Last month, Israel elected its first hijab-wearing Arab member of the Knesset as part of the Joint List, the climax of a year of political instability which resulted in three elections being carried out.
Having worked in local politics for quite some time as the manager of a community centre, Iman Khatib-Yasin has been outspoken on the fight for religious and gender equality within the struggle for Palestinian rights in Israel.
“Personally, women’s affairs have always interested me. Even as a social worker, my focus was on women,” she says. “Through my work as a community centre director, I would work with groups of female leaders trying to involve them in leadership roles. At one point in time, I thought about becoming a mayor, but we are not there yet as a society.”
Khatib earned a bachelor’s degree at Haifa University in social work and a master’s degree at Tel Aviv University in women’s affairs.
In parliament, she hopes to tackle issues ranging from violence in Arab neighbourhoods to poverty and housing – areas in which complaints of discrimination towards Arabs are common.“These are the issues that are close to my heart and what pushed me in to this field. However, I also think that as a minority in this area, we must address our major and thorny issues, such as discrimination based on race and ethnicity, equality in budgets, land and housing, home demolition, and the Nation-State Law, the day on which it was passed was a sad day for us.”
The law, which came into effect in 2018, declares Israel as a Jewish state and demotes Arabic to a secondary status as a national language. It sparked fury among Palestinian Arabs and other minorities who saw it as denying their right to live in the country.
She says the purpose of having Arab members of the Knesset is to try to secure complete and equal citizenship rights for all nationals, but this is something which is still “out of complete reach”.
“We know that we do not have great capabilities to confront this, especially as the overwhelming majority of Israeli society at the moment is racist and right-wing, but we cannot abandon these issues as they are the core issues that affect our daily lives.”
Islamophobia, that has existed in the country for decades, is just part of the backdrop for the hatred of Arabs in present-day Israel, which also ultimately influences the perception of women wearing hijabs.
Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first came to power in 1996 he has denigrated Arab politicians as “supporters of terrorism”, using them as a political tool to garner support ahead of every election.
However, the climate of hatred never discouraged Khatib from pursuing her ambitions and making a difference in Israel’s political landscape.
Ambitious women in politics are treated differently and can be limited in electoral participation, Khatib notes, but this is more due to strict cultural practices of identity than religion. “There is discrimination from society,” the lawmaker explains.
She recalls when she first sought election, people – including women – would try to discourage her from adopting what they considered to be masculine behaviour and roles with remarks such as “politics is no place for women”.
“Women will come up to me to say politics is a place that isn’t really suitable or clean, and that this power should be only in the hands of men. However, this applies to a small number of people.
I can truly say that there were many votes for the Joint List because people believed that a hijabi woman should be on the list.
Enduring this public scrutiny is nothing new for Khatib, as the first woman from the Southern Islamic Movement to be elected to the Knesset she knew what to expect from the rigors of campaigning.
“It is not immediately or implicitly understood that if a woman in hijab has a master’s degree and certifications in management and many other areas, that she is capable and able. So, every time I go somewhere new, there is doubt about my abilities.”
She believes her presence in Israel’s male-dominated political stage is creating that much-needed space for women. Currently only 25 per cent of lawmakers in Israel are female.
As a 54-year-old mother of four from the Galilee village of Yaffa of Nazareth, she wants change for the next generation. “I want my daughter, and the daughters of others, to be in a safe space. I want the walls to be broken down and the doors to be open to them, and face less challenges, and it is not impossible.”
“Although challenges build character, there is potential for other challenges that could be constructive, rather than having hijab or clothing be a hindrance.”
Khatib has already used her perch in the Knesset to demonstrate her skills by helping her community face the coronavirus pandemic.
Having spent 14 years running her area’s first community centre, Khatib has an insight in to what affairs matter most to locals. While Netanyahu and the Ministry of Health focused their attention on Jewish dominated communities, it was pressure from Joint List members that forced the government to take action in other areas.
Earlier this month, unemployment in Israel reached more than a million for the first time, Khatib says Arabs make up a large number of those affected. To support them, she requested that the government provide families with child allowances and temporarily suspend municipality taxes and directly fund families to spend on essentials such as utilities and food.
Ultimately, she says, it was her parents’ forward-thinking ideals about how to raise a daughter that helped her in her career.
“I always used to say that if my mother was born in another time, she could have been a prime minister. She is strong, able and reflective.”
“Despite the difficult times we experienced, even after my father passed, she continued to convey their message and raise a righteous and educated home. The most important thing they instilled in us is fearlessness, respect for humans, and the love for our land and our commitment to it. For us, our land is vast and wide and can fit everyone and we can never concede.”