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Efforts Help Israeli Arab Women Try to Make It in the Business World

For years, in the silence of midnight, Gamila Khir secretly perfected her homemade olive oil and herb soaps. When she launched her soap-making business, her Druse neighbors and even her husband mocked her. Now that she runs two factories, employs 26 workers and sells her products as far away as the United States, Hong Kong, Japan and the Netherlands, no one is laughing anymore.

“People told my husband, ‘What is your wife doing? It’s not natural. Take her to a psychologist.’ But now everyone congratulates me and says ‘Way to go.’ But at the beginning it was very hard,” said Khir, 65, her silver hair covered with the sheer white headscarf worn by traditional Druse women.

Khir, who had to drop out of school when she was 7 to help her parents farm, spoke at a recent conference in Haifa that highlighted the unique challenges facing Arab women and girls in Israel, especially in the fields of education and employment. In Israel, Arab girls are far less likely to pass high school matriculation exams than their Jewish counterparts and Arab women are the least employed sector in the country.

“Girls are not prepared for the work force and later they are labeled as women who do not want to work, who are lazy,” said Aida Touma-Suliman, director of the organization Women Against Violence.

In 2003, 18.5 percent of Arab women were employed, compared to 62 percent of Jewish women, according to a study by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, a leading center for applied social research in Israel.

“The gap is enormous,” said Myers-JDC-Brookdale’s director, Jack Habib. His organization helped host the Feb. 1 conference with the support of the Marshall Weinberg Fund for Professional Collaboration and Development.

The high levels of unemployment among Arab women are attributed to discrimination, large family size, lower levels of education and geographical distribution — many live in what is called the “periphery” in Israel, job-scarce regions outside the center of the country.

In addition, the recession that hit Israel in 2001, caused by the world economic downturn and the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada, reduced employment opportunities for Arabs in general.

The intifada, and the distrust it has sowed between Arabs and Jews further widened the divide between the two groups in Israel, Habib said, and that included an increased unwillingness on the part of Jewish Israeli employers to hire Arab workers.

There are, however, signs of progress, especially in the field of education. The dropout rate for Arab girls has decreased and now more Arab girls than boys complete high school. More Arab girls also are attending university than ever before.

Of Arab women with higher education, 63.4 percent are working, according to Myers-JDC-Brookdale’s 2003 figures, compared to the 5.1 percent of Arab women who have eight years or less of schooling.

A process of change and modernization can be seen, experts say, in a new willingness among parents to send their daughters to higher education, and among girls themselves, who increasingly see themselves as equals to boys.

Once in the work force, Arab women are fairly limited in the range of jobs they can take because of the dearth of job opportunities where they live, and the traditional dictates that discourage women traveling from their villages to find work. Women from less traditional homes who would be willing to leave their villages in pursuit of work are often stymied by the lack of public transportation in the Galilee and the Negev, where a large percentage of Israeli Arabs live.

The majority of Arab women in Israel who work find jobs as teachers or social workers or in local municipalities. Arab women are virtually invisible in politics. There are no Arab women in the Knesset and only three who sit on municipal councils.

Only a very small number work in business. The Jewish-Arab Center for Economic Cooperation is working to change that by helping Arab women become entrepreneurs. The center provides training courses in subjects such as financial management, accounting and computers.

Part of the challenge is finding a niche where they will be culturally comfortable and able to make a living.

Amal-El-Sanaa of AJIK, a Bedouin entrepreneurship organization, said her organization noted that male wedding photographers were not taking photos of women at Bedouin weddings because of issues of modesty. The organization saw this an opening to create a new profession among Bedouin women: wedding photographers. In July, AJIK ran its first course to train Bedouin women in wedding photography and videography. All the women who took the course now are working.

“We knew what the needs were and we saw what the market demanded,” said El-Sanaa.

Meanwhile, Khir is encouraging other Arab women to follow her lead.

“If someone wants success they have to believe in and love what they are doing,” said Khir, as she held up samples of different varieties of olive oil soap. They include lavender, jasmine and rosemary — all plants whose medicinal uses she learned from her grandmother. “I had a great drive and desire to succeed,” she said.

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