Israel’s parliament has, for the first time ever, appointed an Arab party lawmaker to head a permanent Knesset committee. The panel’s four members this week voted unanimously for Aida Touma-Sliman to serve as chairwoman of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, the Times of Israel reported.
Touma-Sliman’s new position not only marks the first time an Arab woman has been appointed to such a position but is also a first for Israel’s Arab political parties, which have never seen a single of their ministers voted into chairmanship of a permanent parliamentary committee. The milestone occurs following an unprecedented electoral showing by the country’s first joint Arab party, which won a historic 13 seats in the tightly contested March parliamentary election.
“I hope that we will successfully lead a process that will impact the whole of society, its policies and laws,” Touma-Sliman said in remarks reported by the Times of Israel, which pointed out that she was only the fourth Arab-Israeli woman to serve as a member of Knesset.
Women’s rights activists in Israel may have more on their plate than ever with the growing influence of ultra-Orthodox groups in the country, resulting in several high-profile instances of female exclusion at public events. However, women’s rights barely registered as a political issue during the election campaign, something Touma-Sliman has made a point of emphasizing.
“Though I’m a feminist and support female representation everywhere, some of the women [ministers] do not really represent what I want to see: Feminist values, democratic values, support for the rights of the marginalized and oppressed,” she said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post. “I very much hope that there will be more feminist voices in the Knesset and not just a higher number of women.”
Touma-Sliman had made a name for herself over the past few decades for her political activism on feminist issues, founding Women Against Violence, the largest Arab women’s nongovernmental organization in Israel. Touma-Sliman was also one of the founders of the International Women’s Commission for a Just Palestinian-Israeli Peace as well as being the first woman on the Supreme Monitoring Committee for Arab Affairs in Israel, according to Haaretz.
“I have two daughters,” she said in an interview with Al-Monitor. “I wanted them to grow up in a society that accepts them better as young women. I wanted them to grow up in a country that treats them democratically,” referring to challenges she has faced with discrimination as an Arab in Israel, including having her daughter’s school applications rejected from a Jewish kindergarten in her area.
While women’s issues may be at the top of Touma-Sliman’s agenda, the politician sees the issues of anti-Arab sentiment and broad systemic discrimination as very closely tied to her gender equality mission. “When I see an injustice -- regardless of gender or national affiliation -- it’s obvious for me that I can’t stand on the sideline and just watch,” she told Al-Monitor. This is something I’d like to tackle -- how to help disenfranchised people and not just in the Arab population.”
As much of a milestone as Touma-Sliman’s leadership position may be, it falls short of what her Joint Arab List party had been hoping for in terms of Knesset committee appointments. As the second-largest opposition party, the Joint Arab List had hoped to leverage its newfound political clout to seek one of the coveted state control committee chairmanships. However, Knesset officials cited the “sensitive security issues” under the committee’s purview in shutting down the faction’s drive, Haaretz reported. The centrist Yesh Atid and Zionist Union parties will alternate leadership of the committee instead.