Written by Tal Miller, Mynet, “Yediot Hadera”, on June 2nd
On the day she went out to work in agriculture to provide for her family, her eyes opened. There she saw for the first time the horrible exploitation, the humiliating treatment, and the abuse of Arab women forced to work in the absence of minimal working standards. Despite the “good advice” she got, as well as the threats on her life and the lives of her children, she embarked on a struggle which continues to this day, to integrate Arab women in the workforce and protect their basic rights. This is Wafa Tiara, Kufr Qara’s “First Feminist,” the only woman in town whose husband hangs out the laundry.
One day, when a brief history of feminism in Israel’s Arab Sector is compiled, Wafa Tiara will be honored somewhere at the top of the list. In a time where every interest in the economy has someone fighting for it, Tiara is one of a kind— a vigorous lobbyist fighting bravely to give women in the Arab sector the opportunity to go out and work and the right to make a living with dignity.
As the coordinator of WAC-MAAN’s Women in Agriculture project, fighting for women’s empowerment has become first nature to Tiara— except that unlike classic lobbyists, she does most of her work pro bono. Her profit margin isn’t measured by her paycheck, but rather by the employment statistics for women in her sector. When the work began a decade ago, the unemployment rate for Arab women in the Triangle region was as much as 83 percent. Of every ten women in the sector, only one or two held a job. Tiara swore to change this, and change is happening indeed. Today unemployment rates are already down to about 73 percent, and she will continue fighting to drive them lower yet.
“In a developed state like Israel, this statistic is incomprehensible,” Wafa said this week at her office in the MAAN center in Baqa el-Gharbia “The government is aware of the situation and is trying to set up programs to integrate women in the workforce, but the plans are not right and they don’t work in practice. They teach women to write resumes, but then nobody does anything with those resumes because there are no appropriate jobs for the women. Instead of bolstering the ranks of workers, it only bolsters the ranks of frustrated and desperate women and makes it more difficult for them to integrate in society. At MAAN we are trying to change this picture. There are 5,000 women we represent, and we do everything we can to look out for them, both for jobs and for decent conditions when they start working.”
Tiara (42) was born and raised in Kufr Qara, where she lives to this day. “The power to lead is something I got at home,” she says, minutes after stepping out of the Toyota van she expertly navigates through Baqa’s roads.
“I had eight sisters and two younger brothers. A big home in which my mother and I had to be partners in labor to provide for everything. After I finished high school I got married and had four children, but I always wanted to do more than I was doing. I started volunteering at schools, I took courses. I did things that people around me didn’t always like. In my town, people expect that if you aren’t a teacher or a nurse, you should sit around at home. I never accepted that.”
The turning point in her life came in 2003. Her husband was injured at work with the Solel Boneh construction company and the family began sinking into debt. Tiara was forced to get a job. She started working as a contract worker in agriculture and what she saw there changed the direction of her life forever. “When I started working in agriculture, every day I was exposed to a new form of exploitation. An Arab contractor would come with a van, load 16 women into a car that had maybe ten seats, take them to the nearby Moshavim [cooperative agricultural Jewish towns] – Aviel, Givat Ada, or Amikam. They would pay them 10 or 12 or 14 NIS per hour. I would get half of minimum wage – 85 NIS per day, of course without benefits or a pay slip.
The contractor handed out the money whenever he felt like it, to keep the women dependent on him. We’re talking about very physical work, sometimes in the heat of July and August, picking summer fruit, peaches, plums, grapes. All under the hottest sun there is.
The contractors also employed men, but they paid them more and gave them breaks to eat and smoke. They didn’t give us anything. There were women’s workplace accidents that weren’t recognized, because they weren’t listed and the contractor threatened that if they would make a complaint they wouldn’t be able to work anymore. He said, ‘You walk out that door, ten more women will come in through that door instead of you and twenty more will try to get in through the window.’ The contractors took advantage of the women’s desperation, they simply had to work.”
It took a few months of hard labor before Tiara decided it was time to take action. “This situation was driving me out of my mind,” she says. “I started telling women we had to complain. I didn’t know at the time what unions were, didn’t think there were rights we were entitled to, but I knew if we all would refuse these conditions, the ripe fruit would stay on the trees. After all, he needed us no less than we needed him.”
How did the women respond?
“They shut me up. They said I was crazy, that I shouldn’t make trouble.”
And did you?
(Laughs) “I made a lot of trouble.”
The Laundry Effect
In 2004, Tiara joined Independent Union Center WAC-MAAN, which unionizes unorganized workers across all nationalities, religions, genders, and professions. The organization was established in the late 90s as a workers’ aid association by Leftist activists. At MAAN they told her about all of the benefits she was entitled to as a worker. With their assistance she was able to find a new job which changed her life.
“I was one of the first women who started working in agriculture through MAAN. I worked picking avocados, with fair conditions. I was so pleased I forgot it was even agriculture. Slowly we started paying off our debts at home, I grew more confident and started convincing other women to join up.”
The rumor that Wafa was working for 144 NIS per day began spreading all through the town. Women going out to work created a revolution in Kufr Qara, affecting all areas of life. Suddenly women began driving cars without a man’s supervision. Equality in providing also led to equality at home.
How did they respond at home to the big role you took upon yourself?
“At first, when I would ask my husband to help me with the housework, it created tension. It didn’t come naturally. The first time I asked him to hang out the laundry it took him two hours, because he didn’t want the neighbors to see that was what he was doing. But with time it became natural. It takes him a lot less time to do it these days.”
The support at home was significant, but like in every struggle of its kind, there were many who tried to stop the winds of change. “One day I came home and saw my children shaking with fear. They told me a strange man had come by and said, ‘Shame on your mother, she should stop spoiling the women.’ They tried to pressure me through my children, but I wasn’t deterred and never for a moment thought of giving up. I told myself, ‘I’ve lived through the worst exploitation. I will not let more women be exploited. I will continue with this struggle no matter what price I have to pay.’ And that price and the threats have come in waves. Sometimes it seems they might drown you and sometimes they’re calmer, but they never disappear, not even now.”
In your view, what is the root of the problem keeping unemployment rates so high?
“The problem began in the 90s. In that decade a few things happened. The textile factories moved to Jordan and China, places where labor is cheap, and the Arab women were left without work. In addition, the Oslo Accords stopped Palestinian workers from entering Israel, and they started bringing in foreign laborers for construction and agriculture. This way, the standing of Arab workers deteriorated. If once a man working in construction could single-handedly provide for his whole family, now the same man doing the same work would barely make minimum wage.
Wages went down sharply and the cost of living went up a lot, children’s means and needs become more expensive as technology moves forward, and the result was an ever greater need for women to go out to work. But naturally, there were less Arab women who had received an education, and their opportunities were concentrated primarily in agriculture but the farmers did not want Arab women. They preferred Thai workers. They started struggling with the government over subsidizing the foreign workers. The farmers’ lobby is very powerful. It struggled for subsidies on foreign workers, and the government gave in and let them take on Thai workers under slavery-like conditions. If a farmer can hire three Thai workers who will work 20 hours a day for him, why should he rather take an Arab woman who will work less hours for more money? It is not the farmers who are to blame for this situation but the government which allowed it to occur. It subsidizes exploited Thai labor, dearly harming the attempt to integrate Arab women in the workforce.
The government knows the situation. We came to the Knesset committees on the foreign workers and presented all of the data and numbers. At these committees the government representatives blamed tradition, religion, and Arab society, which they claim prevents women from going out to work. A few years ago I was interviewed on Army Radio together with then-Minister of Agriculture Shalom Simhon. He said ‘the women don’t really want to work.’ I told him, ’I’ll send you one hundred names and phone numbers tomorrow.’ And I did. Nothing happened. The next time Army Radio asked to check what had changed he didn’t agree to an interview anymore.”
But nonetheless, to what degree are the women themselves and Arab society altogether responsible for the situation?
“I don’t want to say that Arab society in Israel doesn’t make mistakes. Traditional life does indeed slow things down, and that’s why we do educational outreach with the women and try to get the word out about success stories. But at the end of the day, all of that kind of work will not be enough. We need solutions that will reduce poverty and unemployment, and above all a full stop to the employment of foreign labor, establishment of industrial zones, investment in infrastructure, and transportation to enable women to get out of the towns to work in the Moshavim in the area.”
Today there are over 5,000 Arab women registered with MAAN and the numbers only go up as word spreads. Tiara is active and involved in women’s work all over the Arab Triangle, including the cities of Tira and Taibe, even though there are no official MAAN centers there yet. “There are lots of contractors in these places,” she explains. “It’s like the mob, as soon as we talk to working women, the contractors make threats. We can fight them, but ultimately they get their power from the government.”
In Kufr Qara they call you the town’s “first feminist.”
“I can’t say I’m the first, there were other women before me fighting for the same cause, but I’m proud to be a feminist and proud to be part of this path we’re taking.”
Translation by Michael Sapir
(Photo: Asaf Friedman)