One after another, the women speak into the microphone to give their testimony before the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. Their hair pulled back underneath hats and head scarves, elbows and knees covered, each one describes the embarrassment of being asked by mikveh attendants about the frequency and quality of their sex lives, whether they slept in the same bed as their husband, and about their menstrual cycles. An older man with a long grey beard and dressed in ultra-Orthodox garb interrupts one woman to explain the halacha or Jewish law. But the woman sitting at the head of the oval table, dressed in a crisp, cap-sleeve shirtwaist dress, swiftly cuts him off. "You will have your turn to speak," she says, civilly but firmly, then turns back to the woman. "Please continue," she says gently.
This session has been convened at the request of Orthodox women, outraged that Israel's Chief Rabbinate has instructed ritual bath attendants to ask all women bathers a series of intrusive questions in an effort to prevent Reform and Conservative women from using state-sponsored ritual baths. Afterward, the woman who was interrupted would tell me the chair is her "hero" and that "she really cares about me as a woman." That woman is Aida Touma-Sliman.
Touma-Sliman, 53, is a self-declared atheist from a Christian Arab family, who serves in the Knesset as a representative of the Communist bloc in what is known as the Joint (Arab) List. It may seem odd for her to be the champion of religious Zionists and ultra-Orthodox women, but Touma-Sliman has made a name for herself--among both those who admire her clear sense of purpose and commitment and those who oppose her opinions and determination--as an outspoken foe of injustice, no matter to whom or where. "I may not know much about religion, but I know a lot about patriarchy and feminist solidarity," she says.
Every day Touma-Sliman makes her way through a minefield of conflicting issues on what seems an impossibly narrow path. She is one of two Arab women--the other is Haneen Zoabi, also from the Joint List--and 18 Arabs in the Knesset; she is a member of the Christian minority within that Arab minority; she is a progressive feminist within a patriarchal Arab society, and a Palestinian member of parliament in a Jewish state who is actively striving to establish a secular democratic country.
TOUMA-SLIMAN IS A WOMAN OF energy, who often flashes her dimpled smile as she gears up for yet another political discussion or ideological argument. But when I meet her in her paper-strewn Knesset office, I notice her curly dark hair is graying and she looks weary. "Let's talk," she says, forgoing any initial formalities. "But don't expect me to say things that you want to hear."
I have known Touma-Sliman for years because she has long been a force in Israel's feminist circles. She was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, the umbrella group that speaks for and represents the Arab citizens of Israel, and was a co-founder of the International Women's Commission for a Just Palestinian-Israeli Peace. In 1992, she founded Women Against Violence, the first Arab feminist group to oppose domestic violence, and served as the organization's CEO until she stepped down in 2015 when she was elected to the Knesset.
Although she now represents the Joint List, Touma-Sliman is a member of the Communist party, called Jabha in Arabic and Hadash in Hebrew, historically an Arab-Jewish partnership, although the vast majority of its voters are Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. Founded in 1948, the party was the heir to the pre-state Communist party that existed during the British Mandate and has changed names and structures several times. It was never strongly Marxist; rather, it served as a moderate voice for peace, supporting the two-state solution and strongly advocating equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and rights for all workers. "In the Arab community, being a Communist is regarded as being part of the group that fights for its rights," says Touma-Sliman, who was drawn to the Communist party in her teens, officially joined in the 1980s when she was 21 and later edited its Arabic-language newspaper. "It was the Communist party that stood up for the Arab population during the years of martial law. Being a Communist means being proud of our history and preserving our culture."
Arab politics is a microcosm of its own in the world of Israeli...