"Who is this young Arab woman who thinks she can teach men how to run a city?"

14-11-2016 - 11:59

"Who is this young Arab woman who thinks she can teach men how to run a city?"

(Published in The Marker Magazine Magazine 16 October 2016)

Written by Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi, Executive Director of Injaz Center for Professional Arab Local Governance

"I want the aroma of coffee. I need five minutes. I want a five-minute break for the sake of coffee”  wrote Mahmoud Darwish. Women in Israel in Career, both Jewish and Arab, can Certainly Empathize with these Sentences. Between holding down the tasks of career and home, a coffee break often seems like an unattainable dream.

Until recently, seeing a woman appointed to head of the second largest Arab NGO in Israel also looked like a distant dream. Now, after serving for a decade as the Executive Director of Injaz Center for Professional Arab Local Governance which I helped to establish, I am accepted easily by my colleagues at the municipalities. But this was not always the case.

As a child I was shy and quiet, and a devout reader. I do not remember the exact moment when the dreamy journalist that I was suddenly decided to become a major activist in Arab civil society. Perhaps the change began while I was a young academic, when I moved to Jerusalem, some 200 kilometers from my parents in Nazareth, a move that was considered very unusual at the time.

During the previous decade I worked for the National Committee of Arab Mayors, directly under its chairman, Shawki Khatib, to whom I owe a lot and who served as my mentor for many years. We both realized the need to establish a center to lead processes of change and promote greater professionalism in Arab local government. The breaking point was when the second war in Lebanon broke out in 2006, during which the Galilee region was bombarded for weeks. Arab local authorities were in chaos and some even ceased to function altogether, unable to provide aid to their terrified residents.

The memories of the festive conference launching Injaz Center in 2008, to which we invited all of the Arab mayors from around the country, is still etched in my mind. The dignitaries invited that day rushed to shake hands with Chairman Khatib and congratulate him, barely noticing me, the Center's new director standing right by his side. Apparently, most of them thought I was his secretary. A very few actually turned to me and took me seriously.

In the months following the establishment of the Center, the first meetings I had with the mayors began in the same vein, where I was greeted with quite a few raised eyebrows from senior officials-all men-skeptically eyeing this young woman in her 30s who wanted to teach them how to run the city. But after five minutes of conversation, attitudes began to change. After a meticulous presentation of the problems in their local authorities, analyzing of the causes of deficit and offering a strategic plan for its recovery, no one remained indifferent.

Despite efforts, successful joint work with the local authorities does not come easily, due to the predominantly male atmosphere - a common situation, unfortunately, in quite a few Jewish local authorities as well. But my persistence and professionalism, supported by the management and staff of Injaz Center, eventually won us recognition and together we slowly and surely led the Center to a significant position in the field of Arab local government. Currently, we work closely with 66 of the 80 Arab local authorities throughout Israel.

My commitment to the women in the society in which I live is motivated by these difficulties. At the outset, due to the general lack of women in managerial positions, I had to deal with many more obstacles and pressures than did my male counterparts. I had never considered a man as a competitor, but rather as a partner in my endeavors. Yet still, throughout my years in public activities, I find that I need to work much harder than my male colleagues in order to reach the same achievements.

The support I receive from my immediate surroundings, and my responsibility and commitment to my daughter and my son to create a reality of equal opportunities, have been the primary motivations behind my diligent work and uncompromising dedication. I do all this in order to make the female voice heard in the corridors of power and at the tables where decisions are made.

Almost a decade has passed since the establishment of Injaz, and it seems that my success and the success of other women like myself in managerial positions at civil society institutions have become role models, encouraging young Arab women to become more active in these areas. Today we see many women in the fields of management and economic consultation, management supervision, and in the field of marketing. Whereas among my generation, you can count the number of Arab women in positions of influence on one hand, or at most two, among young women aged 25 to 35 today, it's a completely different picture.

This change is evident, for example, in the following statistic: in the 2008 local municipal elections, only eighteen Arab women ran for City Council positions throughout the country, of whom only three were elected. And already, in the 2013 local elections, 145 Arab women ran for municipal positions, of whom 22 were elected.

Today's modern Arab woman is characterized, also in Israel, as one who recognizes her own value and capabilities as a human being, in a society which has adopted the lexicon of the values ​​of liberty, freedom, personal responsibility, and fulfilling the potential of the self and the collective. We promote those values ​​in order to replace the traditionalist work environment where I, together with my colleagues in positions of influence, serve as catalysts to this process.

As a woman, a mother and a female Arab CEO, I still find myself in a perpetual conflict between the demands of the goals I set for myself in the public arena and the basic necessities of life, running a household and caring for my family- a situation that my male colleagues in both Jewish and Arab society, as well as in the world in general, take for granted. And so, among these many tasks, I am still struggling for that "five-minute break for the sake of coffee."


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