Druze Women In Academia Are Breaking Barriers

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

“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

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.

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

“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?”

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.”

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

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

“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

“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.

Day #6: Jerusalem

JERUSALEM – Our day on Friday started just inside of Jaffa Gate, one of the seven entrances to the Old City of Jerusalem. We also had an extra addition: Professor Ari Goldman.

The night before, some of us had celebrated Purim by dancing to Israeli music and eating Israeli-Yemenite pastries on the streets surrounding city’s Mehane Yehuda market. Even the next day, as we stood outside Jaffa Gate, people were still carrying holiday gift baskets and dressed in costume. But, instead of continuing our Purim celebrations, we were preparing to explore the holy sites of the Old City.

Arnita Najeeb, our tour guide for the morning, started with the Jaffa Gate to give us a sense of Jerusalem’s complex and extensive history. The gate was originally constructed by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century and was eventually expanded to include a bridge, used by Kaiser Wilhelm II, to enter the city.

From the gate, we were led through the Armenian Quarter, where we learned about the city’s four quarters. While Jerusalem is split geographically into Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian quarters, residents are not exclusively tied to these areas. Jews can and do live in the Muslim Quarter and Armenians do not have to live in the Armenian Quarter.

We eventually arrived at Zion Gate, one of the newer entrances to the city. The gate was officially re-opened in 1967 after the Six-Day War, but the craters and cracks around the arch stand as evidence of the conflict the gate was witnessed.

In telling us the history of the old city, Najeeb presented us with a theme that still resonates today. Jerusalem is, and has always been, a city characterized by the constant building up and tearing down of walls.

“Here, walls do not help people,” Najeeb said. “They make it difficult for people to work and they make people more stressed.”

We then visited the site of the Last Supper, the Cenacle or the Upper Room. In the room, a tour group from Indonesia cried out hymns in a circle, worshiping one of the holiest sites in Christianity.

Located above King David’s Tomb, the Cenacle is also a demonstration of how one site can be overtaken and refurbished by different religions. Across the room, Arabic inscriptions can be seen and a dome-like structure sits at one corner. In the 12th century, while Jerusalem was under Ottoman rule, the Cenacle was converted into a mosque.

Discussions about the intersections of religions in Jerusalem continued outside of the holy sites. Between the Jewish and Armenian Quarters on Ararat Street, Najeeb had us stop. Behind him stood both a mosque and a church. In front of him, back on Chabad Street, were Jewish homes.

“Do you see people fighting here?” Najeeb asked us. “People can live together in peace.”

Weaving our way down the cobbled streets and steps of the Jewish Quarter, we eventually arrived at the Western Wall.

In front of the wall, Jonathan Harounoff, a fellow journalism student, gave his personal insight into a Jewish ritual: wrapping the Tefillin. Two sets of small boxes with leather straps, the Tefillin is meant to be wrapped daily. One goes over the head and one is wrapped around the arm.


( Photo Courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

“It symbolizes your relationship to God,” Harounoff said. “It’s the ultimate mitzvah, or good deed.”

After viewing the main section of the Kotel, some of us broke off to observe the southern part of the retaining temple wall. The southern part is often referred to as the egalitarian section, as both men and women can pray and read Torah together and without any separating barrier.

The egalitarian section can only be accessed through the Davidson Center, the archaeological site adjacent to the Western Wall. While the Kotel is free, a ticket to the Davidson Center and the egalitarian section costs 29 ILS for an adult ticket.

The southern section is home to one of the best views of East Jerusalem, spanning from the Mount of Olives to the walls of the Jewish Quarter. However, only two other visitors were taking advantage of the view and the egalitarian section. Unlike the Western Wall, at midday on Friday, no one was praying or reading Torah.

A few hours later, after we broke off to report on our own stories, we regrouped at the Western Wall for Shabbat service. The mood of the wall had shifted. There were many more observers than tour groups, and the Kotel began to feel like a true place of worship, rather than a tourist site.

In the women’s section, a line of women stood up at the barrier to hear the men chant and sing Shabbat prayers. A few women sang along and clapped their hands, while others stayed silent and focused on the wall. The praying was individualistic and each woman kept to herself.

The men’s side of the Western Wall featured small groups of men, praying and dancing around tables. Their chants were loud and relatively in sync, although some went at their own pace and lagged behind.

Once they finished their prayers, each of the women would back away from the wall with slow steps. Each woman’s gaze never left the wall.

After the Sabbath prayers at the wall, we made our way up a small hill to our hotel, the Sephardic House Hotel in the Jewish quarter. There we had a “family style” Shabbat dinner with a number of guests, including Professor Goldman’s nephew, and Columbia Journalism Professor Gershom Gorenberg’s wife and son. Our guide and educator, Ophir Yarden, also invited his wife and four of his children. As students, we were treated to a traditional Shabbat dinner, complete with the blessing of the bread and the wine. An hour in, Ophir interrupted our conversations and presented us with a question.

“What is your holy envy?” Ophir asked the table. Theorized by Krister Stendahl, holy envy refers to one’s willingness to admire aspects of other faiths. Ophir took this further, asking us if there were any rituals or practices in other faiths that each of us almost wish we could partake in.

While others took time to reflect on the rituals of other faiths, his son answered immediately.

“I’m jealous that others don’t have to wrap Tefellin,” he said.