NAZARETH: Newly elected Israeli MP Iman al-Khatib, greeting supporters in Nazareth, shook hands with women but tapped her heart with her right hand for men.

The gestures signalled the Muslim identity of the woman who is about to become Israel’s first hijab-wearing MP and part of a group of Arab women poised to expand their voice in Israel’s male-dominated politics.

All major parties in the Jewish state are led by men, with women making up only 25 per cent of lawmakers in the Knesset, or parliament. But in March 2 elections, one party managed to double its female representation, albeit from a low base.

The predominantly Arab Joint List won 15 of the Knesset’s 120-seats, the alliance’s best-ever performance and up from 13 during stalemate election last September.

The List also counts four women among its incoming MPs, up from two in September.

Khatib will be part of the Knesset’s largest contingent of Arab women, including three Joint List colleagues and a Druze woman from the centrist Blue and White party.

The List draws most of its support from Israel’s roughly 20-per cent Arab minority — who have Israeli citizenship but are Palestinian by heritage.

Israel’s Arab minority complain of discrimination and accuse Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of treating them as second-class citizens.

Netanyahu counters that his government has invested more in Arab neighbourhoods than any in the history of the Jewish state.

The List’s elected women said that while they will focus on their constituent’s concerns, they also care about wider issues in Israeli society.

“Do not make the veil a barrier. Look at the capabilities of the veil’s wearer — their ethics, work, skills and attitudes,” said Khatib, a 54-year-old mother of four.

There are “religious Jewish women in the Knesset”, she added. “We didn’t hear any comment about them. We must deal with people first as human beings.”

Like other Arab-Israeli MPs, Khatib speaks fluent Hebrew. She studied social services at Tel Aviv University, specialising in women’s support.

In parliament, she wants to tackle issues ranging from violence in Arab neighbourhoods to poverty and housing. “Sixty-four per cent of women are excluded from work, not because they don’t want to work but due to conditions and lack of travel options,” she said, referring to the Arab population.

Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2020