On being an Arab woman educator: Nadia Kinnani reflects

In my first week as the school principal, a father of one of the students came into my office. He was tall, with a mustache, and when he saw me, a small woman on a chair behind the desk, he couldn’t take it and spoke to me disrespectfully, witheringly. So I said to him: “I see that it is hard for you that I am a woman in the principal’s chair – tomorrow I can bring a picture of a man if you’d like, and you can talk to the picture, but for now I am sitting here and I want you to hear what I have to say.” 

A lot has changed since then, and while the Arab-Jewish issue is the larger umbrella and core of our schools, there are things beyond that issue which are also important.  Gender is one of them. I believe that change will come from within women themselves. With awareness and action.

There is something in the experience and exposure of opening a school, and being a mother and a teacher, that makes me want to discover more and more about the world. I am still growing and discovering new things all the time, and I am sure that there are many things that in another year I will see things differently. My central core is clear but I am constantly developing.

This is also true of our teachers. It is clear to all of us here that whoever enters the gates of the school has no chance of staying exactly the same.  It is like a virus – it’s infectious, and it changes you. 

When I’m with teachers, I try to bring a different voice. For example, there were many arguments with teachers about a dress code for girls at school. There were teachers who objected to the length of the shorts some girls were wearing.  And I told them: “I don’t care about that – about two inches of fabric here or there – I care about how these girls see themselves, their bodies, and their worth.” And that changes the conversation for the teachers.  I feel that it’s part of my mission – to help people out of their closed places, and have the real, important conversations.

I see that happen in the teachers’ room all the time. I see teachers listening. They are interested in one another, even those who are really different from them. They are curious - they listen and think, and open their minds.

For example, many of our Arab women teachers come from a traditional society where men do most of the decision-making.  When teachers like that come to the school, it opens their eyes.  Normally in their society women go to work, earn an income, and still are expected to take care of the house and the family - so it ends up being like two full-time jobs.  A lot of our teachers have to run home at 4 PM before their husbands get home, so that he doesn’t feel her absence. While I want them to think critically, I don’t explicitly encourage these women to rebel against their society, I want it to come from them, in a way that is comfortable for them. Just yesterday I had a conversation with one of these teachers, and I offered to go out for a coffee with her when it was already 4 PM. She called her husband and said, “I am going out to meet with Nadia.”  And afterwards she said to me: “did you see what I did? I used to ask his permission, but now I simply tell him.  It is hard for him.  But he is starting to get used to it.”

One of my messages to the teachers is that we have a fight to influence the next generation.  I tell them to use this time that they have, to take advantage of their roles in order to educate kids who are smart, who know how to think and ask questions.  Emotion by itself will bring us to a dangerous place. Children need knowledge. 

I didn’t have that.  I didn’t have a teacher who taught me.  I learned, I fell apart, I got myself together, I continued.  I made mistakes and moved forward and grew. 

This is a complicated process for me and for my teachers. In the end I see that many of the teachers are going through changes.  They are taking up space in a way they hadn’t before. They are changing their role from just being teachers to being leaders and change-makers.

Arik, my co-principal, and I see this as part of our role - not just to stay within our school walls, but for our teachers to go speak on a panel, or volunteer with an organization, or start their own initiatives.  We see this as critical to share our worldview and process and dilemmas.  We want to create a program where each teacher is paid for ten hours where they go out and do something in the world.   

And I see that happening already – I know that these teachers will influence their society, their family, their community and also their broader social circles.  I am sure.  They will not be satisfied just “liking” things on Facebook.  They will break through in other areas not just Jewish-Arab sector, but other areas.  They will want to watch over the next generation and I see already that they have it in them.  They will come out of the school framework to accomplish things above and beyond the norm.

The freeing of women will start within women themselves. There are many who know this internally.  The question is how to bring them to activism and not just stay with their awareness that they are oppressed.  For myself and my teachers, this awareness comes from being at the school. Change will be gradual, not in one blow.  All of these women are thirsting for learning – they are learning all the time.  This is their weapon.  

Nadia started as a teacher at Hand in Hand in 2000, and has been the Principal of the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem Elementary school since 2009. In March 2016 was one of eight women recognized for "making major contributions to society" by former President Shimon Peres and Naomi Campbell in an International Women's Day ceremony.  Read her bio

 

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