While the political debate on the future of a Palestinian state fails to make any progress towards peace, local grass root initiatives, led by the overlooked Arab women, are quietly making a difference on the ground. The story of “Kayan”, Arabic word for ”being”, offers inspiration and insight on a small but growing movement that is mobilizing women in the region to intervene and take action to restore their environment.
Kayan Feminist Organization was set up 13 years ago by a group of Arab Palestinian women activists who wanted to create a foundation for Palestinian women rights in Israel. Their small office, where five full time staff and two intern volunteers are based, is found in a building in Haifa that is also home to three other women NGO organizations, two Arab and two Jewish. With support from American and European foundations and women volunteers, their legal and community development teams have been able to advance the status of Arab women in Israel through different programmes. Some of these include: The Childcare Workers Program (2002-2004) which addresses the violation of female childcare workers’ rights in Arab villages and towns in Israel, the Women Demand Mobility Program (2004-2008) where Kayan was able to facilitate a grassroots campaign that brings public transportation to Israel’s Arab towns and villages, and the Arabic Leaflet on the Law against Domestic Violence (2007).
According to Rafa Anabtawi, the dynamic Community Work Department Coordinator at Kayan, “in the community department, our goal is to remove the patriarchal society assumption, helping women think of themselves as capable of taking on additional roles besides those of mothers and wives and facilitating the establishment of grass root leadership organizations that can sustain themselves”. With the majority of members unemployed and with only basic school level education, Kayan acts as a valuable resource to organize projects, providing network opportunities and in some cases securing the small funds necessary to get the organization started.
The foundation of the Kayan’s programms is “Jusur” (meaning bridges in Arabic), a framework whereby women are provided with professional consulting, leadership training, and capacity building tools. An offshoot of Jusur, the Jusur Forum of Arab leadership, helps define common interest and needs and strengthens communication between over 40 women leaders from more than 20 villages and cities throughout Israel. The vision of this forum is to empower women to take on opportunities that influence the existing social and political structure. The approach is therefore long-term and has resulted in the launch of several grass root initiatives including the first group of Arab women in Israel addressing environmental sustainability.
It all started three years ago in the village of Mghar, an area of 20,000 inhabitants which sits on a hill surrounded by olive groves and farm land. Despite the proximity to Lake Tiberias, Mghar’s residents do not have access to enough water and water shortage is exacerbated by mounting waste problem. When asked why she is so passionate about this issue, village leader Aziza Quwaiqiz-Muadi notes that the need to act comes from a “feeling that the environment should belong to me.”
Rafa adds: “Initially the leaders of this project faced many challenges. The environment is in general not seen as an issue that women should get involved in, but a male or political issue. The leaders for this initiative were able to rally support from the women in the village by explaining the personal relevance of the environmental problems, including the use of water, raising kids to be more environmentally educated, waste management. It is part of our struggle to change the idea that there are women issues. Every issue can be a women issue and women can make a difference like men.”
The programme addressed the environment at three levels. First, through educational campaigns to raise awareness about nature conservancy and environmental issues. Following that they got children involved by targeting schools and teaching children and their parents about the environmental issues at stake and their role in proper water conservation. Finally, they connected with the local council in Mghar focusing on the issue of access to clean water. Rafah adds that here again they faced gender-stereotype difficulties. The local authorities could not see the connection between the environmental problem and women and had no confidence in their capabilities.
Another pilot project currently taking place by the now-independent Women and Environment Association is the “Roundabout Project.” The leaders of Mghar have recently obtained local authority approval to help turn the village landmark into a green zone using local material and sustainable practices making their efforts more visible to all.
Although Kayan’s immediate result lies in empowering the Arab women minority at a grass root level, the movement reveals the potential role of women in community building, reconciliation and peace building. By focusing on the environment, a common theme, women in this conflict-ridden region can find an opportunity to make a difference and eventually be heard.
For some, the environment might seem less of a priority given the current political landscape but with the rapid environmental deterioration of the region’s natural resources, this may no longer be a valid argument. When asked “why nature?”, Elana Rozenman, an Israeli female environmental activist replied, “In a few years, we are going to end up in such a drought in this region that none of the rest of the conflict is going to matter”.
Read more about women-led environmental initiatives