Immigrant Women in Israel: Between a Rock and a Hard Place
By Tamar Jinjihashvili | 20/05/2010
On the backdrop of the threatening openness of Israeli norms, preservation of the patriarchy in traditional communities that immigrated to Israel took on a harsh oppressiveness, and young women paid the price. Women from Soviet Georgia, Bukhara, and the Caucasus who immigrated to Israel as children over the past thirty years, and who were forced to marry before their time, are now experiencing a slow but steady process of independence.
Frederic Brenner, Oni, Soviet Georgia, USSR 1990
I immigrated to Israel from Soviet Georgia in the 1970s, at the age of six and a half. My childhood neighborhood was an expanse of languages and cultures. Living there side-by-side were immigrants from Soviet Georgia, the Caucasus, Romania, and Russia, and veteran Israelis whom the immigrants lumped into a single category: "Moroccans." In the evenings, the neighborhood would come alive; the houses would expel all of their inhabitants to the sidewalks and to the grounds around the buildings, surrounded by a low wall. The adults would usually sit in small groups, according to country of origin, men and women separately. We, the children, would play on the grassy expanses and on the sidewalks in a lively and egalitarian Hebrew. Young, dressed-up Georgian women of high school age would go out with their mothers for a stroll around the neighborhood to fulfill the obligation of displaying their ripeness and to achieve a longed-for match; afterwards, they would gather for the girl-talk of those destined to marry young. The cultural diversity was a party for me; opinionated and full of confidence, I would flitter among those sitting on the wall, listening to the conversations of the adults, asking questions, and sometimes expressing opinions and presenting positions. The Romanian neighbor would affectionately refer to me as "the little lawyer." The Georgian girls, who were a few years older than I, were particularly alluring; through them, I tried to decipher the secret of cultural difference, where all of my fears and hopes lay. These young women, whose families kept the most watchful eye on them out of concern for their innocence, marked the boundary of inter-ethnic societal tolerance that arose from the very fact of side-by-side living.
I was in the 8th grade when the first girl/young woman from my grade was engaged, and subsequently disappeared from the neighborhood scenery. Echoes of the gossip about her reached me and aroused my defiance; the process of her marriage contained no small amount of coercion. She stopped attending school, and therefore did not even complete eight years of study. The next time I saw her was at the movie theater. She was positioned silently beside her fiancée, dressed to the hilt, wearing heavy make-up and looking well beyond her years. My brother and I sat in one of the front rows, intentionally far from them. In front of us sat a group of excited teenagers, boys and girls, who spoke in loud voices. I knew some of them from my visits to the municipal library. Slowly, I understood that they were occupied with – let's call her Marina, their classmate, who had disappeared after getting engaged. I had nowhere to flee – luckily, they darkened the theater and the movie began. During the break, they went to have a peek at Marina and spoke about her with pity, disgust and wonder; they couldn't handle her heavy make-up, her dolled-up look, and her marriage at such a young age.
Thus did I find myself trapped between the Georgian option and the Israeli option, between family-community loyalty, and loyalty to myself. Marina sat frozen in place, and ignored her classmates, who came to gaze at her as if she were in the zoo of reality. Two girls and a boy stood facing her while conducting a lively discussion around the question of whether she had chosen willingly to marry young. I politely intervened in their conversation, and made a number of comments based on my familiarity with the practices of the ethnic group. My comments led to a conversation about cultural gaps and the status of teenagers, and since the movie had begun, we stepped outside to continue speaking. The encounter was a formative experience for me as an adolescent girl. The truth was naked and painful: women and young girls become victims upon immigrating to Israel.
I knew that it was a form of cultural rape that girls learned to live with; on the backdrop of the threatening openness of Israeli norms, preservation of the patriarchy in traditional communities that immigrated to Israel took on a harsh oppressiveness, and young women paid the price. While they have undergone a process of socialization in the Georgian environment and felt a sense of belonging to it, exposure to a different existence and the knowledge that the law fails in protecting them from their community of origin has left them alone and helpless. Attempts to enforce the law have been futile. Only eight years ago, rabbis in the community made a decision to act in accordance with the law, and to ban those who marry girls below the legal age. Until then, the community practices only grew, and many ways were found to evade the law and to "make do" despite it. The Georgian community is an extreme example of all that pertains to the relationship between teenage girls and young women, but it is not alone. Oppressive community chauvinism can also be found in additional immigrant communities that came to Israel in the 1970s, for example, those from the Caucasus and Bukhara. In these communities, marriages and families are the ultimate destiny for adolescent girls and women. Their world was meant to shrink to the realm of family; all other realms – education, employment, or cultivation of talents – were tolerated only if they served this purpose, and if only if the husband and his family granted their permission. The young women, who for the most part lived in the homes of their husband's families during the first years of the marriages, were isolated; their emotional dependency on their husband and his family was total. They had nowhere to flee, since their own families pushed them to get married, and sometimes, even forced them into the wedding through emotional blackmail. Their knowledge about Israeli society and culture was acquired through the media, and in women's magazines, such as "La-Isha" ["For the Woman"] or "At" ["You"], where they found consolation. The knowledge that this was the fate of all young women from their ethnic group helped them accept their plight. In effect, most of them had no other existential option; they understand that although their parents had forced them to marry against their will, they had also acted in keeping with familiar cultural norms. They learned to accept the authority of their husband and the family, to express themselves in a limited fashion, internalizing submission, and on the other hand, they found strength in their relationship and their family. Their youthful dreams of romantic love made way for dealing with the demanding reality of marriage that required devotion, obedience and partnership, and sometimes, even resulted in love. The way in which these young women dealt with their situations was like that of women in captivity, who begin to identify with their captor and to internalize his position, to the point where they can say "I loved my master."
Children as a Key to Hope
Parenting gave the young immigrant women from the Soviet Republic a key to improving their status. Raising children yielded responsibility intermixed with joy and activity, which often saved them from sitting at home waiting for their husbands to redeem them from their loneliness. Expansion of the family catalyzed many young couples to leave the home of the husband's parents and to embark on an independent life. The children opened new horizons of hope for the mothers; for most, it was clear that their children would grow up in a more open and enabling society – Israeli society, and that they would also grow with them, and would experience reality through their children, thereby becoming integrated into the society. In effect, child-raising gave these women an opening for their own healing; and indeed, with the strengthening of their marriages and the growth of the family, economic demands increased, sending them into the workforce. Many of them studied and were trained in various realms, and even opened small businesses. Over the years, their quality of life and emotional state improved. Parenting took the edge off of the fact of their being young, and their coping level began to resemble those of other women. The trauma of the loss of youth was experienced only when their children became teenagers. Some of them were deeply confused, and felt as if they were groping in the dark; most were able to steer themselves back to doing things for the sake of their children. Today, in their late 40s, a large portion of these women are marrying their children off at normative ages, and there are even young grandmothers among them. Therefore, in their 40s they are dealing with the fact that their children are leaving home, calling on them to build themselves up as women who experience their freedom from within the constraints the institution of marriage and lack of education.
In contrast to the teenage girls, women who moved to Israel after they were already married, improved their lot. Most quickly integrated into the workforce and made their contribution to the family income. Owning a bank account and expanding their social circle, which now included work colleagues from different ethnic backgrounds, limited their dependency on their husbands. While these women presented their entry into the workforce as an economic necessity, in effect they were unprepared to relinquish this position of power. Given the lack of appropriate language and education, they were taken in by industrial factories and public institutions in service and production jobs, and in most cases proved to be trustworthy and diligent employees. At the same time, their traditional role was preserved: they continued to run the house and to raise the children. In some families, the men also dedicated themselves to the housework. But the empowerment of the women did not alter their basic attitude towards their status. They continued to maintain the patriarchal view that they had internalized, and to educate their children in keeping with it, although they were more compassionate towards girls and women. The very process of absorption into Israel improved their status as women; it was more the men who experienced the difficult crises of immigration, and who turned to drink and gambling, while the women managed to gather their emotional strength in order to help them return to their role as breadwinner. The women acted out of resignation, cultivating the cultural chauvinism that they had internalized; in the name of traditional values, which cast upon them the responsibility of maintaining the family and supporting the men during times of crisis; they created a more emotional and egalitarian relationship, even if they did so in the interest of preserving a façade of patriarchy. In extreme cases, women dealt with violent men, availing themselves of the help of the legal authorities and welfare institutions. Very occasionally, they even had violent husbands placed behind bars, as an act of educational deterrence aimed at stopping the violence, and to enable the man to build himself up in Israel as an enlightened chauvinist. For most women, although they brought in an income, divorce was not a realistic option. This reality, or female empowerment, but also of principled adherence to a chauvinist cultural perspective, in most cases succeeded in preserving the family as a sustaining and growth-fostering unit. And yet, a small minority of men were unable to bear the empowerment of women in Israel, and acted towards them violently. They viewed the breakdown of family and community frameworks upon immigrating to Israel as an existential danger to family; one therefore finds many immigrant men in the family homicides statistics.
The roots of the immigrants were ripped out of the ground, and they seek a new place in Israeli soil, while enduring an exposed and sensitive transition period. The cultural passage is a difficult challenge; the necessary balances between remembering the past and its internalized norms, and the alien new reality, demand everyone to change. Today, after twenty or thirty years in Israel, and sometimes more, it is difficult to distinguish between an immigrant and a native Israeli. The extreme, culturally built-in chauvinism of the grandparents' generation is in retreat relative to the overall culture. Some time ago I met Marina, who was married at the age fourteen and a half. Today she is already a grandmother of two, and owns a manicure salon; her youngest daughter is studying in the Technion and lives in the dorms. She is 41 years old, enjoys her relative freedom, and is even raising a dog. After we parted, I again had a clearer understanding as to why the Torah forces one who rapes a virgin to marry her, and forbids him to divorce her as long as she lives. In a patriarchal-conservative and chauvinist society, this is the demand for responsible marriage, the demand to find a way to building something together, because the young woman has no other way of building herself up. Most of the young girls of Marina's type managed to shape their lives within the suffocating cultural grip and the forced marriage at a young age; they succeeded in building themselves and raising a generation with broader and more egalitarian horizons. From now on, learn about their status as part of Israeli society.
Tamar Jinjihashvili is a developer of educational materials.