From a Textile Factory to Women's Empowerment

When Samah Agbariya, a resident of the Arab village of Turan in the Galilee, graduated from high school in 1993, she wanted to go to university. "It wasn't accepted, then," she recalled, "and my mother was very frightened. But my father supported me, and I finally fulfilled that dream." That was a positive experience that changed her life.

But that same summer between high school and university, Agbariya had a negative experience that also changed her life. "I had four months free, and I decided to work. The Employment Service sent me to a textile factory in Afula. There were 200 women there, all Arabs, who engaged in hard manual labor from 5 A.M. to 5 P.M. And when I told the boss, at the end of the summer, that I was going to university, he burst into laughter."

Ever since, she has dedicated her life to advancing Arab women. This is expressed, first of all, within her family - or more accurately, her husband's family. "He comes from a family of 12 girls and five boys. They sent him to study, but not his sisters. So when I arrived in the family, I started to wreak havoc: a woman who doesn't cover her head, and who also urges them to study. Now, I am very proud of them. One sister started studying at age 30, and another sister, who is older than my husband, started at age 33."

But most of her efforts take place within her profession: Agbariya, now 33, is a social worker. After completing her education, she worked in the Michael project, which nurtures academic excellence among the less well-off sectors of society. "I noticed that the teachers pushed the boys more, while the girls were actually more determined not to drop out," she recalled.

At Michael, Agbariya was exposed to the depth of the education problem for the first time. "I had two girls in Ramle who told me that their parents wanted them to leave school. I went to their families, and we came to an agreement: One family agreed to allow their daughter to attend school as long as she wore a head covering. With the other, which wanted to marry off their daughter, I reached an agreement under which she would consent to marry the boy to whom she was betrothed, but only after high school."

Since then, Agbariya has directed various social welfare projects for girls and women in East Jerusalem, in which the common denominator was persuading members of the political and religious establishment - who are, of course, all male - to act in a way that benefits women. "It's not classic feminist theory, but this is what works in reality," she said. "The women suffer from male oppression, so that is where the key to change lies. You cannot change the women's circumstances without working to change the world of men as well."

In 2000, Agbariya won a tender to direct the Arab community center in Lod. At the center, she once again emphasized women's activities, establishing a women's club and offering special courses for women. There, she was exposed to a particularly grave problem: the murder of women for what is termed "family honor."

"Sabrin Wahidi, a 15-year-old girl who was her family's only daughter, was murdered, and her mother came to tell me that her uncle had killed her because she saw him engaged in a drug deal. To prevent [Sabrin] from informing on him, he framed her, saying she had 'compromised the family honor,' and then he murdered her. I was boiling with rage, and I decided to organize an evening at the community center in which we raised awareness of violence against women. The uncle threatened to murder all the participants. But we didn't give in. I organized police protection, enlisted the support of the local cadi [Muslim religious judge], and 120 people attended the evening. At the beginning of the evening, the mother sat with her head covered so that she would not be recognized, but while she was telling her story, she removed her head covering and revealed all the details." The uncle was eventually killed by other criminals.

According to Agbariya, the community center's success caused local political hacks to seek control of it, and they brought about her dismissal. She responded by establishing a center to empower Arab women in Ramle, and was very moved when one day, a woman introduced herself as one of the girls she had helped in the Michael project.

"She said that I changed her life, and that since then, she had excelled in her studies, received an excellence award from the President's Residence and is now a special education teacher. When she heard that I had returned to Ramle to direct the center, she decided to volunteer there."

At the center, Agbariya was confronted with a far more extensive version of the honor killing problem, when several women in Ramle's Abu Ghanem clan were serially murdered. About three months ago, she organized the first national conference to examine this issue, and the imam of Ramle surprised participants by attending. Now, she is focused on a project that attempts to grapple with this problem.

"We must not write off the traditional Muslim establishment as lost," she explained. "We must flood them with evidence of the problem and give them the sense that coping with the problem is not an attempt to undermine their status."