The women who never leave home

The women who never leave home

Inside a single-room stone house in the village of Hurfeish, high in the mountains of northern Israel, about 40 women filled wooden benches, plastic chairs and modern leather couches. All were dressed in black or navy blue, wearing dresses or long skirts and blouses, with transparent white veils draped over their heads. Their hands were busy with sewing needles, making white lace or colourful embroidery.


The women who never leave home
View image of A community of women in Hurfeish sew lace and embroidery as a way to earn money (Credit: Credit: Sara Toth Stub)

These crafts, which most learned from their mothers and grandmothers, have for centuries been the pastime for women in the Druze community, a Unitarian offshoot of Islam developed in 11th-century Egypt and now practiced by about one million people scattered throughout the Middle East. But today, these women are using this handwork to ensure their future. They sit here today as part of a cooperative, making products not only for their community, but to sell as art to outsiders. It is the first time many of them are earning their own money.

“This started as a hobby, but now it is work,” said Aniba Fares, 49, as she worked on a white lace veil, similar to the one that covered her dark hair. 

Fares is among a growing number of women in Israel’s mountainous and isolated Druze villages that are beginning to open their craft circles, kitchens and homes to tourists. They – along with other local women offering in-home meals and cooking workshops – are often helped by public grants and courses in entrepreneurship, as the government wants to increase employment among Arabic-speaking minorities. This not only helps women economically, but allows visitors more intimate encounters with the Druze.


The women who never leave home
View image of Selling handicrafts helps the women economically and allows visitors more intimate encounters with the Druze (Credit: Credit: Sara Toth Stub)

For years, travellers have only been able to experience the culture through the eyes of men, who are often the proprietors of restaurants and the few other public places in the villages. Since the Druze do not grant outsiders access to the details of their theology or to their holy books – a doctrine of secretiveness that comes from many years of religious persecution – entering these women’s work and living spaces gives insight into their lives, as well as a window into the social changes that are rippling through many communities of Israel’s Arabic-speaking minorities.

Like most Druze women her age, Fares didn’t study past her early teens, never worked outside the home and doesn’t leave the village on her own. Meanwhile, her daughter has earned a university degree and works in education. This stark contrast is the reality for many families in this village of about 6,000 people. During the last two decades, it has become standard for young Druze women to attend university, drive to work and abandon traditional dress, as this group and other Arabic-speaking minorities in Israel integrate further into the economy. These young women are doing what men from these villages did decades earlier. But women older than 40, for the most part, have been left on the sidelines.


The women who never leave home
View image of Druze women gather in the village of Hurfeish, in the mountains of northern Israel (Credit: Credit: Sara Toth Stub)

“These changes are good,” Fares said. “But all of that started when I was too old.”

There is nothing in the Druze religious texts that says women shouldn’t work, said Janan Faraj Falah, professor of gender studies at Arab Academic College of Haifa, who was the first Druze woman in Israel to earn a doctorate. “But for years, the Druze religious leadership told women they shouldn’t study or go out of their villages.” She explained this was a method of control and a way to try and preserve traditions. “The leadership said the women needed to be home.”

But that began changing in the 1990s, as more women went out anyway to work and study.


The women who never leave home
View image of It is becoming more common for Druze women to attend school and work outside the home than it was 20 years ago (Credit: Credit: Sara Toth Stub)

Today there are no formal religious bans, but social norms have been slower to change, explained the cooperative’s coordinator Afaf Genem, 38, who belongs to the younger generation, having gone to university and now working for the regional council. In fact, whenever Genem has encountered criticism about encouraging women to work, she has gone to the village’s religious authorities, who say it is now allowed. But many women still prefer to stay in the village, so this cooperative is a good compromise, Genem said.

On a recent summer day, the women making lace welcomed me, showing me their crafts and offering me cheese-filled pastries and cold juice. The house opened into a courtyard, partly shaded by fig and pomegranate trees.

One woman, 55-year-old Shanan Nahila, told me she joined the cooperative more for social reasons than for money. 

“I like to sit here together with these women,” said Nahila, who has lived in Hurfeish her whole life. “Here, we talk about everything, about our homes, our children, how things have changed. Everything has changed.”


The women who never leave home
View image of Public grants make it easier for women to open their opens to tourists with cooking workshops and meals (Credit: Credit: Sara Toth Stub)

Coming here allows her to talk about those changes, like how to deal with children who no longer practice the religion. This is something that worries many of these women, because Druze tradition says that only the religiously observant are allowed full access to their holy books. As more Druze abandon study of religious texts, the number of people with knowledge about their tradition is disappearing.

“All of the grown-ups are religious, but with the kids, it depends,” said co-operative member Safaa Husi, 41, who is observant.

In the midst of these changes, the women say that these handicrafts, and the idea of an all-female environment, are a way to preserve their traditions.


The women who never leave home
View image of Learning how to make crafts is a skill passed down from generation to generation (Credit: Credit: Sara Toth Stub)

“It brings us back to it,” Genem said, adding that now that local girls see tourists buying these things, they are more interested.

“It used to be that this handiwork was invisible – the women would do their hobby and put it in the closet. At first they didn’t believe that people from Tel Aviv would come here and buy their products, but that is what has happened.”


View image of Traditional dishes (Credit: Itamar Grinberg, GoIsrael.com)

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