There is a scene that plays out over and again in the Knesset: the silencing of Arab female lawmakers by their male counterparts. “Don’t preach to me; sit down and shut up,” Ahmad Tibi admonished Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi during a debate on the United Arab List’s electricity bill. The repeated call to silence Rinawie Zoabi resonated in the hall and finally ended with Tibi exclaiming “ayeb elayki.”
The appeal to Rinawie Zoabi in Arabic, her native language, was a little surprising, but behind Tibi’s decision lay another message. Only someone with a deep understanding of the Arab language and culture can grasp the power relations implicit in the phrase, especially when addressed to an Arab woman. “Ayeb” means shame, and it connotes an act by a woman that tarnishes her honor and that of her family.
But why should Rinawie Zoabi be ashamed? She merely expressed her opinions in the course of a debate. Doesn’t she have the right to share her opinion with others – especially men – in the Knesset? And why embarrass her in public?
Of course Rinawie Zoabi has a right to express her opinion, but freedom of speech apparently doesn’t apply to women in Arab society. Because Arab women, and it doesn’t matter whether they are legislators, must toe the line of the male opinions that set the tone in the public arena. After all, in using “ayeb,” Tibi sought to remind her of her place in the social hierarchy and also to educate and correct her, in the event she forgot her place.
The routine of Arab male lawmakers silencing their female counterparts did not skip over Aida Touma-Sliman. Esawi Freige once blasted her, shouting “Shut up, shut up” during a debate over a memorial day for the Kafr Qasem massacre. Israeli Arabs and Jews alike witnessed this concatenation of humiliation and silencing, but they too remained silent.
The story here is not just the silencing to which Arab female MKs are subjected. It is also the social support that Israel’s Arab community extends to Tibi and his ilk. “That is the way to respond to a woman like her,” wrote a female commenter in the wake of the Rinawie Zoabi-Tibi brouhaha in the Knesset. This type of language, common in the Arab community, reveals the hypocrisy that legitimizes violence against women, whoever they may be.
The Arab male MKs send a double message when it comes to violence against women: On the one hand, they take to the streets and demonstrate against violence, and even fight against the injustices of the occupation. But on the other hand, they have no problem shouting at Arab female MKs in order to shut them up, because there is no connection between the two!
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Guys, your participation on panels and in lectures against violence in Israel’s Arab community is completely superfluous because you yourself are engaged in violent behavior. The struggle of Arab female MKs and of Arab women in general is twofold, because they have to deal with both nationalist and gender oppression within Arab society and without.
Now, shortly after the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, it is important to remember that Arab women are far from achieving gender equity and equality, particularly in the sphere of the battle against gender violence. It pains me to say it, but it is important to shatter this illusion, because the broad social backing received by Arab men, especially those in positions of power, is the main factor behind the normalization of gender violence aimed at silencing Arab women and harming their struggle.
We’re lucky to have Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi and Aida Touma-Sliman to remind us of the importance of integrating Arab women into politics and all other social and cultural sphere. We are fed up! We will no longer agree to the male politics of silencing and control, we are done with the perpetuation of male power and the patriarchy in the political arena. Ahmad Tibi, ayeb elayk. You shall not silence the new generation of Arab women in Israel.
Sheren Falah Saab is part of Haaretz 21, an initiative aimed at amplifying underrepresented voices of Arab/Palestinian communities within Israel. She writes about culture in the Arab world, holds a master’s degree in women’s and gender studies and lives in Kafr Abu Snan, in the western Galilee.