'In Arabic, the Word for Single Woman Means Withered Branch'

Sociologist Maha Karkabi-Sabbah has discovered in her own life and in her research that despite some positive signs, the bridging of the gender gap in Israeli Arab society is still a distant dream.

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Israeli Arab women take pictures with their smartIsraeli Arab women take pictures with their smartphones during a parade for the Eid al-Adha festival in Jaffa, Sept. 12, 2016.
Israeli Arab women take pictures with their smartphones during a parade for the Eid al-Adha festival in Jaffa, Sept. 12, 2016.Credit: Oded Balilty, AP
Rotem Shtarkman
Rotem Shtarkman
Rotem Shtarkman
Rotem Shtarkman

Dr. Maha Karkabi-Sabbah, sociologist. Teaches at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. Holds an undergraduate degree in educational counseling and sociology, a master’s in sociology from the University of Haifa and a Ph.D. from Tel Aviv University. A post-doctoral fellow at both SOAS, at the University of London, and at TAU. Research coordinator at the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. A married and mother of three. Prefers not to reveal her age.

I asked Karkabi-Sabbah to add a few personal details to her formal CV.

“I was born in Shfaram,” she replied, referring to the largely Muslim city in Galilee. “My mother was a homemaker. My father, who started out as a teacher, later ran a successful business as an accountant and tax consultant. It was a supportive home that always sanctified education. I have one brother who’s a physician, another who’s a tax consultant and a sister who’s a lawyer. I remember dad telling me: ‘Study – education is power.’ Now I see how true that is.”

In what way?

“It is power in terms of status, social power, economic power – and also personal power. The more education I have, the stronger I become.”

Education as the No. 1 factor for success in life.

“Yes, that’s how I was raised. That’s also the source of my energy. There were so many years of study, including going abroad and even splitting up the family to survive. I went to London for a post-doc with my young son. The middle child, a daughter, remained in Israel to attend high school, and the elder son is in med school in Hungary. My husband, a lawyer, also has done a lot of traveling. I also married relatively late – most of the girls in our society marry at 18-19.”

Didn’t that upset your parents?

“No. Getting married wasn’t an issue in our family. Other Arab parents got uptight, but with us it was school, school and school.”

Is there still pressure to marry early in the Arab society?

Educated women naturally defer marriage, and when they enter the ‘wedding market,’ they find it difficult to find suitable men in terms of age and education. The educated men are already taken.

“Yes, which surprises me. Parents are afraid of their daughters remaining single. But today there are many single women, mainly due to increased education.”

How does that affect marriage?

“Educated women naturally defer marriage, and when they enter the ‘wedding market,’ they find it difficult to find suitable men in terms of age and education, which prolongs the search even more. The educated men are already taken. The problem is that in a traditional society, it’s usual for men to marry less educated women.”

Not the opposite?

“It is less customary, because the man is the chief provider. But at present, chances are that a woman with an academic degree will marry a man less educated than she, because educated women now outnumber educated men. The social change we are undergoing is very intense, because Arabs eventually grasped what my father understood when I was a girl: that education is the best way to socioeconomic mobility. They internalized the fact that education is a very significant element, that it – and not shrinking availability of land – is the true asset.”

Why do women in Arab society turn to education more than men?

“Arab mothers who themselves lack schooling and have never worked outside the house, realize that the best course is to push their daughters to study and find employment. Besides which, the changes in the world – consumerism, globalization and general openness – led to the insight that women should find gainful employment. It became clear that a single-provider family was more likely to encounter economic hardship.”

Is it an option for a woman not to marry?

“Not really, because in our society, relationships are of the essence, and intimate relations are acceptable only within marriage. It’s not really an option for a woman to forgo marriage simply because she hasn’t found a suitable man. That’s not the norm. Alternatives to marriage, like the ones that exist in the Jewish society, are nonexistent among the Arab population.”

So being a single mother is out of the question?

“Yes. If the woman is single, she will remain in her family’s home under the auspices of the father or men in the family. We are brought up to believe that marriage possesses a higher status than spinsterhood. And thus, when we arrive at the age when it’s time to choose a partner, we will take additional considerations into account.

Such as?

“In order to marry, women will compromise on such things [in a partner] as age, social status, educational level. Studies show that educated women in Western countries are less inclined to compromise, and sometimes opt to stay single if they do not find the right partner. For us, the social pressure overcomes women’s personal choice. I am currently studying how the behavior of women in a traditional society like ours, which pushes for early marriage, differs from that of educated women elsewhere.”

Please speak in numbers.

“The early 20s is the preferred age for a woman to marry. After 24, every additional year reduces the prospect that a woman will find a partner. [Arab] men, too, marry younger than Jews in Israel or in other Western countries.”

The word for single woman in Arabic is ahnes, meaning a branch that withers and becomes useless.

What will prevent a woman of 27, say, from marrying?

“In addition to the fact that being young is preferable in a traditional society, it’s also related to fertility. The older a woman is, the fewer children she will bear. The birth rate has fallen in Arab society, but it’s still about three children per family, which is high. In addition, society views marriage as an arrangement involving social supervision of women’s sexual behavior. If she’s married, the whole sexuality issue is settled. Also, there’s an average difference of about five years in the marital ages of men and women. So the 27-year-old is supposed to marry a man in his early thirties, but most men are already married by then. If she wants a man who is as educated as she is, few will fit the bill.”

A tricky situation.

“The marriage market among the Arab population has become crowded and competitive, with an emphasis on education and age. That complexity sets us apart from others, besides which, improvements in women’s educational level have become a central structural factor.”

‘Norms count for more’

So to be an unmarried woman is not good?

“Exactly. The word for single woman in Arabic is ahnes, meaning a branch that withers and becomes useless. This is a negative way to describe the status of being unmarried, but the fact that some of today’s single women are different from those in the past is going to challenge this status. Where it will lead I don’t know. What’s clear is that, because their increasingly better education is one of the reasons for the larger proportion of single women, we are seeing single women of a new breed: educated and economically independent.”

Is that the subject of your research?

“The study I began in London is related to changes in education and to women’s status in the family [in Israeli-Arab society]. I tried to examine how much influence educated women are able to exert on [gender] inequality within the family. Initial results show that education and the fact that women hold jobs does not tend to equalize the division of labor when it comes to looking after the children and housework. Women are not succeeding in capitalizing on their progress to bring about a transformation of the existing social order.”

Tradition is too powerful?

“Culture, society, norms still count for more. But it might also be related to the fact that most Arab women in any case work in traditional jobs, such as teaching and services, which enables them to sustain both worlds alike.”

Meaning career and family?

“Not a career – it’s far from being a career. It’s to be a working woman with a salary who looks after the children and the home while holding a full-time job, instead of just being a homemaker.”

Double slavery.

“In other societies, the entry of women into the labor market was a key element that reshaped family life. I assumed that this was also happening with us, and challenging existing traditional structures, but no substantial change is visible as yet in the studies I’m working on.”

Men occupy a highly regarded, well-paid place, which affords them social and economic clout. Why would they want women to share it with them?

How do you account for this?

“Somehow, the patriarchal norms and values are able to exploit the change in order to sustain the patriarchal system. The men are enjoying the change – getting a woman who is both educated and employed – but in terms of gender equality, we see no switch in the distribution of roles. Women work mostly in traditional professions, and usually close to home, so they can combine the job and domestic chores.”

How would you expect the change to occur?

“Households with two providers do have a higher standard of living and a more modern lifestyle, but at base, the patriarchal family and social relations are surviving. I would expect women to enter the labor market in male professions that have a higher status and pay better.”

Law? Medicine? Accountancy?

“There’s a huge influx of Arab women here into health care, in the wake of their studying medicine and pharmacology, many of them in Jordan. But what we are mainly seeing is a massive influx in teaching, a consequence of the increased accessibility of higher education and of the teacher-training colleges that have opened. That’s important, because women in the teaching profession become economically independent – but it’s not enough to foment a radical change.”

Is that disappointing?

“Yes, because women enter higher education with the expectation of progressing and becoming independent. They are also exposed to a different culture from the one they encounter at the local high school or in their hometown. Suddenly, Jewish society, which is also an important agent of socialization, is revealed to them. And then the young women develop expectations of equal rights as a gender group, of freedom of expression and self-fulfillment. And then to return to a social system that is still functioning in a traditional way – of course it’s a disappointment.”

Does it generate domestic husband-wife conflicts?

“There has been an increase in the divorce rate in the Arab population in recent years, which is partly due to this disappointment. As in the past, women continue to enable men to enter the labor market freely. Even for educated women, the whole issue of role distribution in the home continues to be a matter of constant give-and-take. No new division is discernible.”

Don’t men want to see greater equality?

“Do you think there is a man who would want to forgo these privileges? Not even my husband would want things to change.”


“Of course not, it serves the men’s world. He who pays the piper calls the tune. Men occupy a highly regarded, well-paid place, which affords them social and economic clout. Why would they want women to share it with them?”

Changes inside and out

How will change come about?

“The source of change lies in two directions. First, the matter of looking after the children and the home needs to be redefined. That is the subject of a research study I’m part of at the Van Leer Institute, which aims to characterize unpaid and undefined work, and obtain recognition and even payment for it. That will increase women’s power. Second, women need to enter the job market big-time, not just in places where it’s most convenient to go on preserving the existing gender division. In other words, to change existing gender arrangements both in the family and in the labor market.”

Where is the parents’ generation in all this?

“Education is an agent that foments social changes, and that generates tension and confrontation with tradition-inclined people, such as parents. They think the issue is one of economic independence, not social independence. They see education as an entry ticket to the job market, not to a career. They see the woman’s enhanced prospects of marrying and having a higher standard of living – and that’s all.”

What was it like in your home?

“The division of labor was traditional: Dad worked and managed the financial realm; Mom was a homemaker. He helped out here and there, but only on a small scale. He had high regard for my mom and always complimented her for the way she looked after us. That in itself preserves the gender division.”

Maybe not everyone wants change.

“Many women view the existing situation as natural; I myself want change. It’s not fair that women are expected to be educated, to enter the job market in order to upgrade the living standard, and also to continue to do almost 100 percent of the domestic work.”

What’s the situation in your own household?

“If I’m away from home, my husband looks after the children, but the moment I come home, we switch back. I’m not given a minute to catch my breath. The principle [I’m talking about] isn’t one of equality, but of helping when needed.”

But men claim they have a problem: They are the chief providers and their roles demand greater investment and time in the labor market.

“It’s true that there is stiff competition in the male employment world, inflexible working hours and constant demands for specialization. And it’s also true that the domestic chores are the lot of the person who’s more available. Men use that argument, too. So I say that only when women start working in prestigious male jobs will families have no choice but to redefine gender-based roles.”

Do Arab men cook, take the children to the doctor?

Whenever I say something about the Arab population, I am astounded at the lack of knowledge among the Jewish students.

“The ‘new fatherhood’ concept says there is an expectation in society that the father, too, has a role in raising the children. But studies in other Western countries show that, apart from a few hours of minding the children, men have not significantly increased the number of hours they spend looking after the household. In Israel, overall, the change is more common among middle- and upper-class Jews and Arab families.”

What about domestic chores?

“I’m looking into that now – how families from the new Arab middle class behave, how much they have changed or have improvised their own gender-based divisions, and whether they resort to outsourcing, continue to function as in the past, or draw on the help of the extended family for all the tasks in a woman’s life. It appears as though women have reduced their domestic chores mainly through outsourcing – nannies, instant foods, maids, laundry and ironing services. Everyone is buying services; it’s not like the men have changed places with the women.”

What’s it like to be an Arab woman in Israeli academe?

“The fact that the higher the rank in academia, the fewer Arabs there are, creates a feeling of loneliness among Arab students. As a doctoral student, I was the only Arab that year, and the difficulties I had were not the same as those of Jewish students. Arabs in Israel have to cope with being a minority, with the language [Hebrew], and are also required to cope with English, which is a fourth language for them, after spoken Arabic, literary Arabic and Hebrew.”

Do they have connections with Jewish students?

“A certain acquaintanceship develops, but there’s no real shared life. I always stuck with Arab girlfriends, and today, as a lecturer, I see the Arabs sitting together while the rest of the class is elsewhere. They don’t exchange a word. It’s true that this is the place where there is an initial encounter after leaving the village, but there’s no true partnership. I have Jewish colleagues and girlfriends, but that didn’t happen until the doctoral level. It took me a long time to muster the courage, and maybe they also looked at me from a different place.”

Who’s more responsible for that situation, Jews or Arabs?

“The situation is created by all the existing political, social, economic and geographical barriers. There is no earlier encounter. Two peoples live here within the same borders, but they rarely meet. The barriers are so high and rigid that the result is distance and alienation. I teach a course called ‘The Arab Population in Israel: Integration vs. Segregation,’ and whenever I say something about the Arab population, I am astounded at the lack of knowledge among the Jewish population.”

What don’t they know?

“Basic things, say that the majority – 82 percent – of the Arab population is Muslim. They aren’t familiar with the demographics of the Druze and Christian minorities. They don’t even know where the Arabs live, exactly. The Jewish public is nourished mainly by the media and by highly selective information, and when they are suddenly exposed to academic, sociological information, some of them have a problem.”


“To accept other narratives, to define certain laws as discriminatory. Some of them don’t accept the fact that Israel, which defines itself as Jewish and democratic, automatically discriminates against one population group and creates privileges for another group. The very fact that you admit it’s a problem forces you to think, because as long as you don’t admit it, the arrangement can continue.”

Mixed marriages

So you are challenging not only the existing family order, but also the national order?

“It’s not easy for me. I am an Arab lecturer who has come to teach about Arabs, and I am constantly fighting within myself to separate the personal from the scientific and academic. I don’t want to be perceived as an ‘Arab lecturer,’ but as a sociologist who is conveying diversified information. But the [Jewish] students have to learn about the Arab population and not prettify the reality. That’s a tough challenge, because the reality is tough. I teach at Bar-Ilan University, and I have learned to accommodate the opposition from the other side. If you shift it from the personal aspect to the scientific-academic, the argument becomes different. I have learned not to be dragged into personal arguments, of course while not forgoing what is right and what is not right.

“That’s a principle with me, that’s how I was raised: The Palestinian story was present in our home. I was surrounded by books on history and political science. Another research study I am engaged in deals with mixed Jewish-Arab marriages. It’s amazing to see how minority-majority relations enter those families.”

Can you be more specific?

“I am interviewing Arab women who are married to Jews, and Jewish women – some of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union – who have married Arabs.”

These women are Jewish?

“They are classified as Jews. It’s an interesting group in itself, because the ethnic Jewish element hardly exists, so it’s much easier for them than for local Jewish women who marry Arabs. They don’t really cross ethnic lines in these marriages, and sometimes not religious lines, either. They don’t need to contend with nationalism or religion, and they also tend to be traditionalist.”

In terms of the roles of the man and the woman in the home and in society?

“Yes, at the family level, which they connect with quite well. They also value family life and an extended family, because they are usually here with one parent, in some cases with one sibling. Their compensation is a large Arab family.”

And Arab women who marry Jewish men?

“They try to benefit from both worlds. They feel that they are paving the way for their children to be connected with the majority, and at the same time they seek to preserve their identity as Arab women. They usually opt for Jewish or bilingual schools, and they make sure their children know Hebrew well, because they believe that this is what paves the way.”

What’s it like for the Jews in these marriages?

“Some of the marriages are difficult. The Arab woman usually gets along with the cultural difference; it’s harder for the Jewish woman to cope. These couples usually live in mixed cities as a convenient solution for both sides.”

How does the surrounding society accept them?

“In most cases there is opposition, mainly among Jews. There is also the matter of the children’s identity. If the woman is an Arab, there’s more of a problem, because identity is determined according to the mother. That’s the issue that worries the parents.”

Do you think that there will be more mixed marriages in another generation or two, or will they remain a marginal phenomenon?

“The political situation does not augur change. Marriage is a market that requires the structural availability of the group from which we choose each other. In Israel there is no common meeting place at work or on the street; at most there is the university, but relationships don’t develop there. The frequency of mixed marriages in a society attests to the fluidity or rigidity of its ethnic boundaries. Here, as long as the national rift continues to be a central issue, Jewish-Arab marriages will continue to be a marginal phenomenon.”

Have you yourself changed in this regard over the years?

“Because of my father’s work, we met Jewish families. I had Jewish friends, and through my father we learned the importance of accepting the Other, even if he has different views. I grew up with that. What’s gotten stronger for me over the years is actually the awareness of the discriminatory reality: the institutional discrimination, which has in fact become stronger over time. Perhaps my eye became sharper in identifying this, through my studies. But it didn’t make me forgo the principles I was raised in, of true partnership between the two peoples.”

You must have heard the claim that your situation would be worse in Arab states.

“Yes. People say it to my face when I talk about discrimination: ‘You are an Arab lecturer in a university – where else would that be possible?’ That’s the attitude of the majority that justifies superiority. I say that I worked hard for it, and even now I’m not sure that I will be able to fulfill my dreams. I am competing on both an ethnic and a gender basis, and the rules of the game are tough.”

What are your dreams?

“To become a university professor in the sociology of family and gender.”

You’ll certainly realize that dream.

“If that’s the impression, I’m glad. My husband tells me the same thing.”

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