A First Lady of Nazareth

Inas Fahum, the first Muslim woman to hold a senior ministry position, is used to setting precedents.

In a normal society, this item would never have become a story. At the very most, it would have received a one-line mention in the economic section of the newspaper something along the lines of "Inas Fahum, 45, married and a mother of three, was this week appointed urban planner in the Housing and Construction Ministry's Northern District office."

However, Israeli society is far from normal and the fact that an Arab woman, who also happens to be a Muslim, has been appointed to a senior post in a government ministry is newsworthy enough to become a story.

Were she "only" a woman, one might say "big deal"; however, she is also an Arab, and these two components of her identity make her a first among those holding senior positions in the Housing and Construction Ministry, in line with the policy of affirmative action that Isaac Herzog has adopted. When he became Housing and Construction Minister, only five workers out of a total of 602 ministry employees were members of a minority group less than 1 percent. Now there are seven, after the recent appointment of a Druze to the post of deputy director of the Northern District office in Haifa.

Fahum does not give the impression that she is emotionally overwhelmed at being the first Muslim woman to hold such a senior position. She spent the first days in her new post desperately looking for a desk, a chair and a telephone that works in the Upper Nazareth office that will be her headquarters from now on. "Well, that is the way it is in government ministries," she says with a smile as she stands in her empty office. A computer has not even been installed there as yet. In any event, she is already used to establishing precedents and apparently her recent appointment has not made much of an impression on her.

>b>Muslims just don't look like thatFahum was born in Tarshiha. Both her parents were teachers. She grew up in an open, enlightened home where the parents encouraged the daughters - no less than the sons - to get a good education. After she completed her science-oriented studies at the local high school, she came across the brochure for Haifa's Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, which one of her brothers had brought home. At the time he was studying industry and management there. On perusing the brochure, Fahum discovered what her professional field should be - architecture.

Only after she received her degree in 1984 did the dean invite her to his office. He wanted to know why there were no other Arabs in the faculty of architecture and town planning. It was only then that she realized that she was the first Arab woman to receive a degree in architecture from the Technion.

During her studies, she sometimes found herself in bizarre situations. Her appearance made most of her classmates think she was Jewish. "Because of my freckles, most people thought I was Ashkenazi," she laughs. "And they were amazed at my marvelous command of Arabic." Those who knew she was Arab assumed she was Christian. After all, a Muslim woman just does not look "like that."

She met her future husband at the Technion - a civil engineer and the member of an upper-class Arab family. The couple moved to Jerusalem, where she again created a precedent: She became the first Arab woman to be hired by the high-profile architectural firm headed by Moshe Safdie. Her work focused primarily on the planning of the structure of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.

"That proved to be no problem," she recalls. "Once I happened to give a presentation on a synagogue I had planned for Gan Haner before Rabbi Menahem Porush, who was then deputy housing and construction minister. I think he did not know the planner's precise identity."

When they returned to Nazereth, she and her husband opened their own office. Visitors to their firm often thought she was the secretary and asked to see the engineer. In 1993 she established the Nazareth municipality's urban planning department and became a member of the steering committee of Project Nazareth 2000, which was supposed to dramatically upgrade urban planning in Nazareth with the approach of the new millennium. That was a period of many dreams that shattered - even before the events of October, 2000.

When those events unfolded, she had already been hired by the planning department of the Israel Lands Administration as the official responsible for the Arab sector in the Haifa district. This was a difficult time for her because she had to cope with the finger of accusation that her Jewish colleagues were pointing at her as well as with the fears that were preventing the supervisors she worked with from entering Arab communities.

"You needed a lot of understanding and tolerance to survive that era," Fahum points out. "My Jewish girlfriends avoided visiting me in Nazareth and a colleague who favored the policy of transfer advised me to work in an Arab country on the grounds that I would feel more comfortable there.

"Never for a moment did I contemplate giving up. I am an Israeli citizen and I am entitled to all the rights and obligations of all Israeli citizens. I simply decided to maintain a stony silence. I could never hope to change such attitudes and I had no desire whatsoever to make any apologies. To do so is to actually admit a collective sense of guilt, which I do not feel. Anyway, I survived that period; however, it has left a permanent unpleasant aftertaste.?

Definitely a fighterShe attributes some of her professional success to her husband, who is very supportive and who provides her with valuable assistance especially regarding the children, who are being raised in a complex reality. A year and a half ago, the family moved to Upper Nazareth, where they have Arab neighbors on one side and Jewish neighbors on the other. Her eldest son, Ali, has just graduated from a prestigious school run by the Greek Catholic Church and directed by Father Emil Shufani. Her twins, aged 11, Bader and Yasmin attend Nazareth's first experimental school.

Religion does not play any role in the lives of Fahum and her husband. "I believe that there is a superior force in the world that is a supreme planner," she says, "however, religion is a human and not always a successful invention." She understands enough about Islam to know that women's inferior status is not prescribed by the Koran but is rather an invention of (male) interpreters of Islamic law.

"Quite the contrary, the Prophet Mohammed's wives accompanied him when he went off to war and one was even a respected merchant in her own right. I do not even know how to pray. However, the fact that I am a Muslim woman an Arab who lives in a Jewish state is the parcel I have received and I must learn how to live with that parcel. I am not giving up."

She is definitely a fighter. When she heard about the public tender for the new position, she did not hesitate a moment. She was rather amused by the phrasing of the tender's opening words: "For members of minority groups, Druze and Bedouin." She laughs: "Our society loves to pigeon-hole people. However, I knew I had the necessary qualifications for the job. And I also considered it fitting that the ministry was looking for an Arab candidate. Sixty-five percent of the residents of the Galilee are Arabs." As she waited for the final interview along with seven other candidates all of them men one of them said that they were waiting in vain, because the minister had already made his choice. "I was also apprehensive," admits Fahum. "but I am living proof that this is not always the case."

Asked whether she feels any sense of mission toward the community she represents, Fahum emphatically replies "No." "I am here," she continues, "as a professional who knows the issues and knows where the state is guilty for the absence of planning in the Arab community and where Arab society is itself guilty. I intend to succeed so that no one will regret the choice that was made." Perhaps one day she will be the first Arab woman to found the first modern Arab city - a dream that has been talked about for years.