In the old stone house where they work, 10 Druze women greeted me, most of them dressed in traditional clothing with white head covers hiding their hair and obscuring their faces. A few of the women were toying with the fabric, alternately masking and unmasking their mouths
What was I doing there? During the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, our Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey was looking for a way to help people living in northern Israel, and focused on a project for women’s advancement in the Druze village of Hurfeish. (Druze are a monotheistic religious sect described as an offshoot of Ismaili Islam).
In my role as Israel Center Associate, I decided to visit the village and meet the women participating in this initiative.
Afaf Ganem, the women’s advancement coordinator, explained that this women’s group, the “Lace Makers,” is a cultural and social initiative to advance Druze women’s status through business.Most women in the village had been unemployed, and the founding idea was to
take traditional Druze handicrafts—knitting, embroidery, and clothes-making—and transform them into marketable items. When this female artistry was seen publicly, modern Israeli society saw how valuable the product is and—importantly—made the work profitable both for the artisans and for the village.
“At first,” Ganem recalled, “nobody thought that we would be successful in attracting people to the village.” For women who live in a society governed by tradition, earning a living independently from men is nothing short of transformative.
Yet, since there was no precedent for this kind of women’s work having commercial value, some village men viewed the initiative with concern, fearing it as a potential threat to Druze social order. By deliberately linking it to the larger economic effort, the women’s success reflected back onto the whole village.
It was the very nature of the women’s work that soon eased the tension; making traditional embroidery could hardly be labeled rebellious. And the growing interest around the initiative led to a significant increase in tourism, creating new job opportunities and financial growth that benefited the entire village.
Most of the women I met were religious, and they ranged in age from 34 to 61. Despite the fact that some had studied in colleges outside the village, they still worried that if they attended the meetings their absence from home would somehow harm their families. Consequently, the Lace Makers meetings were scheduled for late on Monday mornings, when their children would be at school and their husbands at work. “This is our sanctuary,” one of the women commented with a smile. The others nodded their agreement.
When I asked what they talked about, the oldest woman replied with a wink that the best way of catching up with the village gossip was to attend their Monday sessions. The women prepared favorite foods and brought them, and talked about discovering their true selves for the first time, forming new friendships as they worked on their different handicrafts. A considerable number were single women in their late 30s and 40s, and despite the traditional nature of their culture, it seems that the group has found a way to offer support and understanding to all its members.
When it was time for me to leave, the women surprised me with a pair of thick, beautifully knitted socks, meant to keep me warm until I marry.