Feminism and the Mizrahi woman

 

Gal Karniel

 

 

Thursday evening, Tel Aviv

 

"What feminist women want to do is change the existing order," says Nina Mizrahi, an activist in the Ahoti - Sister for Women in Israel organization. "I live in this world and really do not like what it presents." She is 37, from Haifa. Her father is a Muslim, her mother a Jew. Twelve women have come to the Women's Courtyard in Jaffa for a workshop on identity, as part of the Festival for Feminist Action, which is taking place in nine simultaneous workshops across the city over two days, until Shabbat begins. Some of the workshops drew as many as 35 people.

 

A range of possibilities, or perhaps "multiple choices," is what characterized the event as a whole and as a Mizrahi's workshop, too. On the floor were 20 pieces of paper, each stating a different identity: woman, Israeli, Jew, earns more than the minimum wage, feminist, Mizrahi, lives in a distressed neighborhood, and others.

 

"I do not know of a full or 'closed' identity," Mizrahi says. "There is no single identity, but it is nevertheless important to define it, not in order to catalog it, but to take responsibility."

 

What was most apparent during this festival was the participants' need to talk about the subject at hand. Michal Aliya-Kamal, 18, from Ramat Aviv, reflected this - in her simultaneously strong and confused identity - most authentically and without resorting to jargon such as "discrimination" or "empowerment."

 

"Lately, in the domain of my thoughts with myself, I see that my Mizrahiness" - referring to being Jewish and of Middle Eastern descent - "is affecting the conduct of my life, opportunities, how people see me and what I have to prove," she said.

 

This summer Aliya-Kamal completed her studies at the prestigious Alliance High School in the upscale Ramat Aviv neighborhood. Her parents came to Israel from Iran, to a one-room apartment in the lower-class Hatikva neighborhood, and from there moved to Ramat Aviv. "I grew up in an Ashkenazi milieu ... It is clear to me that I will not marry a Mizrahi man and that I will not have Mizrahi children. That sounds bad, but when it comes down to it, everyone wants blonde kids with blue eyes like in the commercials."

 

She has long eyelashes and amazing blue eyes, thanks to colored contact lenses. In shorts and clogs with beads she looks like an exotic Lolita by Gaugin. "I have a conflict," she admits when asked about her style of dress. "I try to disguise my Mizrahi look, but it doesn't really work, so I have no choice but to cope with it."

 

So, what kind of young and aware Mizrahi women is she? "It is important for me to prove that my parents are not primitive," she replies, "and it is important for me that people will see themselves as racists, that racism toward Mizrahim exists, that it is here. It is important for me that their first reaction will not be insensitivity, that they will admit that they are not all so enlightened."

 

Would she, then, in the spirit of the time, call herself an "Arab Jew"? absolutely not. "I am happy that I am Jewish because my Judaism is what holds me on the right side. I am happy that my ID card does not say 'Arab Jew,' because to be an Arab is worse. Mizrahi is, after all, Jewish, even though Mizrahi is something that you can get for three for a dollar."

 

The sculpture workshops using pulp made out of pages from pornographic magazines do not interest her. In fact, Aliya-Kamal does not consider herself to be a feminist. She thinks feminism is an Ashkenazi women's luxury. She thinks that she does not have the privilege to be sexy.

 

"A feminist is a Western woman. My mother will not call herself a feminist, even though she makes her own choices. Maybe feminism is against being a sexual object, but as a Mizrahi I strengthen my sexuality for the power. You know, to be equal to an Ashkenazi woman I have to work harder, be beautiful and also prove that I have character”.