Recently reelected in second spot for the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash), MK Aida Touma-Sliman, 54, is among a not-so-large group of outgoing parliamentarians who are pretty much guaranteed a place in the next Knesset after the April 9 election.
Although women’s issues are dear to her heart, she said to a Haaretz profile article published on February 15, that she wants to span out in other directions in the next Knesset. “I want to have more influence,” she says. “Workers’ rights and welfare, I want to go there. And I also want to be involved in some of the bigger political issues, like achieving peace and fighting the occupation. After all, as long as basic human rights are being trampled on, there’s not much progress you can make in advancing women’s rights. All these things are connected.”
Touma-Sliman made history four years ago when she became the first Arab woman to head a parliamentary committee, serving as head of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. She is also the first Arab member of a non-Zionist party to fill such a role. In 1992, Touma-Sliman founded the Arab feminist group Women against Violence and served as its executive director until she was elected to the Knesset. After joining Hadash in the early 1990s, she was appointed editor-in-chief of its Arabic-language newspaper, Al-Ittihad, in 2011. Born in Nazareth to an Arab-Christian family, she lives today in the mixed Jewish-Arab coastal city of Acre, just north of Haifa. She has two grown daughters and two young grandchildren. Her husband, Jiris, died of cancer eight years ago.
With religion and state deeply intertwined in Israel, battles pertaining to women’s rights here invariably involve the religious establishment. Serving as head of the Knesset committee that addresses women’s issues has, therefore, provided Touma-Sliman with a “crash course” of sorts in Judaism.
The committee she heads has addressed, among other issues, the plight of agunahs (women refused divorces by their husbands who find themselves as the mercy of rabbinical courts) and regulations governing the use of mikvehs (Jewish ritual purification baths).
Just over a year ago, Touma-Sliman brought her entire committee on a fact-finding trip to Beit Shemesh – a city that has become a key battlefield in the country’s religious wars. It was her first-ever trip to the central Israeli city, where a growing ultra-Orthodox community has tried to impose its will on the larger population. The purpose of the visit was to ascertain why the city had not complied with court rulings ordering it to remove controversial “modesty signs” that target women.
Cheered on by local activists, Touma-Sliman led a protest march through the Haredi section of the city. In scenes that bordered on the surreal, on several occasions this Arab lawmaker had to force herself between Jews going at each other’s throats.
She doesn’t think it strange that she would involve herself in this war among Jews. “It’s not a religious issue but a women’s issue,” she says. “What is at stake is preserving what the feminist movement has struggled so hard to achieve. It’s not only a struggle for Jewish women but for all women, because religion is one of the mechanisms for controlling women. In that sense, we’re all in the same boat.”