Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Arab Women, Liberal Feminism and the Israeli State
There is a bill pending in the Israeli Knesset that would allow women the option to use the country's civil courts for personal status matters. Liberal Israeli feminists see this as promoting "women's rights" by loosening the grip of religious authorities over women's personal lives. But Israel is not a liberal state, so there is something fundamentally problematic in assuming common gender interests, since women in Israel have no common status or rights as citizens. In fact, as long as Israel is a Jewish state, the Muslim, Christian and Druze religious institutions will remain important sources of communal identity for Israel's Arabs (women and men), since the civil state is not really "theirs."
Israeli feminists (both Jewish and Arab) argue correctly that women often are disadvantaged in their dealings within conservative religious institutions. Those who support this bill say it would help all women regardless of religion (although it is quietly suggested that Muslim women would benefit most). But what choice does this bill actually offer? Either reject your community's religious institutions and take advantage of the state's secular courts, or continue to suffer gender discrimination at the hands of the religious authorities.
The bill holds the secular courts out as bastions of enlightenment and means to liberation when, in fact, these very courts have participated actively in 50 years of discrimination against Israel's "non-Jews." There is no apparent recognition of, let alone challenge to, the institutionalized anti-Arab bias of Israel's secular institutions, including the courts. Furthermore, advocates assume women will get better deals in civil courts but there is no evidence of this. Finally, the bill's passage would undermine the potential to change religious institutions from within the various communities.
To use the issue of women's rights as a means of attacking religious authorities forces a rigid distinction between "gender interests" and "communal interests." For Arab women in Israel, this is a spurious dichotomy, since they have more in common with men of their community--structural discrimination and political marginalization--than with many Jewish women. Why should Arab women embrace a bill that generalizes about gender interests and assumes that the Israeli state's secular institutions can "save" them from religion, when it was the Israeli state that made religion so significant to their status and rights (or lack of rights) as women and as Arabs?
The shortcomings of this bill are reminiscent of early mistakes made by leaders of the US women's movement. In the 1960s, liberal feminists modeled their agenda on the civil rights movement, essentially substituting gender for race. They apparently failed to recognize that these are not parallel forms of identity nor do they lead to comparable forms of discrimination. In a white-dominated society like the US, blacks are discriminated against as members of a racial collectivity (similar to "non-Jews" in Israel), while discrimination against women varies according to race, class, sexuality and so on. The women's movement, dominated by white middle-class heterosexual women, did not appeal to many women of color, poor women, lesbians and so on because it refused to recognize and deal with the ways those differences among women matter.
Criticizing liberal feminism is not a rejection of feminism. Rather, it indicates a desire to see a more comprehensive approach to rights in Israel. To create a solid, progressive movement, the "other" Arab women's problem--discrimination by the state against its non-Jewish citizens--must be made integral to feminist strategies and discourse. While the Israeli government submitted its 1996 report to the UN Commission on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, omitting almost any consideration of the status of "non-Jewish" women, a team of Arab feminists produced and submitted a counter-report to the UN in 1997. Their data and analysis show the connections between "personal" and "public" forms of oppression. Minority women know that they can never find real relief from gender discrimination as long as they are part of communities that continue to suffer discrimination. Fighting all forms of discrimination is the real feminist issue.
Lisa Hajjar, an editor of this magazine, teaches sociology at Swarthmore College.