How Israel’s first hijab-wearing MK plans to fight for Arab women
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'Arab women suffer double and quadruple discrimination'

How Israel’s first hijab-wearing MK plans to fight for Arab women

Newly elected to the Joint List, self-described feminist Iman Khatib-Yasin has widespread support from both sexes as she accuses the Jewish state of the ultimate sexist suppression

Newly-elected Ra'am MK, Iman Khatib-Yasin. (Gili Yaari/ Flash90/ via Zman)
Newly-elected Ra'am MK, Iman Khatib-Yasin. (Gili Yaari/ Flash90/ via Zman)

Securing an interview with newly elected Iman Khatib-Yasin was a near impossible feat for The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, Zman Yisrael. The whirlwind of publicity, after a lifetime of near anonymity, has consumed the first hijab-wearing Muslim MK in Israel’s history.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m running around giving interviews, answering calls, in talks, in meetings. I haven’t had a moment to myself, alone, to fully process what has happened,” Khatib-Yasin told Zman Yisrael over the phone soon after the March 2 elections.

Self-described feminist Khatib-Yasin earned her place on the Joint List — a bloc of four primarily Arab parties that ran together on one ticket — as a member of the Ra’am party, and in doing so became the first woman from the Southern Islamic Movement to be elected to the Knesset.

She won the fourth spot on Ra’am’s list this past summer after soundly defeating the seven men who ran alongside her in the party’s primary. With both male and female support at the polls, and without the common practice of a designated slot for a woman representative, Khatib-Yasin won by several dozen percentage points.

In line with her colleagues in Ra’am, Khatib-Yasin has previously voiced her objection to the definition of Israel as a Jewish state and champions the awarding of full civil and democratic rights for her people.

“I classify myself as a citizen of Israel whose national identity is Palestinian-Arab,” she said.

Iman Khatib-Yasin, right, next to Joint List head Ayman Odeh at a campaign event, August 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/ Flash90/ via Zman)

Khatib-Yasin “thanked” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for what she labeled as incitement against Arab society when he urged Jews to come out to the polls to outweigh the Arab voters. She claimed it only contributed to the electoral strength of the Joint List by galvanizing so many in her sector to vote. “Incitement is unacceptable; we want to live in peace and dignity in our country,” she added.

At 56 years old, the married mother of four with master’s degrees in social work and gender studies arrives at the Knesset with over 25 years of field experience and a successful career as a community center director.

Khatib-Yasin was born into a family of farmers in the Beit Netofa Valley. Currently, she lives in Kfar Yafia, an Arab village in the Galilee, where she established and ran, for 14 years, the area’s first-ever community center.

In advance of the March 2 elections, Khatib-Yasin was tasked with getting out the vote among the Bedouin women of the Negev. As part of that effort, she held conferences and living room chats, coordinating an entire campaign to inspire Bedouin women to go out and take part in the democratic process.

And in fact, it appears the Joint List’s campaigning efforts in the south bore fruit: In the span of six months, from September 2019 to March 2020, the official vote tally in the Bedouin communities of the Negev increased from 57,000 to 68,000.

Iman Khatib-Yasin campaigns for the Joint List. (Courtesy Ra’am/ via Zman)

Voter turnout in two of the biggest Bedouin settlements in the Negev, Rahat and Arara, increased by seven percent (from 59% to 66% in Rahat and from 52% to 59% in Arara) indicating, despite the fact that the data not differentiate between gender, that the voter turnout campaign, at minimum, was a success.

“I’m going to address violence in Arab society and violence against women specifically,” Khatib-Yasin said when asked about the first issue she’d like to tackle while serving in Knesset.

“I’m going to create employment opportunities for Arab women, suited to their abilities and their environment. On the education front, I want to further advance the rights of our children to an empowering education, one which will nurture mature and opinionated personalities.”

The following interview has been translated and adapted from the original on Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site.

On the topic of violence against women as well as other topics, do you have a sense of shared destiny with Jewish women? Would you collaborate with Jewish Zionist women MKs to advance legislation on this issue?

During the week of the elections a woman was murdered in Taibe, an infant was murdered in Hod Hasharon and her mother was severely injured. We are all women who believe in our right to a life of dignity, and something even more basic than that — a right to life, period. We need to join hands in this effort and present the establishment with cogent plans that have clear goals and a vision.

The onus is on the establishment — on the offices of the social services, which are collapsing under the pressure, and the police, which sends victims of domestic abuse back into the home. We have to unite, with men as well, to demand the necessary resources from the relevant government offices.

Read: Domestic violence soars as families stay home due to virus

Newly-elected Ra’am MK, Iman Khatib-Yasin. (Courtesy Joint List/ via Zman)

How much of your gender-related agenda is going to come across in your parliamentary work as opposed to your national agenda?

The two are inseparable because our exclusion is deeply rooted in our national identity. Arab women suffer double and quadruple discrimination. It is not just being a part of the female sex but being a part of the female sex while belonging to a marginalized minority.

We do not share an even playing field with Jewish women. As an Arab woman, I have to put in a lot more work to get to pretty much anywhere, whether it is an academic or professional setting.

And among Arab women, those who wear a hijab are the most excluded. The way we look puts us at the fore of racist treatment. I’ll give you an example from personal experience. When I arrive at a shopping center in a mixed or Jewish city, 10 Jewish women could walk in before me without getting stopped by security, but I will get stopped, checked, and likely humiliated by security. This is why I’m talking about social justice and self-actualization for women, I’m going to take action to remove obstacles for Arab women.

What do you believe is the path to removing those obstacles?

Awareness of the issue and the desire to enact change within the legislature. It’s about creating affirmative action for Arab women, both in writing and in deed.

Is it true your father-in-law is going to accompany you on trips?

Yes. But not because I am obligated by my religion to do so. I’ve chosen to watch out for myself, in order to honorably represent the Islamic Movement. Work requires me to spend long hours outside of the home and often until late at night. I want to feel comfortable and have the peace of mind that there is someone helping me with that, someone I can trust.

Iman Khatib-Yasin, left, with Ahmed Tibi, center, and Mansour Abbas at a Joint List campaign event in Nazareth, July 29, 2019. (Flash90/ via Zman)

How did you become a feminist within the confines of a fairly chauvinistic religion?

If you say it like that, it means you don’t know Islam, which is a religion that respects women. I was born into a family that championed equality and social justice, and I’ve maintained those values. When I first started establishing the community center in Kfar Yafia 20 years ago, while my children were still little, I didn’t give up or stay home. I integrated work with family. I have a partner who is my partner in life and my partner in [our life’s] journey.

When I look at my mother, a woman who was born at a different time but was always a strong woman who raised an exemplary family, I know she could have been a prime minister.

Are the obstacles facing Arab women today coming solely from the discriminatory practices of Israeli society, or are there still cultural obstacles? Are husbands and fathers in Arab society supportive of women working and studying?

Of course, we are way past that point. Today the percentage of female Arab students in academia is higher than that of male Arab students.

Being a public figure, getting caught in the proverbial eye of the storm and possibly having insults hurled at you — don’t you find these propositions daunting?

It was not an easy decision, and it was one I made together with my children and my partner. We discussed all aspects of this move and also addressed their concerns. But they supported me. And as much as I want to safeguard my privacy, I have no problem with people knowing who I am, because I’m proud of who I am. I am confident in my values and I’ve taken a vow to not allow myself to be tarred.

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