The Sky's the Limit - but Remember You're Single

A hot, summer wind lies in wait for those who approach Maghar, despite the gentle rain that washed the brilliant, green landscape earlier that morning. There, 17 single Druze women aged 28 to 44 file into a class at the community center, where they hang on to every word lecturer Fuad Sirhan says about starting a business. "It's important to know how to create, but also how to sell," he says. The table there is blanketed in handcrafted jewelry the women have made: necklaces, bracelets, watches, hair pins and woven belts, studded with beads and stones that adorn traditional bridal gowns.

Nada Abu Zidan, the village's social coordinator and community center director, happily observes events in the classroom. "This group was formed in 2004 as part of a project designed to enable mothers from lower socio-economic classes to complete their education," she says. The project, developed by the Israel Joint Distribution Committee, the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, Project Renewal, and the Israel Association of Community Centers was adapted to meet the needs of another sector - single women.

"We recognized that single, Druze women do not study or work, and they suffer from low social status," Abu Zidan explains. "A single woman may not simply go out and have a good time or meet others in public. They're isolated and don't leave their homes. Their family decides on every move they make."

In 2005, the Joint founded the "Tevet - From Poverty to Independence" project, in collaboration with the labor and housing ministries. The project designed to train Druze women to enter the workforce was adapted to meet the needs of single women in Maghar.

"Single women face tremendous difficulties in all aspects of employment," says Nadir Hammoud, coordinator of the MATI Business Development Center, in the Arab village of Yarka. "Under the Druze religion, women are forbidden to drive, so single women can't leave their homes unescorted. And if a woman has no one to escort and drive her, she also can't go to the employment office to take advantage of her rights. We often see single women forgo unemployment benefits because they can't leave their villages by themselves. They thus become a greater economic burden on their families."

Hammoud says 27 percent of Druze women are employed (as opposed to 69 percent of Jewish women and 17 percent of Arab women). Only 14 percent of Druze women work outside their village, as opposed to 60 percent of Druze men. "The entire Druze sector lacks jobs within its communities," he says.

"The problem is even more severe among single Druze women," adds Abu Zidan. "A man can leave the community to work. For example, two of my brothers work in Eilat. But a woman can't leave the community unescorted, particularly if she is single. When there are no appropriate sources of employment, she simply can't earn a living."

"The Tevet project enables single women to obtain expertise in fields that let them work in their own communities," explains Haya Graff, a senior program coordinator with Tevet. "The objective is to enable them to enter the workforce while taking their limited mobility into account. They train in a wide variety of fields, including handicrafts, home cooking, cosmetology and beauty, tourism, accounting and an innovative method of teaching mathematics in kindergarten" called "sensing math."

The Maghar program includes half a year of professional training, and half a year of entrepreneurship studies. Fifty women have participated in the project so far.

"The goal is to prepare them to be independent and open their own businesses. After they study, they receive 20 consultation hours before they open shop, and during the first year of operations, they receive management assistance," Graff says.

"We dream of creating a cooperative business owned by all the women," says Banya, 42, from the Druze village of Beit Jann. "We dream of marketing what we produce," she adds in fluent Hebrew. Banya is the only woman there who speaks Hebrew at all.

"I went to school until second grade," she explains. "Our financial situation was difficult, and my mother needed help at home. They decided that I would stay home to help. When I stopped going to school, I still did not know how to write properly, but I made myself learn on my own. That's how I learned Arabic and Hebrew. Before I joined the group, I was embarrassed to speak Hebrew, but my self-confidence has increased in every way, and now I have the courage to speak Hebrew here with you," she says. "I am happy I had this opportunity to complete my education and develop. That is what I dreamed about."

Temima, 42, of Maghar, says she dropped out in seventh grade. "I was bored and I preferred to help at home," she says. "They don't let a boy stop going to school, but no one says a thing to girls. Studying and obtaining a profession also lets me meet other single women my age, talk, make new friends and spill my heart. You can't always have an open conversation with an elderly mother."

Afifa, 43, of Beit Jann, says she stopped studying in the eighth grade. "There were problems at home. The high school was in a different village, and there was no one to drive me. They wouldn't let me travel to high school alone, so I dropped out." Afifa got a job at a textile factory, where she worked for 18 years "until the factory closed and I was left unemployed. Here, I feel like I'm part of a big family. I can have a social life, study, develop myself and try to earn a living on my own. We all feel like we pose economic burdens at home. We don't have our own homes, a husband or a source of income. Our parents support us, and that's hard."

Abu Zidan takes a deep breath before confessing, "Understand that none of this would exist if the parents did not permit their daughters to come. We had to find the women, go to their homes, and promise their parents that there would be organized transportation to the community center. If there were no organized transportation, these women would not have received permission from their parents and families to study entrepreneurship."

Abu Zidan, 46, was widowed at age 23 when her husband was killed fighting in the first Lebanon War. The mother of three says she identifies with the single women in her community. "I understand their experience. After my husband died, his and my parents did not understand why I needed to study and work. I had to fight to improve my status. I identify with their difficulty and loneliness. I favor gender equality, and empowerment of women. I believe in and want change, but I know it has to be gradual."

At the Regional College in Maghar, Arij Ghanem, a 24-year-old project graduate, lectures on the "sensing math" teaching method. The young students are enthralled by their animated lecturer.

"Write that she is a great example to us, a model for imitation, and that we are learning a lot from her," one of the students says. Ghanem completes the lesson, and a minute before a female relative escorts her home, she says, "You can do anything, but you cannot forget for a moment that you are a single woman. If you do everything while being escorted by your family, everyone will respect you. I traveled abroad this way, and I go out with my brother and his wife to movies in the evening. But if you don't abide by tradition and don't know how to protect yourself, people will start talking.

"When you are unmarried, you are dependent on others. You can't go around alone. When you are married, you have a bit of freedom," she says, smiling.

Ghanem was born to a distinguished family in Kfar Sajur. "All my brothers and sisters were educated, thanks to my father's decision," she says. When she was 11, her mother died in a car accident, and Ghanem, the youngest of 10 children, began to help out at home. "It didn't interfere with attending school and even continuing on to higher education," she says. "But I chose a profession that would allow me to work nearby so that I could continue to help at home."

Ghanem earned a Bachelor's Degree in communication and education at the Gordon College of Education. "While I studied, they drove me back and forth. I thought about getting a [driver's] license, but I knew my father would be hurt because it is against our religion, and I finally decided it wasn't worth that. I ultimately chose to honor tradition rather than hurt my father, because I feel he respects me and lets me live a full life."

Like many other Druze graduates, Ghanem did not find a job after completing her studies. She enrolled in Tevet after her brother saw a newspaper ad for the program. Ghanem now lectures teachers in training on the "sensing math" method, employs it in kindergartens in Maghar, markets it, and works as a substitute teacher. "I want to realize my dreams to be financially responsible for myself. I have my own bank account and I also contribute financially to the family," she proudly reveals. "People raise an eyebrow when they find out I am not married. I've had offers, but I haven't found someone at my education level. My father does not interfere with my choice and respects it," she says.

When Ghanem is asked about Angelina Fares, the Druze beauty pageant contestant who dropped out of the competition because of threats against her life, and about Tanoa Tarbiyah, a Druze woman who was criticized by community religious leaders when she accepted an appointment to investigate domestic violence on behalf of the police, she responds, "The Druze religion demands a woman protect her body and not expose it, and as far as the first Druze policewoman is concerned, the fear is that she will be exposed to men for prolonged periods. That's the tradition. That's the fear. I preserve tradition and accept it, and when things conflict, I choose tradition rather than breaking the rules of the society I live in. In my opinion, if you know how to use what is permitted, rather than rebel, you can create a real revolution and change reality. I live in peace with my tradition and feel that everything is open. The sky's the limit."