Religious Harmony via Feminism in Israel: A Discussion with Ms. Roula Deeb

By Vyjayanthi Vadrevu

Carrie, Carmen and I had the privilege of meeting with Ms. Roula Deeb, Director and Co-Founder of the Israeli-based feminist organization Kayan. Prior to Kayan, Ms. Deeb worked at Isha L’Isha- Haifa Feminist Center, whose aim is to achieve “equality for all women and” to promote “peaceful coexistence between Arab and Jewish women.”

Kayan seeks to empower Arab-Israeli women, who often face “double discrimination” as women and as Arabs, through grassroots capacity building mostly in the northern Arab-dominated regions of Israel. Kayan’s scope of work includes community action, legal aid, governmental policy change and advocacy. They primarily empower women through workshops, community meetings, lectures and publications. Kayan was also the incubator for ASWAD- the Palestinian gay rights organization.

Prior to delving into Kayan's work, Ms. Deeb enlightened us with a background on Arabs in Israel (total population 7.7 million) and religious differences that exist within the Arab community. Of the 1.2 million Arabs living in Israel, 80% are Muslim, 10% are Christian and 10% are Druze, which is an offshoot of Islam. Civil marriages do not exist in Israel; all marriages are religious institutions and are governed by the laws of Israelis' respective religions.

Interestingly enough, some of Kayan's largest donors are Jewish organizations based in Israel, Europe and the U.S. For the past three years, a Jewish organization has been the main financial support for perhaps Kayan's largest achievement: the expansion of the public transport system to the Arab dominated northwest. This implementation of infrastructure has literally mobilized the Israeli-Arab women in the community, who had previously been very confined in their homes.

Through our lively discussion, we realized that Kayan and JASS share many key similarities in strategy and vision. Particularly interesting was Kayan's approach to getting people involved in the movement. Kayan inspires women who are leaders in their communities to "energize" other women in their communities to get involved in the public sphere. These women in turn go out and advocate women's rights issues throughout Israel, building movements and creating waves throughout Arab communities in Israel. One example of their work was a protest against a high-level mayor who essentially condoned an honor killing in his town. Though the mayor was not prosecuted in the end, Kayan's members were especially empowered by this event because they worked through their own fears and doubts to speak out against injustice, and became stronger in the process. Ms. Deeb and her colleagues at Kayan are proud to call themselves feminists, but are equally proud to let everyone define feminism in their own terms.

In short, our meeting with Ms. Deeb was inspiring, heart-warming and eye-opening. We hope to work with Ms. Deeb and our Middle Eastern counterparts in the very near future, sharing in our endeavors to empower women across the globe.