The article explores feminist social work conducted during May 2021’s violent events in the mixed city of Haifa. Linking experiences of marginalization and processes of community building, the article outlines the possibilities embedded in women’s only spaces against a backdrop of hostility and aggression.
The Women’s Courtyard in Haifa is a women’s space that operates within a larger community characterized by a diversity of cultures and identities. The events of May 2021 provide an opportunity to explore how each space – the Courtyard and the urban – influence each other during periods of routine and periods of emergency.
In this document, inspired by the work done at The Courtyard, I will first present the space and our model of work, and then address the mixed urban space and the ways in which the Courtyard relates to it in order to create a bridge between these two worlds. Afterwards, I will discuss the paradigm of intersectionality, which provides a basis for comparison of the features and opportunities available for young women in a given space. Finally, I will focus on the inevitable meeting of the political and the personal in the context of a conflictual space, using the events that occurred at the Courtyard in Haifa during last May, exemplifying the complexity in which we had to operate.
The Women's Courtyard is a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) operating as a unique multicultural feminine framework for young women and teenagers. The Courtyard's operational practices are based on creating a relationship of trust, openness, dialogue, and a shared responsibility with the women, for their lives both inside and outside of the Courtyard’s space. At the core of the project is the operation of a physical space, "a courtyard", for young women.There are three Courtyards currently in operation throughout Israel: Jaffa, Netanya, and Haifa. Each Courtyard is an open, informal, protective, and empowering space for young women, offering a stable constant in their lives and a community to which they can belong.
Dozens of young women come to the Courtyard in Haifa on a daily basis. These include Jews and Arabs, daughters of immigrant Jewish families, and refugees from East Africa with no official status, all young women (aged 14-26). The women who have chosen the Courtyard and the various resources it offers, receive concrete, social, and emotional solutions; as well as services which help them identify, apply for, and receive various benefits to which they are entitled; and other such services.
Designed as a home, the Courtyard consists of several spaces, each with different purpose: a study space, a hairdressing salon, a therapy space, a living room, a television room and a kitchen. A large outdoor space is fenced in a way that allows those coming from the outside to look inside and vice versa. The gate is never locked, nor is there a guard at the entrance. Rather, the sense of security comes from within: Each woman entering the Courtyard's gate ceases to be a stranger. The Courtyard, in fact, operates as an intermediate feminine space, connecting and dividing the public (street) from the private (home) spheres. By allowing the young women’s lives to enter it, the Courtyard resists creating a bubble detached from its surroundings. The ongoing operations of the Courtyard, with the openness, variety, and richness it offers, helps instill a sense of physical, social, and emotional security in the young women’s lives, acting as a counterbalance to the feeling of insecurity and invisibility they experience in their day-to-day lives (Sidi and Krumer-Nevo, 2020). This feeling of insecurity frequently derives from a combination of personal factors and life experiences in a public space that is often patriarchal, characterized by social alienation and even gendered disciplining (Wilamovsky, 2013).
Women, more so than men, develop themselves and their identities within interpersonal relations; they require relationships that are mutual and equal in order to thrive, to be empowered and to develop a sense of personal worth (Abrams, 2003; Colarossi & Eccles, 2003). At the Courtyard, young women get an opportunity to conduct positive interactions with a group of their peers. They find themselves in a protected environment, can dress as they see fit, express their opinions, inquire about any subject, speak their mother tongues, convey pain and weakness alongside aspirations and dreams, which are simultaneously heard and acknowledged. All of these acts represent a resistance to the limitations set by the social and political norms they experience in the public space (Hirsch et al., 2000).
The feminist theory of intersectionality provides a conceptual framework that is relevant to the lives of the young women and teenagers with whom the Courtyard works. These young women experience distress and marginalization expressed through and impacted by the intersection of their age, class, ethnic, national, and gender (Krumer-Nevo & Komem, 2012). This intersection of factors, encompassing the women’s identity, ultimately determines the possibilities and opportunities available or inaccessible for them at each social rung, on both symbolic and concrete levels. Therefore, one of the Courtyard's main modes of operation is the strengthening of communal networking between participants in varied social positions. The expansion of these social networks entails an expansion of resources, both abstract and tangible as well as an expansion of the context in which these women are able to live and act. This contextual expansion at its core serves to create a bridge on which the young women are able to move from the margins of Israeli society toward its center.
Since the Courtyard is a women’s space operating within a larger social space, it is important to acknowledge the existence of the bidirectional power balance between the space and society (Halpern, 2013). Any personal act of resistance impacts the community from which the teenager is coming from, and vice versa. The challenge is to create a process of continuity, connection, and a sense of family and community belonging, while nurturing a mentality that resists oppression and disadvantage (Krumer-Nevo, 2006).
It is evident that the encounter with the Courtyard and the alternative perspective it offers feels natural to the young participants. However, this encounter could signify a challenging of social norms in which they live. The most complex scenario concerns young women coming from more traditional and patriarchal societies. For instance, we see complex cases of young Arab women who tend to describe an experience of a twofold lack of belonging – to both Jewish society and Arab society. Moreover, they tend to experience more life-endangering situations and arrive with fewer pre-existing anchors. They experience a confusion between these two worlds; activities that are otherwise legitimate for women from larger cities and from the secular world (for example: smoking, living on their own, maintaining a nonmarital romantic relationship) could be considered an act of defiance, endangering them, and used as an excuse to exclude them from their family or society. We see cases of young women from more traditional and isolated communities who moved to Haifa, which as a mixed city is welcoming for young women. We see this move to the city, far from the reality of their traditional community, as an act of protest, but one which is also bound by certain terms and conditions. On the one hand, the mixed Jewish-Arab city incorporates a familiarity with their language and customs, moderating their feeling of alienation and lack of belonging. On the other hand, the secular city represents a freedom that does not necessarily apply to them, since they remain affected by both established and latent social forces around them (Herzog, 2010). The space for action between these forces, and hence for any intervention by persons from the community, necessitates cultural sensitivity and an understanding of the environmental climate in which these young women live, a climate that remains invisible while informing all of their choices or lack thereof.
When we asked the women at the Courtyard what our space, located in a mixed city, means to them, we received various responses, which could also represent the complexity at play. A., a young Jewish woman, describes the significance of being exposed to life experiences previously unfamiliar to her: "Situations of a woman in a community. The experience of an Arab woman compared to a Jewish woman, and the other way around… There are many conversations that would never take place had we not been in a mixed city. There's a gap, and we try to understand each other. We try to speak about this gap…"
Afterwards, she discusses her feelings as part of a minority vis-à-vis the majority, remarking how her experience of complexity changes in each place: "In my building, I'm the only Jew… For them, I'm that unmarried, problematic Jew, while Arab families live in all the other apartments… I'm dying to communicate with them, so that they'd see me as something beyond that, but I fail to do so, and a similar thing happens to me at the Courtyard, only from the opposite direction".
In this context, Krumer-Nevo (2006) describes “a relationship of otherness” as an arena in which each one of us is perceived, at least some of the time, as an "Other". N., a young woman, daughter of Jewish immigrants, remarks that, despite the multiplicity of representations at the Courtyard, not all voices are heard: "There are some Arabs who are not getting heard in our conversations. These differences – it has consequences. If someone's mother tongue isn't Hebrew… it becomes harder for her to fit in".
S., a young Arab woman says she finds it hard to understand most of our discussions and therefore excludes herself from different activities and discussions. She also relates to similar difficulties to engage in educational activities outside the Courtyard. These reflect a significant issue related to the ways predominant groups have greater social power.
Both N. and S. reflect the hardships encountered by young women from ethnic minorities in the public space. Belonging to an ethnic minority affects opportunities for education and employment which are available to the members of the group, while also being connected to experiences of discrimination, inferiority, and racism (Krumer-Nevo & Komem 2012). This experience is not disconnected from the day-to-day lives of these young women, and space is made to express these experiences during the encounters at the Courtyard.
The Courtyard operates as an egalitarian, non-judgmental space. Sometimes, this might reflect in an attempt to conduct in a non-political manner and avoid acknowledging the differences between the various groups. On one hand, we always discuss how the personal is the political, while on the other hand, and especially when our surroundings become conflicted and violent, we try to keep the routines and manage in a way that resists change. It might be, that the Courtyard provides such a meaningful anchor to its participating young women, against a background of conflicted and insecure reality which they experience outside, that all involved (team and participants alike) fear to damage the fragile structure.
The Courtyard in Haifa in the context of the events of May 2021
In May 2021 a series of violent events broke out between Jewish and Arab citizens in Jerusalem which quickly spread to various locations throughout Israel. At the same time, a wide-ranging Israeli military operation was taking place in Gaza in response to rocket fire aimed at Israel. Within a short period of time, daily reality became conflicted and violent throughout the country, especially in mixed cities like Haifa. Some of the Courtyard’s Arab participants have relatives in Gaza, Lod, and Jaffa. Some young Jewish participants have families in the south of the country or family members serving in the military. The feelings of insecurity and suspicion grew in parallel to a need for a sense of security and belonging.
For our Arab women, this became a battle over identity and narrative. They joined the ongoing protests in the evenings and replaced their social-media profile pictures with ones representing the protests. They described to us a sense of belonging and purpose they had been missing for a long time.
The events took place during the month of Ramadan. An innocent attempt by one of the women to wish the others "Ramadan kareem" (Happy Ramadan) on WhatsApp was met with rage and a feeling of being insensitive towards the distress of the Palestinian people. Our WhatsApp group was aflame, harsh words were hurled in the air, and some women left the group feeling badly hurt. As a team, we tried to move the hollow discourse from WhatsApp into a physical meeting at the Courtyard. Despite our efforts, only a few young Arab women came to the meeting we organized at the start of the events. We asked ourselves: Was it in any way related to what happened on the WhatsApp group discussion? Was it perhaps related to the Eid al-Fitr celebrations on that day? Would it be possible, once they returned, to discuss these matters, or would they try to continue ‘business as usual’ and avoid confrontation?
Several weeks later, a separate WhatsApp group was created by the young Arab women and teenagers from the Courtyard. It was informed by their need for a group to belong to and identify with, and later became a supportive place, providing them a safe environment for sharing and for seeking advice, as well as for organizing social meetings beyond the Courtyard. By this seemingly minor act, they created a virtual safe space for themselves, as a form of resistance against their expulsion and exclusion from other spaces in their lives.
At the Courtyard, our most-significant lesson from the period of escalation is that the biggest challenges lie in the interruption to the day-to-day routine and encouraging a discourse that acknowledges different life experiences, while simultaneously maintaining the Courtyard as a safe space. In a reality where the default reaction, even among therapists, is to avoid dealing with political issues and even to suppress the conflict from the caregiving act (Havron, 2018), we offer an alternative of acknowledgment and awareness.
In line with the discourse at the Courtyard, we would like to offer more question marks than exclamation marks; to continue asking ourselves and the young women we work with, how does one accommodate the hard experiences, when both sides experience hurt, discrimination, daily fear, shame, and disappointment? How, from this place of hurt and self-defense, can an act of protest and resistance might also be seen? Krumer-Nevo (2006) describes these two experiences of pain and struggle as coexisting in the lives of women, shedding a light on the daily acts that "resist" the given reality. Herzog (2010) calls it "Politics of day-to-day life", referring to politically meaningful action in day-to-day life, in the private space, in romantic relationships, in family life, and in the street.
The local and global events of recent times shine a light on the inequality that exists in society and which exposes women to harm and the worsening of their situation. The ability to convey complexity and disagreement as part of an informal encounter in a safe women’s space includes the potential for creating a new power balance between different groups in society. Our hope is that this activity can gradually trickle down to other spaces outside the Courtyard, rendering them safer for all genders.
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