In Israel, first hijab-wearing lawmaker hopes to build bridges

Why We Wrote This

New Israeli Knesset member Iman Khatib Yassin, a devout Muslim, knows her hijab is eye-catching. But before she became religious, or political, she was a feminist motivated against injustice.

Heidi Levine/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Arab Israeli politician Iman Khatib Yassin at her home in Yafa an-Naseriyye, outside Nazareth. She is the first Islamic headscarf-wearing woman to be elected to the Israeli parliament.

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Iman Khatib Yassin is a groundbreaker, the first woman wearing an Islamic headscarf to be elected to Israel’s parliament. She knows that the scarf, or hijab, is what people will see first. But she wants to make the voices of devout Muslim women heard in the corridors of power, and bring her long experience of community activism to the Knesset.

Ms. Khatib Yassin, a middle-aged mother of four, became religious out of gratitude for her first child’s birth after her doctor had told her she was infertile. But she has been political since childhood, when the Israeli government confiscated some of her family’s land.

She was elected to the Knesset in March, on a list representing the descendants of Palestinian Arabs who stayed in Israel when the state was created in 1948, instead of becoming refugees. But her social welfare agenda transcends ethnic boundaries, and so do the friendships she has struck up with religious Jewish women.

“I hope we can be a good example of what religious women can do,” she says.

In her hilltop village home outside Nazareth, Iman Khatib Yassin, one of Israel’s newest lawmakers, sinks into a chair in her living room, furnished with plush cream-colored couches and Persian rugs.

Wearing a pale green hijab headscarf and rose-colored cardigan, she clasps her hands on the lap of her floor-skimming dress. It’s been a long week, she explains in her low, gentle voice, a week of shuttling between parliamentary committee meetings on the coronavirus and the economy in Jerusalem, and long drives to tend to her ailing mother at a hospital in the Galilee. She would return home around 11 p.m.

Ms. Khatib Yassin still seems surprised that she’s a member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, more than four months after being elected. A social worker and community center director, she had long turned down suggestions that she enter politics. In the end she decided to run for office in March because she was motivated by the idea of representation itself.

“I strongly felt a calling to serve others, I saw running as a chance to open the door to other traditional women. But even though I ran I still didn’t think I had any chance of actually getting into the Knesset,” she says.

She scraped in, 15th on the Joint List, a coalition of parties representing the descendants of the Palestinian Arabs who stayed in Israel in 1948 when the state was created as a Jewish homeland. Others fled or were expelled, settling as refugees in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. The Joint List won 15 seats, which made it the third largest party in Israel and made Ms. Khatib Yassin the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to be elected to parliament in the history of Israel.

Breaking barriers

She knows the hijab, the Islamic headscarf, is what people will see first, but she hopes to make her mark, she says, as a feminist with a social welfare agenda that will transcend ethnic boundaries to help all of those marginalized and in need.

“I believe we need to push and invest and if we do, ultimately that work will pay off,” says Ms. Khatib Yassin, the daughter of farmers with little education who pushed her and her siblings to go to university.

Heidi Levine/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Iman Khatib Yassin with her daughter Rose (r.) at their home near Nazareth. Rose acted as her mother's driver during the recent Israeli election campaign.

Another breakthrough – she is the first woman elected to the Knesset from Ra’am, a party representing the Southern Islamic Movement, known for its conservative brand of Islam and network of social services.

Ms. Khatib Yassin, a middle-aged mother of four, is credited with helping get the Arab women’s vote out in the March elections. She campaigned especially hard in the Negev desert among Bedouin women, giving speeches in village courtyards to pitch the importance of making their voices as devout Muslim women heard in the corridors of power. She would leave her home at 6 a.m., returning after midnight. Rose, her daughter, 24, acted as her driver.

She recalls a speech to a group of men and women when someone proposed a photo. Some men balked, mindful of the taboo against mixed-gender gatherings in traditional Bedouin society. But they relented. A woman pulled her aside to whisper, “Iman, we are breaking barriers.”

No Arab party has ever joined an Israeli governing coalition, but the Joint List is demanding to take part in decision-making, especially on budget allocations and investment in Arab towns, and on issues that disproportionately impact Palestinian citizens of Israel such as home demolitions, rising crime levels, and civil rights. During the election campaign the party said it was ready to join a government under the right conditions.

The current politically polarized climate, in which the right-wing establishment paints the Arab electorate as disloyal and dangerous, makes the likelihood of a such an outcome low. But just floating the idea seems to be eroding the taboo against it, some observers say.

Heidi Levine/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A view of the village where Iman Khatib Yassin lives. Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel are playing an increasingly active role in Israeli politics.

“We are aware of the realities here, but we in the Joint List decided we want to be part of the political game,” says Ms. Khatib Yassin. And she has a message for those Jewish Israelis who tell her that that this will never happen. “We are getting stronger all the time.” Palestinian Arab turnout was 67% in the last elections, the highest in more than 20 years.

Political since childhood, religious since childbirth

Ms. Khatib Yassin’s rise, and that of the Joint List, is part of a larger story of the social and economic integration of Arab citizens – or Palestinians as many call themselves – into Israeli society. “My national identity is Palestinian, but my civic identity is as an Israeli. I am Israeli in every way. I was born here, grew up here, and became part of this society,” says Ms. Khatib Yassin.

Her political awareness dates back to childhood. From the age of five she worked the family fields with her mother and her siblings, growing tomatoes, melons, and tobacco. It was there she first felt the sting of injustice. The government confiscated a piece of her family’s land with a well on it. She would sneak under the fence to fill up the family water bottles.

“This was my first memory of the government – that it prevented us from having a normal life,” she says.

She wishes her children had had a chance to grow up in the village. “There was a pride in working the fields, the fruit you held in your hands was a product of your work,” she recalls. “We children took pride in the land and our role. I feel it built my personality. From early on I had an understanding that not everything comes easily, but that there is worth in what you do and what you contribute.”

She was not always religious, she explains. But when her doctor told her she would not be able to have children she vowed to become observant if she became pregnant. Grateful for her first pregnancy, she became a devout Muslim.

Ms. Khatib Yassin sees political significance in the way Palestinian Arabs in Israel are increasingly returning to their Islamic faith. It is a salve to soothe the pain of the suspicion they face, she believes.

Over the years she has befriended religious Jewish women, including fellow social activists. She sees a common goal to their joint struggle – an equal place for women in conservative religious and political settings.

“I hope we can be a good example of what religious women can do,” she says.

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