KAFR QARA – Never has an Arab woman been elected mayor of an Israeli town or city. Only once before has an Arab woman actually run. But in this small northern town, two Arab women are currently vying for the job. And they couldn’t be more different.
One is a middle-aged mom, a schoolteacher by profession, who covers her head in traditional Muslim style with a hijab. The other is an actor, a former beauty pageant contestant-turned-feminist activist who plays volleyball in her free time.
In October, Israelis will head to the polls to vote for their local government representatives and leaders, as they do every five years. A key – though perhaps not obvious – race to watch will be in this Arab township in the Wadi Ara region where history could be made.
Victoria Zahalka-Medlij – the more traditional of the two candidates, who might be described as the insider – is a 55-year-old mother of six who has worked most of her life in education, both as an English teacher and a school principal.
An only daughter among eight children, she was born and raised here in a prominent family and has never lived anywhere else.
“People always told me I should be happy that I work in education, but I always wanted to do something more,” says Zahalka-Medlij, dressed modestly in a long loose tunic, like most of the women in this town (part of the predominantly Arab Little Triangle area of central Israel).
As she guides visitors around her beautifully tended garden with its mosaic fountain, Zahalka-Medlij is joined by her husband, Marwan, who doubles these days as her campaign manager.
That means, among other things, that Marwan is in charge of taking orders for coffee. It also means he gets to interrupt his wife – “She’s a born leader” he repeats throughout the conversation – whenever he senses the candidate has missed an important talking point.
The local firebrand
Birveen Azab-Mahameed, meanwhile, is waiting for us at a local café, her husband Osama at her side. But once we’ve arrived, she moves to another table, leaving him behind. When asked if he would like to pose for a photograph with the candidate, Osama begs off. “It’s her show,” he says, “I don’t interfere.”
Azab-Mahameed, a self-described feminist and social activist, studied business administration at the University of Haifa and is now completing her doctorate in psychological counseling. During the day she works as a school counselor in a nearby town, and after hours she moonlights as an actor.
This aspiring mayor has appeared in several recent productions at the local theater in Umm al-Fahm, the regional capital, and has performed in a number of independently produced Arab-Israeli films. She is also active in various initiatives aimed at promoting the status of women in Israel, as well as Jewish-Arab coexistence.
A mother to a teenage son, Azab-Mahameed announced her decision to run for office about a year ago, after gaining some local fame as the woman in town who dared take on the mayor.
After she discovered that the incumbent had quietly tapped one of his cronies for a key educational post in town, Azab-Mahameed mobilized other residents and successfully blocked the appointment.
“It made me realize that it’s time women began taking part in decisions made in our towns and cities,” she says, “and the only way to do that is by running for office.”
Dressed in snug-fitting black trousers and heels, Azab-Mahameed wears her strawberry-blond curls loose, no hijab in sight. The fact that she spent a big part of her life living outside of Kafr Qara could explain her irreverence for tradition: For 10 years, she and her husband and son lived in Katzir, a largely Jewish community located nearby.
It was there that she also honed her skills in volleyball, becoming the only Arab woman to play on the local team. When the family moved back to Kafr Qara, among the first things she did was help create a local volleyball team.
Place most likely
If you were to place bets on which Israeli Arab town or city would be hosting the first-ever mayoral race featuring two women, Kafr Qara would be a good guess.
With close to 20,000 residents, it has one of the most affluent and educated populations of any Arab municipality in the country. It also famously boasts the highest ratio of doctors per capita of any local authority in all of Israel.
With Arab women attending university and joining the workforce in increasing numbers in recent years, while having fewer children, it was only a matter of time before some sought office in local government.
Zahalka-Medlij and Azab-Mahameed will not be the only candidates competing in the upcoming mayoral race. About 10 local residents have already announced their candidacy, including the current mayor, and another dozen or so are expected to join them. But as past experience shows, many of these candidates will ultimately drop out as the race gains steam.
In the 2008 local elections, 149 Arab women ran for council seats in Israel, with seven of them elected. Five years later, the number of Arab women running for office more than doubled to 302; of them, 17 were elected.
In 2013, the list of contenders included, for the first time, a woman running for mayor in Nazareth. That was Haneen Zoabi, a Knesset member from the predominantly Arab Joint List, who ultimately lost her mayoral bid.
The first time Arab women were ever elected to councils in mixed Jewish-Arab cities – Acre, Haifa and Lod – was the same year, 2013, the last time local elections were held.
Since Israel was founded in 1948, only 46 Arab women have ever served in local government.
“In recent years, more and more Arab women are becoming aware of the importance of representation in local government,” says Ola Najami, director of leadership development initiatives at the Abraham Fund, an organization dedicated to building a shared society for Jews and Arabs in Israel. “We’re part of Arab society, we deserve political representation, and we have the right to have a say in how our society looks.”
The dramatic increase in the number of Arab women running for office, she says, is not coincidental: Over the past decade, various civil society organizations in Israel have invested major efforts in pushing them into politics.
The Abraham Fund, for example, has been running a special leadership-training program for young Arab men and women to help pave their way into local and national politics.
An ad-hoc coalition of civil rights and women’s organizations recently launched a campaign to get more women around the country to run for local office in the upcoming election. Najami oversees its activities in the Arab community.
Thus far, 21 Arab women have announced their intention to run in the upcoming local elections. But Najami is confident that before the late September deadline for candidacy announcements, there will be many more. The only two mayoral candidates to date are in Kafr Qara.
In only six of 257 municipalities around Israel do women serve as mayor. Moreover, only 13 percent of local council representatives around the country are women. All told, women are even more underrepresented in local government than they are in national government in Israel (where 33 of the 120 lawmakers are female).
Violence against women is disproportionately high in Arab society in Israel. Samah Salaime, a social worker and feminist activist, wrote in Haaretz recently that the number of Arab women complaining about violence, harassment and sexual assault has doubled over the past decade.
However, according to both female candidates running for mayor in Kafr Qara, violence against women is not an issue in the town. “It almost doesn’t exist here,” says Zahalka-Medlij, “and thank God for that.”
The worrying type
Zahalka-Medlij, who announced her candidacy in April, is running as an independent. This is not her first brush with politics, though.
More than 20 years ago, when she was a member of the Labor Party, Ehud Barak – who was running for prime minister – tried but failed to get her on the party ticket.
At the time, Zahalka-Medlij had taken a break from teaching and was running an Histadrut labor federation division dedicated to Jewish-Arab coexistence.
She says she first toyed with the idea of running for mayor 10 years ago, “but at the time I still had small kids at home and it was more important for me to be there for them.”
Although Marwan says he would be thrilled if his wife wins the election – and he is convinced she will – he already anticipates the challenges ahead. “Right now, she’s the mother of one home,” he explains. “If she becomes mayor, she will be the mother of 6,000 homes. She’s the worrying type, and I can just see her breaking out in tears when people start coming to her with their problems.”
Like his wife, Marwan is an English teacher and at one point even served as her supervisor. “I know better than most people in this town how diligent she is on the job,” he boasts.
Zahalka-Medlij comes from one of the largest clans in Kafr Qara and is related to MK Jamal Zahalka from the Joint List. Between her family ties and the huge number of residents who have passed through her classroom over the past 30 years, she enjoys the advantage of being a highly recognizable face in town. Indeed, as she relaxes in her front yard, relishing the first day of vacation from school, well-wishers pass by – mostly women – promising her their vote.
Zahalka-Medlij hasn’t yet compiled her party list or even seriously begun knocking on doors. But she has already issued her first campaign promise: Three of the top five slots on the ticket will go to women.
Drawing on her many years of experience in the schools system, she plans to devote a big part of her platform to education.
“This town sets aside 6 million shekels [$1.6 million] a year to clean schools,” she says. “What I want to do is have the kids clean the schools themselves – there’s nothing wrong with that – and use that money for other things like after-school enrichment programs and hot lunches during the day.”
Despite Kafr Qara’s reputation as a relatively well-to-do town, she says, there are also children living within its perimeters who go hungry. “Do you know how many children here come to school without lunch because they have no food at home?” she asks. “Often, I stuff sandwiches in my bag for them and hand them out when no one’s looking.”
A new type of politics
As the outsider candidate, a dark horse who does not belong to any of the town’s big clans, Azab-Mahameed understands she is at a disadvantage. But she plans to use that to her benefit.
“The thrust of my campaign is going to be equal opportunity for all,” she says. “What I mean by that is that if I’m elected mayor, anyone will be able to apply for a job or a contract with the municipality. You won’t need to be a member of a certain family or to have voted for me to apply. I plan to introduce a new type of politics here – a politics that doesn’t rely on connections.”
When she was 16, Azab-Mahameed was runner-up in the annual Israeli Arab beauty pageant. That was probably the last time she was ever satisfied with being No. 2, she says.
If she ends up winning the top job in Kafr Qara, she promises, residents should brace themselves for many other changes as well. “You’re going to see many more women in top positions if I run this town,” she says, “because I see achieving gender equality as one of my main goals.”
And if she doesn’t win, Azab-Mahameed says it won’t be an excuse to give up on her dreams. “I’ll run for the Knesset in that case,” she vows. “I’m determined to break through the glass ceiling.”