Not Arabs and Not Jews: Druze Women in Israel

At a time when Muslim women all over the world are taking to “wearing the veil,” women who are part of a similar religious tradition in Israel—the Druze—are struggling to figure out how their own aspirations fit into a religious traditionalism.

The Druze people—of whom there are about 80,000 in Israel—share ethnicity and language with the Arabs of Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, among whom they live. What distinguishes them is their religion, an outgrowth of Islam, with elements of Chistianity and Judaism.

Although there is a small minority of Druze who consider themselves part of the Palestinian nation, the vast majority are citizens of Israel and serve in the Israeli army. However, the much-touted integration of the Druze into Israeli society (formalized by a covenant in 1956) is still almost exclusively a male phenomenon. Where are the women?

For the most part, these women are still in their villages. “It used to be that the Druze woman didn’t go out of her house,” explains Kokab Azam, a 25-year-old Druze woman who is the mother of two and a social welfare agency worker in Dalyat el Carmel in the Galilee. “Now, she does get an education and she works, but practically never outside her village.”

Amina Mansour, 34, a Druze woman who runs an afternoon pre-school program in her village, is a case in point. While her husband has friends and a daily life outside their village, through his army duty and his job at a factory in Haifa, basically the only contact Amina has with her non-Druze counterparts is through her husband’s co-workers. In fact, despite a university degree, she rarely leaves her village, and then she must always be accompanied by a man. Azam insists that the Druze women are naturally very modest, but recognizes that laws and traditions, which bind even those who are not observant, define the Druze woman’s role and place her at a societal disadvantage. (During the course of a recent interview. which did not take place in Azam’s village, her husband sat in the room with us.)

A Druze woman living in one of the 18 Druze villages in Israel cannot live alone or drive a car. Religious laws have created a situation in which even a university-educated woman like Kokab Azam cannot get a job outside her village for fear of being alienated from this very insular community.

“It is inevitable that Druze women will fall between the cracks,” explains Huria Biiani, who studied the status of women in Middle Eastern societies at the University of Haifa. “If we wanted to further our position in society, we would have to break with tradition. The political arena requires that you sit in meetings alone with men and travel around the country. This would put any Druze woman outside her community, and so even if she did manage to break into the general society she would no longer be representing her cause.”

Birani uses herself as an example of the limitations placed upon Druze women. She works in her village as a secretary for Na’amat, the largest women’s organization in Israel, but insists that given the opportunity, she would have liked to do more. “If I could travel to Tel Aviv alone, I could be in charge of the Northern chapter of Na’amat. I would have even liked to be the secretary for this area, but we have so many obstacles.”

Hulia Birani does not consider herself observant, but explains that the difference between an observant and nonobservant woman is slight. An observant woman will attend the Hulia, the Druze house of worship, she will dress modestly in long sleeves, skirts and head coverings, and she will not sit alone with a strange man. But even a relatively non-observant woman dressed in jeans and t-shirt will not go to look for a job in Tel Aviv, or even consider spending a night there on her own. “She would lose her whole future,” says Birani. “No one would look at her with respect anymore. Look, there has been some advancement but it’s just not enough. The Druze woman might be able to dress in more modern ways, and she might be able to attend the university now without fear of being ostracized, but most Druze women still study to enter the ‘women’s professions—to be teachers, nurses or social workers— because they know that studying anything more involved will be pointless and frustrating. There is this basic, nearly unshakable attitude among us that a woman’s honor is the most important value. So a man can run around and do as he pleases but a woman is held back.”

“By us,” explains Amina Mansour, “a father worries about his daughter. He would never let her do the things he lets his son do. We do have a lot of rights, but basically we go from our father’s house to our husband’s house—with no stops in between.”

For those who do choose to abandon the tradition altogether, today’s social reality is that ostracism or even worse will follow. Ichlas Bassam was a Druze woman murdered last year by her younger brother because he felt that she had become too “Western,” and he felt he had to protect his family’s good name. (She had been living in New York but had returned to Israel to visit her family and help establish an orphanage and geriatric facility for the Druze community.) While some Druze women were furious over the killing, Druze leaders refused to publicly condemn the boy’s actions, and even those who disapproved of the killing were critical of Bassam. Here, too, the tacit expectations for a Druze woman are evident.

“No Druze man has ever been killed because of this,” says Nawil Assis, who heads an organization dedicated to opposing family honor killings in Arab society. “Men change their names, go out with Jews, and no one ever accuses them of dishonoring the family.”

Druze historian Jabber Abu-Rukun insists that this idea of a woman being a man’s “property” has no basis in the Druze religion, and its vestiges within their community are from years of living near other Middle Eastern religions.

From a feminist perspective, Druze religious law appears comparatively enlightened: A man can only take one wife. A woman must choose her spouse, she can request a divorce, she receives the house and fifty percent of all assets after a divorce, and she is even entitled to the same inheritance as her brother. She is accepted as a witness (unlike Jewish law) and, unlike Islamic law, where an unmarried girl who gets pregnant may be killed, under these circumstances killing is not sanctioned by the Druze.

“From a religious perspective,” says Abu-Rukun, “man and woman are equal.”

What happens socially is a different story. For instance, according to Druze law, a woman can achieve holy status and become an “Amam”—allowing her to render religious decisions for the community. But within the Druze community in Israel, this position has always been filled by a man.

“The Druze society is still patriarchal,” says Dr. Kais.

Firro, author of History of the Druze, notes that “The man is at a distinct advantage.” For example, if a woman is widowed and wants to remarry, her house and children must remain with the deceased husband’s family. Not surprisingly, as a consequence, most Druze widows do not remarry.

In Israel, many Druze women are war widows and are left in their houses alone after their husbands have died ^ fighting for the Jewish state. Indeed, W the only image of Druze women for most Jewish women in Israel is that of the bereaved war widow on television and in the newspapers. Otherwise, contact is very limited.

While most Druze complete high school, only about three percent of Druze women attend university, studying education, nursing and, sometimes, engineering. As recently as 15 years ago, a woman’s parents were excommunicated (which means they couldn’t attend the Hulia) if she chose to go study at a university. In the past 10-15 years there has been a shift for most Druze women from the house to working within or at a nearby village. Most of the local schools and factories are peopled with Druze women, and day-care centers are becoming more and more a fixture in most villages. While there is no precept outlawing birth control, Druze families used to average six or seven children; now, three to five children per family is standard.

“The fact that we are getting out of our houses, that we realize that we need to study and work, this is a Jewish influence,” says Raja Mansour, a mother of three who attended university and is now a secretary in her village. “We have started to work and we are becoming aware of the concept of women’s lights. We are entering modern times, but it is happening slowly, slowly.”

Modern times are evident in Dalyat el Carmel, the largest Druze village in Israel, where one-and two-story houses line the paved roads, cars can be seen zipping up and down the main street, and a Middle Eastern restaurant pops up every block or so. Embroidered wares stand next to the fruits and vegetables in the bustling market area as the Druze try to market their “in-between” status—as not-Arabs but also not-Jews, in order to attract tourists. Women with scarves cascading from their heads down their backs, in long sleeves and long skirts, converse easily with their Druze sisters in jeans, sweaters and sneakers.

It is practically impossible for a religious Druze woman to attend university or study anywhere, and this is largely why most young women are not observant. “A religious girl would not study in such a secular environment,” explains Dalia Birani, 20, a political science .student at Haifa University.

So young women who want to go to university stop attending the Hulia and adopt a more modern way of dressing, but today this does not alienate them from their community, because they are still bound by most traditions. “Ours is a very traditional, and yet a very transitional, society,” says Dalia. “The ‘modern’ Druze encourage women to get an education but not to learn whatever they want. Some say we women should be
able to get a driver’s license, but we can never drive alone outside the village. Some say we can travel to Haifa, the nearest city, alone but never any further.

“In our society there is defined women’s work. Most girls my age study to be teachers, but I want to study law.” Dalia says that she is prepared to practice law in the city. She acknowledges that there would probably be community- wide disapproval, but insists that she will stand up to it. Yet, Dalia will only marry a Druze man as there is no concept of conversion into the Druze religion. If someone marries outside the religion all contact with their family must be severed.

“My plans could be a problem in terms of marriage, but I don’t care. I only want someone who will understand me and won’t hold me back.”

For a typical young Druze woman, this is a very progressive statement. “By 17 or 18, girls in our community are expected to get married,” explains Dalia. “In my mind this is the biggest obstacle for the Druze woman. Because if she does get married then, all other things become less important. And if she does go for a career, the environment tells her that this will have to be a career that can easily balance a family.”

While young single women can go either way religiously, by their mid-thirties it is a socially accepted norm for most Druze women to return to the religion—at the point when they are responsible for determining their children’s education. Family life, nuclear and extended, is the backbone of the Druze community, and it is the Druze woman who is ultimately responsible for its preservation.

As the bearers of the religious life, women have become symbolic of the culture. Leila Ahmed points out in Women and Gender in Islam that a prominent meaning of the veil— analogous to the head scarf worn by religious Druze women—is its rejection of the West. She says, “Typically women—and the reaffirmation of indigenous customs relating to women and the restoration of the customs and laws of past Islamic societies with respect to women—are the centerpiece of the agenda of political Islamists.”

Samir Rashin wears a traditional scarf encircling her head and neck that could obscure the fact that she’s a trailblazer. When she attended Haifa University twenty years ago, her parents were excommunicated, but they still supported her decision to receive a secular education. “I was lucky because my parents believed in what I was doing,” she says. “Many women weren’t even learning Hebrew in those days.”

Today, in her fifties, a mother of five and observant, she is an educational advisor in her local school. She encourages girls to study at the University or the Technion (an engineering school) and she has returned to Haifa University for an advanced degree. Rashin also participates in the University’s “Woman to Woman” program which has women helping other women learn. Rashin sees no problem reconciling her religion with her position as a woman, and calls herself a feminist.

“I am not anti-men,” she says, “but I believe in self-awareness and self-understanding, and I am trying to get the women in my neighborhood to realize their importance. I want the Druze woman to observe her religion but I also want her to be involved in Israeli society, and with more education and understanding this could be done.”

Whether this can be done within the existing framework and without endangering the Druze cultural life is hard to say. There is talk now of allowing Druze women to drive cars, but even if this is allowed, the change has to get general acceptance before it will actually have an impact on the women. “I want to be like other women,” says Kokab Azum, who walks with her long brown hair uncovered and a bright colored skirt and top. “I want to be more involved in the world, more free. But I still don’t think I would want to get a license. I just don’t think it will look right.”

Naomi Grossman lived in Jerusalem, Israel, where she was a freelance writer for 4 years. She currently lives in Syracuse, New York.