in the Knesset for a group that has long been ostracized in Israeli society: women in hijabs.”
Iman Khatib from the Joint List, March 11, 2020. “I would like to become the voice in the Knesset for a group that has long been ostracized in Israeli society: women in hijabs.”Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Two of the television exit polls released on Election Night last week predicted that the Joint List – an alliance of four Arab-led parties – would get 14 Knesset seats. One gave them 15.

Iman Khatib was at party headquarters in Shfaram, an Arab city in northern Israel, watching the live coverage. She was No. 15 on the slate.

“Everyone else in the room was on pins and needles,” she relays. “I was the one who had to calm them all down. Having spent time on the campaign trail, where I’d seen the hunger in people’s eyes, I had no doubt whatsoever that we would get 15 seats. In fact, had turnout been just a bit lower among Jewish voters, I’m certain we would have won another seat.”

Khatib’s campaign assignment was to get out the vote among traditional Muslim women. That is to say, women like herself. It required her to spend a good deal of time in Bedouin villages and towns – many of them still not recognized by Israel and, therefore, lacking basic services and utilities – explaining to these women why, despite everything they believed and had been told, their vote did count. 

What she saw on the campaign trail, she says, convinced her she was right to enter politics. 

“I got a close-up view of the intolerable conditions in which some people in this country live,” she says. “Children stay home all winter because they have no transportation to school and their mothers are afraid they’ll be swept away by floodwaters if they walk. There are people without any access to health care in their villages and no one who can drive them to clinics far away. All I can say is, it’s a disgrace that people have to live like this in Israel in this day and age – and it’s time something was done about it.”

Khatib, 56, is a member of the United Arab List, the political arm of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. (The more radical northern branch boycotts Israeli national elections.) It is one of the four factions in the Joint List, which also includes communists, secularists and Palestinian nationalists. A trained social worker and community activist, Khatib has made history as the first ever hijab-wearing woman to be elected to the Israeli Knesset. She is scheduled to be sworn in, along with the other 119 members, next week.

With four women among its 15 delegates, the Joint List will have the largest share of women (26 percent) of any party in the 23rd Knesset. The fact there is a religious Muslim woman among them is especially remarkable, considering that Israel’s two main Orthodox Jewish parties – United Torah Judaism and Shas – prohibit women from running for political office.

When Khatib talks about how she envisions her new parliamentary position, it is clear her religious identity is central. 

Mansour Abbas, left, Aida Touma-Sliman, Ahmad Tibi and Mtanes Shehadeh from the Joint List after meeting with Kahol Lavan representatives in Jerusalem, March 11, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

“I would like to become the voice in the Knesset for a group that has long been ostracized in Israeli society: women in hijabs,” she says. Most Israelis, she says, are unaware of the “grave challenges” visibly religious Muslim women like herself face on a daily basis.

“If I enter a shopping mall or a bus station, for example, I can guarantee you I will be pulled aside and forced to go through humiliating security checks,” she explains. “It’s all because I have a hijab on my head. There will be 20 Jewish women who pass right by me, and nobody says anything to them. People also assume I don’t understand Hebrew and that I’m an uneducated simpleton just because I wear a hijab. It doesn’t matter that I have a master’s degree and I’ve run big community centers. None of that matters at all.” 

She believes this stereotyping of religious Muslim women is widespread. “By serving in the Knesset, I will prove to all the young girls in this country who wear hijabs that anything is possible, that they too can become lawmakers,” she says. “My goal is that, one day, women wearing hijabs will become a common sight in the Knesset; a natural part of the scenery.”

Stepping through an open door

She wasn’t always deeply observant. Khatib was born to a family of farmers in the town of Arabeh in the Lower Galilee, the third of 10 children. “My family was traditional, but not very strict,” she says. It was after her first pilgrimage to Mecca, after she had already been married for quite a few years, that she resolved to embrace a more religious lifestyle and start wearing a hijab.  

As a young girl, she recounts, she already knew she wanted to be more than just a wife and a mother. “In fact, one of the promises I made to myself was that I wouldn’t get married before I turned 24,” she says. She was 26 when she eventually married – rather late for Arab Israeli women – and the wedding was held a day after her last exam in the social work program at the University of Haifa. 

Her husband, an engineer by training, teaches high school electronics, and they live with their four children (three sons and a daughter) in Yafa an-Naseriyye, next to Nazareth. Khatib holds a master’s degree in gender studies from Tel Aviv University and is a graduate of the prestigious Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem. 

Her community work has focused on promoting women in leadership roles. “It begins with simple things like getting women to join the parent committee at their local school, and from there getting them to run as chair of that committee,” she says.

In recent years, she has been engaged in efforts to get more Arab women to run for municipal office. “I’m not sure the ground is ripe yet for a female Arab mayor in this country, but we’re getting there,” she says. “There are many more women today in local politics, and I think it’s only a matter of time, maybe another year or two, before we have a mayor.”

Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh in the Arab city of Tira on Election Day, March 2, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Her graduation project at Mandel explored the role of religious women in local and national politics in Israel. While presenting it at the Knesset, she was introduced to the leaders of the United Arab List. 

“It turns out that I stepped into an open door,” she relays. “The party, at the time, was starting to work on changes in its constitution that would finally allow women on the slate. And I happened to be looking for a political home, a place where I would be accepted with my hijab and traditional dress, and be allowed to assume a leadership role.”

An amendment was introduced into the party constitution soon afterward that reserved the fifth and sixth spots on its Knesset ticket for women. In early 2019 – a few months before the first of three rounds of elections held within the past year – United Arab List head Mansour Abbas reached out to Khatib and offered her one of those spots. 

“I definitely didn’t pounce on it,” she recalls. “After all, they weren’t really realistic spots, so to me it was more like lip service. They tried to reassure me that it was a process, so I said I’d consult with my husband and get back to them.”

Khatib ultimately agreed to have her name on the slate, knowing full well she had no chance of getting into the Knesset last April. “I just said to myself, ‘Iman, you’ve fought so hard your whole life to empower women. This is not the time to give up.’” 

In that election, United Arab List ran on a joint ticket with the nationalist Balad party, and together they barely crossed the 3.25 percent electoral threshold, winning just four seats. Ahead of the do-over election in September, Abbas succeeded in pushing through another amendment to the party constitution, which bumped Khatib up to fourth spot. 

“This time, I wasn’t really thinking about whether I’d get in or not,” she says. “I was much more interested in getting the party’s message out, especially to women.” In round two, United Arab List and Balad ran as part of the four-faction Joint List, which won a total of 13 seats. Khatib once again failed to make the cut.

After the third election was called, though, she had a better feeling. “Out on the campaign trail, it was obvious to me that there were more women getting involved,” she says. “In fact, for the first time ever, one of our main party headquarters – the one in Rahat [a large Bedouin city in the Negev] – was being run entirely by women. I don’t know if there are any figures out yet, but I am convinced that many, many more women, especially traditional women, went to vote this time.”

Bringing ‘sanity’ to Israeli society

Khatib doesn’t usually wear makeup, but she’s made an exception today. “I’m just so tired,” she apologizes. “I need something to make me look more awake.”

When prodded, she shares her secret for virtually wrinkle-free skin: “Good genes and avocado oil.”

Not quite sure of her way around Tel Aviv, she enters a trendy city bistro for a lunchtime meeting accompanied by her daughter Rose and Rose’s fiancé, Mohammed. The future son-in-law has just left his job as a physical therapist to begin working as her full-time parliamentary aide. Right now, he’s her only member of staff, but Khatib says she is about to start hiring. “And I’m going to make a special effort to recruit women,” she promises.

Iman Khatib smiling during a photoshoot in Tel Aviv, March 11, 2020. “If I enter a shopping mall, I can guarantee you I will be pulled aside and forced to go through humiliating security checks.”Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Having skipped breakfast for lack of time, she’s quite hungry and proceeds to order a hamburger (well done) with roasted veggies on the side, and some freshly squeezed celery-ginger juice to wash it all down.

A few patrons passing through the popular hub recognize her – she is, after all, the only woman in a hijab dining here – and stop by to wish her well. After apologizing profusely for disturbing her, one middle-aged man makes a point of telling her he voted for the Joint List. “I have a son who serves in a combat unit, and I had a not-so-easy time explaining to him why I, a Zionist Jew, support your party,” he tells her.

“You were smart,” she responds. “It’s because you know we’re the ones who can bring some sanity to Israeli society.”

“Exactly,” he says. “That’s what I told him.”

“He should return home in peace and not have to...” Her voice trails off.

Good at ‘cleaning up’

The Joint List has yet to officially announce whether it will recommend Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz as prime minister. Indeed, Abbas suggested this week that all options are open. But anyone who might interpret that to mean the Joint List could also support a government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu simply doesn’t understand him, says Khatib. 

“That is not an option at all,” she says. “It’s not what we were elected to do. All his incitement against Arab citizens and their leaders – how could any sane person forgive that?”

As it currently looks, neither Netanyahu’s Likud nor Kahol Lavan have a viable path to a new government. But should Israel face a fourth election soon, says Khatib, it is Arab society that will profit most. “This time, the Joint List will get 20 seats,” she predicts.

Once the new Knesset is inducted, her wish is to be appointed to its education committee. “The Arab educational system is in a dire situation,” she says. “There is so much that needs to be done, whether it involves teacher training or improving basic infrastructures. It’s something I know well and want to be involved in.”

There is only one subject she is hesitant to address: her position on civil marriage. “Don’t get me in trouble,” she pleads, well aware that what she is about to say might be objectionable to the thousands of left-wing Jews who voted for the Joint List, and probably many more secular Arabs.

“I’m a religious woman, and I believe in marriage according to Sharia [Islamic law], because as I see it, religious law safeguards an individual’s status and rights,” she says.

Does that mean she’s OK with the status quo in which only religious marriages are permitted in Israel? “Yes,” she replies. 

As an afterthought she adds: “But it’s also important to say that this is not the main issue preventing progress in Israeli society today.”
Israeli politics, she knows, can get very ugly. And this is not the first time this warm, motherly woman is being asked if she’s really cut out for it. 

“A few years ago, someone said to me that politics is dirty, and that’s why women shouldn’t be there,” she says. “I told him that’s precisely the reason we should be: we’re good at cleaning up. I know that sounds very anti-feminist, but what I mean is that we’re good at making things more respectable, more dignified and more humane.”

This story previously called MK Iman Khatib's future son-in-law Ra'afet. It has been changed to his real name, Mohammed.  

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