Arab women push to the fore in local Israel vote
Published Tuesday 22/10/2013 (updated) 23/10/2013 19:39
File picture shows Israeli Arab Knesset member Hanin Zuabi arriving at
the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on Dec. 27, 2012 (AFP/File Gali Tibbon)
NAZARETH, Israel (AFP) -- From billboards across Nazareth shines the discreet smile of Hanin Zuabi, a controversial Palestinian woman MP who is hoping voters will chose her as mayor of Israel's largest Arab city.
This 44-year-old former math teacher, her black hair cut into a sleek bob, is the only woman running for leadership of the sprawling northern city revered by Christians as Jesus' childhood home.
Zuabi is just one of a growing number of women from Israel's Palestinian minority vying for office in Tuesday's elections across 191 municipalities.
"Running for mayor sends an important message saying that Palestinian women are entering local politics and putting themselves on the political map," she told AFP during campaigning.
Israel's Arab minority has its roots in the 160,000 Palestinians who stayed on their land after the creation of Israel in 1948. Today, they number more than 1.3 million, and often refer to themselves as '48 Palestinians.
"Nazareth needs to have international status," she says, flagging one of the main elements of her platform.
Known as capital of the northern Galilee region, Nazareth has a population of 82,000, 65 percent of which is Muslim and the rest Christian.
Posters and banners are plastered on the city's walls, windows and balconies, each declaring the merits of a particular candidate or list.
Zuabi, an MP with the leftwing Arab-Israeli Balad movement, is competing against four men for the top job, one of whom is the incumbent and clear frontrunner, Ramez Jaraiseh.
Although Zuabi won notoriety within Israel for her participation in a 2010 flotilla of activists trying to break the naval blockade on the Gaza Strip, she has pushed hard to increase the female quota in both local and general elections.
Voters are casting two ballots -- one for mayor and one for a slate of candidates who will serve under him or her. Should there be no mayoral candidate who passes the 40 percent threshold, there will be a second round of voting on Nov. 5.
This year's election is expected to double the number of Arab women serving on local councils.
In the last elections in 2008, 149 Arab women ran in the elections, with only six elected to local office. This year, there are 173, with forecasts predicting about 15 will be elected.
And this year, the women are placed much higher on the local slates.
Women are at the forefront of the municipal election in Sakhnin, another Arab town some 15 miles north of Nazareth, which is famed for its football team which stunned the nation by winning the State Cup in 2004.
Here the billboards feature images of Samar Abu Yunes, a 40-year-old lawyer who is topping the slate fielded by Hadash, the Arab-Jewish socialist party.
"Unfortunately, women have not featured very highly on Hadash's list until now, despite their calls for equality, but I am optimistic at this point," she told AFP.
"I am now at the top of that list so my place is guaranteed on the city council," said the mother of four.
She believes women should be taking a leading role in women's issues, as well as those relating to children in the city of 28,000 people, where participating in the elections mixes family and politics.
Aida Tuma, who ran for parliament with Hadash in 2008 but didn't make it, said the number of women trying or a role in local politics is the result of tough experience and "a lot of serious work" which involved the establishment of The Women's Coalition.
"Five associations made a coalition to support women in the electoral process and to convince parties to put them high up on their lists and this is the first time that Arab women have contested elections in Haifa, Lod and Ramleh," she told AFP.
"We trained those women who were nominated in public speaking, working under pressure and in public appearance, all of which are skills women will need," she said, saying the training sessions had drawn much cross-party support.