Maha Daka. Tomer Appelbaum

'My Client's Brothers Threatened to Kill Her Because She Wanted to Get a Job'

From tradition to violence to discrimination, many Israeli Arab women face major obstacles to joining the workforce. Meet the woman who is helping them, against all odds



Talking to: Maha Daka, 50, director of the employment bureau in Taibeh, lives in Zemer; Where: Taibeh; When: Tuesday, 10 A.M.

You’re trying to change the Arab public’s attitude toward women working, and your success rate in the employment bureau you manage is exceptional. Since you took over, about 70 percent of the women in Taibeh [an Arab city in central Israel] who were living on guaranteed income support have freed themselves of the need to receive welfare allowances, and most now work...

When I arrived here and started examining the numbers, I noticed an anomaly – something I wasn’t familiar with from my previous experience in the field. More than two-thirds of the job seekers in Taibeh were women. I started to work on those numbers. I wanted to understand what was behind them. It turned out that a large number of women were reporting to the employment bureau for long periods, but were not working and had never worked. They didn’t go there to find a job, but were obliged to go under the terms of the guaranteed-income law. Their husbands simply made them go to the bureau in order to receive the benefit from the National Insurance Institute.

You decided to get these women into the labor market. Not easy.

Far from easy. You have to understand that there are many barriers preventing these women from entering the labor market. For example, getting to work. Of course they don’t have a driver’s license. For them, organized transportation to a job is critical. They need to leave the home and return to the home. But say a woman comes home at a late hour – then people might start to talk about her. If she’s traveling by bus, it’s known that she comes home [at a certain time]. If a woman in such a situation gets a good job offer, but one that’s problematic from this viewpoint, she simply won’t be able to take it.

There’s also the matter of dress. Many women who dress in the traditional Muslim way will not be hired for certain jobs, such as in hotels, because of their head covering. It’s a form of discrimination we don’t speak about. And you can forget all about those who wear a veil. In addition, they lack employment-oriented Hebrew.

What do you mean by that?

Hebrew at a level that will make it possible for them to communicate in Hebrew-speaking workplaces. Even the basic Hebrew that’s required to give service. A girl who can’t read or speak Hebrew – what sort of job is going to be open to her? So these are the external barriers that have to be dealt with, on top of which there are internal obstacles. The situation at home, harsh husbands, violence, family conservatism and the cycle of bloodshed. A few years ago, Taibeh entered a very brutal cycle of bloodshed.

Yes, a feud between families that has already claimed dozens of victims. But how is that relevant?

Women who marry men who are part of this feud can’t go to work, because they and their families are under threat of murder. Nor can the husband go to work, for the same reason: He fears for his life.

Ofer Vaknin

So there’s no way to get them to work, not even in a different town.

No, it’s too dangerous. A few of them work here, in Taibeh, for other family members. That’s relatively safe. There are also many women who have become entangled in all kinds of stories of family violence, divorces and murder threats, without any connection to the bloodshed cycle. That’s something else to be taken into account.

I have a situation here with a divorcée, a mother of four, whose husband is in prison and is threatening to murder her from there. Every time we send her to a job, he threatens both her and her employer. Finally, we found a job for her in a building that’s completely covered by cameras. There, she’s protected. That’s how deep it runs.

I have another girl here who’s been threatened with murder. By her brothers. Not because she did anything, but because she wants to go to work and they don’t agree. Conservatives. But she’s not giving up. She comes here to the employment bureau with her whole body covered with bruises from beatings.

Can you assume responsibility for a situation like that?

What, you think I’m going to find her a job in a Kfar Sava supermarket and put her in danger? Never. We found her a job here in the city, where people can see her and see exactly what’s happening to her.

A harsh and unfair reality.

Today’s young women are more highly developed socially. They want a career and higher education; they don’t want to stay at home. Some husbands aren’t ready for that, and that causes friction. And in general, a poor economic situation at home causes greater tension. For that reason, I think it’s healthier for everyone for both the man and woman to hold jobs. Two unemployed people sitting at home all day – that just invites violence. And this situation – of a woman whose husband has been getting a guaranteed income allowance for 20 years, and they live from hand to mouth – is no longer acceptable for many women. These days, a woman wants a man who works and is a provider.

Didn’t they always want that?

Much less. Times have changed. The woman was a housewife, she didn’t think of or want more than that.

Doron Golan / JINI

So you’re seeing here, at the micro level, a change in Arab society?

Yes. Women now know what they want. We used to have to try to persuade them to go to work, but today they say, “I want to find a job.” That’s the most striking transformation there’s been here, in the bureau. Women who for years were as good as paralyzed – they did nothing, nothing was done with them, they weren’t even capable of telling themselves what they wanted. Today they come and say, “I want to work. I dream of studying something.”

They would be the younger women, I assume.

Yes. It’s very difficult for a woman who was always at home with the children and has no employment experience to find a job at the age of 50.

Is there any chance at all, actually?

It’s not a matter of chance, it’s a matter of inner motivation. These women were in the most difficult situation, because the barriers accumulated and accumulated, and no one knew what was happening with them. No one even spoke with them. Imagine that you come here to the bureau once a week for 10 years and no one asks who you are, what you are, what you know how to do, what you want.

Was the previous bureau director a man?

Yes.

I see.

When I saw the huge number of women receiving a guaranteed income allowance, I realized we were witnessing herd behavior. With all due respect to Bibi Netanyahu, he needs to understand what the guaranteed income law says. At the age of 20, people already know they can just show up and get money without doing anything. We’ve had women whose men forced them to come here, because they themselves didn’t want women to get ahead or get an education or do something with their life. I understood I had to be assertive, to use all the tools and help at my disposal, and change the situation.

What was the method that managed to overcome such difficult obstacles?

For starters, it’s not only me, I have a truly amazing team here. What we did was to divide women up by age, and we started to work. With the younger age group – women between 20 and 30, most of them single – it was quite easy. Actually, the major barrier we had to overcome was the matter of language. We started two classes to teach Hebrew. We conducted a workshop to explain to women how to get a job, what to do. We motivated them, empowered them. We also held focus groups; we presented stories of success in life, explained the importance of the salary slip. We told them about Red Riding Hood.

Red Riding Hood?

Yes. Red Riding Hood went to the forest without anyone preparing her for what awaited her there, so she got lost. That’s what can happen to anyone who enters the labor market without the right guidance – especially young women like these who have never held a job. If they weren’t given the opportunity before they got married, they are simply liable to remain at home their entire lives. So I had the greatest success with that young age group. Of the 240 of them who were looking for a job, only 14 are still left.

What kinds of jobs were found for them?

Tomer Appelbaum

If they are unskilled, they are qualified for all sorts of jobs – ushers, cashiers, secretaries, nannies, preschool assistants, packing work, factory jobs, cleaning.

What’s most in demand?

What they like best is being supermarket cashiers.

Why is that?

For the money. The hours are long, but at the end of the month they have 7,000 shekels [$1,980] in hand. The plan of many of these girls is to work for two years and save up, and then go to college or university. The mentality these days is very different. They marry later and aspire to study. They understand the importance of education.

It’s also a window of opportunity, because once they start raising a family everything gets more complicated.

True, which is why completely different tools were needed for the somewhat older women who already have children. For them, the children and the family are what’s most important, and before you send them into the labor market you have to assure them they will be able to preserve the family unit. For them, we created completely personal programs of advice and guidance, we did simulations and, most important, we got study vouchers for them from the [state] Employment Service. It’s actually a gift from the state. Eligibility for evening studies in every college in the country, provided the course and college are recognized by the Economy and Industry Ministry.

Vocational courses? Like what?

Computers, cooking, secretarial, preschool assistants. All kinds. It was a big success. Almost all of these women – and we keep track of them – found a job in the profession they studied. Office managers, cooks ... there are even two sisters who studied fashion design and opened a place here in Taibeh together.

What about the older group?

That really was the hardest. These women face every barrier you can imagine – on top of which, most of them are not well. We held conversations with them, asked questions – we wanted to understand their situation. We found that these women spend the whole day between the four walls of the home, thinking about what they will cook, and that besides that they have nothing. Their situation drives them to depression, to great irritability.

We prepared a presentation and explained to them why they are ill. After our briefings, these women said they wanted to go to work. They understood that their situation was affecting their psychological condition. Just recently, we finished computer classes – Excel, PowerPoint – for women over 50. Eighteen women. Almost all of them found a job. These are women who used to come to the bureau and get job offers, and they would cry.

Why?

They were scared. They were stuck. There was no one to encourage them. There was no one to tell them they were worth something. Their husbands wanted them to stay home, to clean, cook and be with the children. These women didn’t think they were worth anything.

They were alone.

Tomer Appelbaum

You see the spark of loneliness in all of them. The husband leaves the house in the morning, gets back at 4 or 5 P.M., maybe sits with his wife a little, usually not, and goes about his business. These women live in loneliness.

Do you consider every woman who goes to work a success story?

Yes. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no difference between a doctor and a cleaner. The state needs them all. And if the person feels the job isn’t satisfying, it’s a sign that she’s preparing herself for the next stage. You have to study and upgrade all the time. It’s the world of innovation. I have a presentation here about innovativeness that I show them. I tell them that if they see their 5-year-old with an iPhone or an iPad and don’t understand what they’re doing, it means they’ve been left behind. They haven’t advanced into today’s world.

And every woman who goes to work is also offering a model to her children.

Those children don’t look for dependency on an income allowance. They look to work. That’s what they’re learning. Their mother has a positive image for them. I tell them poverty is not a phenomenon, it’s an inheritance. If you’re poor, it will be passed down to your children. And if you work and contribute, that too will pass on to your children. When a woman tells me, “I feel good, my husband told me, ‘Well done for returning from work,’” I ask her, “Didn’t you hear that before?” “No, before it was clear I would do the laundry and make the food and take care of the children. Today, I come back from work and he blesses me: ‘May God give you health and strength.’” She hears a good word. She feels self-fulfillment.

What do you tell women who say they don’t want to get a job?

I say to her, “Hold on, let’s talk.” I put everything aside and tell her, “Look, I’m not writing anything, just listening to you. Why don’t you want to go to work?” She says, “Look, I’m not like you, you have schooling.” And then I tell her the story of my life.

What do you tell her?

I say to her, “You think I’m some sort of big manager? That I got to be a manager in a day? I was born into a family of 11 souls. My father didn’t work, my mother didn’t work, we lived in poverty. I wanted to study medicine. No money. I dreamed of university. No money. For six years I worked all kinds of jobs, whatever there was, and then I went to college. Those studies saved my life.”

When she hears how I survived and how I got ahead, it changes something in her. There was a girl here from Kalansua; it was immediately obvious she had a head on her shoulders. But she was stuck: four children in four years. I told her husband, “Listen, your wife is a smart girl.” I took the two of them for a talk and after the conversation, he agreed she would go to school through us. Today, she has a full-time job as a preschool teacher. And after he saw she was going to work, he found a job, too. A person who for years received a guaranteed income allowance because of back pains, started to work in a factory. With the back pains. He also made a change. I explain to people they must take their life in their own hands. No one can do it for you. If you don’t do it, no one will.

Have you ever been threatened?

At the start, before people knew me.

Are you ever afraid?

Yes. I want to take care of myself, I want to protect my family – but I know I mustn’t crack. I have to be seen as assertive, stand up for myself, so people will know that they’re dealing with someone who isn’t afraid. Someone you can’t call a coward or a quitter.

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