Israel/Palestine: 'Arab women in Israel face double discrimination'


In Israel, 17-year-olds are minors for all intents and purposes - except when it comes to marriage. This is not merely theoretical: Every year more than 4,500 Israelis aged 17 or younger marry. The vast majority - around 4,000 - are female. For this purpose, they are not minors. After all, they can already cook and clean; more important, their wombs and all the organs leading to them are ready.

The Knesset plenum is to vote today on a bill to raise the minimum marriage age from 17 to 18; there is still a danger that the ultra-Orthodox parties will scuttle it.

This is not the first time the proposal has been put forth; similar bills were submitted by MK Eti Livni (Shinui ) in the 16th Knesset and by MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz ) in the 17th Knesset and MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima ) tried to advance the idea two years ago. Under both prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert the Ministerial Committee for Legislation refused to back the proposals the first two times, and Zuaretz did not even submit her bill to the committee.

But now, surprisingly, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved the bill, which means it goes to the plenum with government backing. How advanced and enlightened. Hurray!

You might be tempted to say that times have changed, that the bill's day has come. But just one year ago the very same committee rejected the very same bill. How did it happen? Well, last year's bill was submitted by MK Hanin Zuabi (Balad ), this year's by MK Yariv Levin (Likud ).

This demonstrates two things. First, that all the bill needed was to be submitted by a man from the right, preferably the extreme right. Thus, in honor of International Woman's Day a bill initiated by a series of female MKs (this time it was Gila Gamliel of Likud who did the honors ) gained approval only when it was submitted by a man. Happy International Women's Day to us all.

The second lesson is no less important: that the exact same proposal that is treated like gold and immediately accepted when it comes from a right-wing Jewish man is treated like garbage and categorically rejected when the messenger is an Arab woman.

This may not sound earthshaking, but still. At a time when demonstrators call for expelling Zuabi from the Knesset, when an unprecedented number of Facebook members "like" a police complaint filed against her and she is verbally and physically attacked during a tour of Hebron, it's something worth noting.

In our masculine society, women are inferior to men in terms of rights and opportunities and are still punished in a variety of ways when they don't conform to "feminine" roles - being soft, gentle, motherly, sexy and generally weak.

A woman who does not fit this mold - who is not a mother, not married, not soft and not "nice" - and is Arab, to boot, with a strong Palestinian identity and who demands her civil and national rights, pays an infinitely greater price.

White women who aren't obedient suffer plenty as they make their way toward their goals, whatever they may be, but what Israeli society somehow manages to tolerate from its white women it is less likely to tolerate from Mizrahi women; very few women MKs are of Middle Eastern descent. And what Israeli society tolerates from its Jewish women, so it can boast about being egalitarian, it certainly is unwilling to tolerate from its Arab women.

In fact, what Israeli society is willing to accept from Palesinian men it will not accept from Palestinian women. Thus, Zuabi is the target not only of vicious epithets like "terrorist" that not even former MK Azmi Bashara faced, but also of sexist remarks about still being single and living with her parents because no one wants to marry her.

There is a distinct link between the attitude toward Zuabi and the view of women as chattel that can be given in marriage, at any age, without consideration for their needs and desires. As we raise the minimum age for marriage we should also, in honor of International Women's Day, raise our solidarity and tolerance and understand that an Arab woman, too, is a human being and has the right to dignity, to freedom of speech and to the pursuit of happiness.