BEIT JANN, Israel — When Sawsan Kheir, a PhD student at the University of Haifa, was presented with the opportunity to conduct research with Åbo Akademi in Finland, she was elated. Until she found out that it would involve 10 days of travelling abroad by herself. 

“They were trying to entice me with this travel, but I was immediately put off,” Kheir said. “I was imagining my father’s face and him telling me no.”

As a Druze woman, Kheir is not supposed to travel alone. Religious Druze women are not supposed to travel without a male guardian, or a mahram. Traditionally, a woman’s direct male relative assumes this role, whether it be her brother, father, uncle or grandfather.

The Druze are a religious and ethnic group spread across the Middle East and make up almost 2 percent of the Israeli population. One of the basic tenets of the Druze faith is state loyalty — the people are loyal to the country they reside. This pushes Druze people to become heavily involved in Israeli civic life, including enlisting in the military and running for office.

Today, three years after she took that initial trip and then accepted an offer to work with a research project on young adults and religion in Finland. Now, Kheir works and lives in Vaasa, Finland, thousands of miles away from her family home in Israel.

Kheir is one of many Druze women who are redefining the traditional role of the woman in Druze society. In the 1990s in Israel, Druze women started enrolling in universities and higher education programs. Since then, academic pursuits and opportunities in higher education have enabled women to bypass some of the restrictions placed on Druze women, including travelling, driving cars, and moving away from home.

While Kheir grew up in a religious household in Beit Jann, a Druze village in the north of Israel, she chose to follow a secular path. She does not wear a headscarf or dress in traditional religious garb, but does not wear earrings — something that Israeli Druze women do not do.

As a secular Druze woman, Kheir does not have access to Druze religious texts and is not bound by the traditional gender roles set by the Druze faith.

“When you become religious, you have to abstain from certain things in life,” Kheir said. “You’re supposed to focus on religion and prayer.”

Although she grew up with a non-religious father and a religious mother, Kheir has become even less religious over the course of her life. She still considers herself a Druze woman, despite not following their religious traditions.

However, even Druze women that identify as religious are using academia to push against their traditions.

Eman Khateeb Slalha, a student at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, is the daughter of a Druze sheikh, the Arabic word for leader. In the Druze tradition, a sheikh is a religious leader in the community. She considers herself a religious Druze woman, one that has chosen a path of faith.

Unlike Kheir, Khateeb chose to follow a more religious life path, in line with her family’s background. However, this has not stopped her from going after what she wants.

“My dreams are big,” Khateeb said. Eventually, Khateeb wants to get a doctorate degree and go into politics.

Earlier this year, Khateeb participated in a 24-hour hackathon at her university. With a team, she was instructed to come up with an issue and a solution.

“If you want to see change in the world, you have to start from your own environment,” Khateeb said, speaking to the reason why she decided to participate in the Hackathon.

Khateeb’s group came up with its own issue: media bias. Together, her team came up with the idea for an application that connects people around the world based on their own interests. Regardless of their geographical location or language capabilities, people on the app can speak to each other about the things they love.

“Studies have shown that children find ways to find things in common even without sharing the same language,” Khateeb said. “Why can’t we do the same?”

Khateeb’s team ultimately won first prize.

Outside of giving her the opportunity to develop an app, academia has allowed Khateeb to pursue her goals and continue to follow her religious faith.

In March, Khateeb was presented with an opportunity to travel to the University of Girona in Barcelona, Spain, with a delegation from her university.

Although Druze women are not supposed to travel alone, Khateeb decided to go.

“I do uncommon things,” Khateeb said. “It’s a different personality.”

Khateeb’s trip to Barcelona  was the first time she had ever left Israel. However, she clarified that she was surrounded by other students from the university. In June, she will be traveling to Germany and in September, to the United States.

“It was so weird at first, but then I got used to it,” Khateeb said.

For both Khatib and Kheir, their decisions to go abroad relied on the opinions of their male family members. 

Both of them credit the men in their lives for providing them with the tools to be able pursue their careers and travel abroad.

“My father was so supportive,” Kheir said. “I was travelling for education, not with a friend for pleasure.” Education, being so important in the Druze tradition, was a good enough reason for Kheir’s father to allow her to travel by herself.

“He and my husband put the wings on my back and said go and fly,” Kheir said. “Without their support, I would never have been able to do it.” However, it was Kheir herself that agreed to take the research job at Åbo Akademi.

Khateeb also credited her male family members for supporting her career choices and ambitions.

“She’s very smart,” said her father, Sheikh Jameel Khatib, after he introduced her to a group of students from Columbia Journalism School. He did not mention her trips abroad.

Ten years ago, Khateeb married Hamoud Slalha, who identifies as Druze but is not a religious man.

“He is my support,” Khateeb said. “It’s not a matter of whether he allows me to, but he supports me.”

Despite having the support of her immediate family, Khateeb still faced criticisms from her community in Beit Jann.

“My husband told me to direct all criticisms to him,” Khateeb said. “They’ll have to go through him.”

Top photo: Eman Khateeb Slalha in her home in Beit Jann. Photo by Eleonore Voisard.