2021 Featured Activists: Kaltom Hussein

(Part One)

Meet Kaltom Hussein, Director of Development at Women against Violence

Kaltom’s life story drives her mission at Women against Violence (WAV).

Kaltom, 38, grew up in the Galilee village of Deir Hanna, the youngest of five children and the only girl. When NIFC asked her if she was treated like a princess, she answered an adamant no.

“I refused that title,” she says. “I behaved pretty much like a boy.”

Since then, Kaltom has refused many other strictures: Pressured by her family to marry at 17, she stood up to her husband’s family’s desire that she not study or work, and earned a BA and an MA. In fact, her father’s condition for the marriage was that she be allowed to further her education.

As she matured, she realized that marriage was not the “best step to take at the age of 17. Secretly, in my heart, I blamed my family for not raising my awareness about such a decision.

“I was considered a bad woman who doesn’t adhere to the norms or the commands of the family,” she says. “I had to stand up for myself day by day; it was an advantage that I was raised with boys.”

She has raised her three daughters to be strong and independent and to make their own decisions.

“I had tough periods in my life facing these traditional things that put me down for many years, Kaltom says. “But I’m proud of where I am now and proud that I raised my daughters to be strong women and my son to be a feminist…I believe everything I went through in life brought me to where I am now.”

Joining the social change movement

Where she is now is Director of Development for WAV, the first women’s organization in the Middle East to open shelters for battered women, which has since grown into a women-led, women-run feminist organization and NIFC project partner that works to raise the status of Arab women in Israel.

How did she get from there to here?

“Eleven years ago, a friend who didn’t have a car asked her to drive her to a job fair held by WAV,” says Kaltom of that fateful day. She had recently gotten her B.A. in English and history and had a part-time job teaching English because full-time teaching jobs for Arab women were scarce. But she wanted economic independence.

At the fair, she happened to meet Aida Toumah-Suleiman, founding director of WAV and later a Member of Knesset, who asked if she had brought a CV to show the many employers in the hall. Kaltom admitted she had heard about the fair only that day and had come unprepared. When Suleiman found out that Kaltom had majored in English, she says, “Oh, we’re looking for a fundraiser.”

“I told her I had no idea what that is. She says, ‘Well try it, send us your CV,’ and that’s what I did. During the job interview, she asked me if I could handle five simultaneous deadlines and pressure. I smiled to myself. Aida says, ‘I know why you’re smiling. With three kids and an academic degree, of course you can work under pressure.’”

Kaltom got the job.

“I knew nothing. They trained me. I took a few courses with Shatil and here I am,” she says, referring to NIF’s action arm in Israel that provides trainings and consulting to social change groups.

Fighting violence against women

“WAV is not just a workplace, but a place that gave me a mission and a vision for me as Kaltom, as a woman, as a Palestinian woman, to change women’s lives. I put all my efforts into finding funding for our projects because I don’t want any young woman to face what I faced,” she says pointing to a poster behind her of a successful WAV campaign to get the legal marriage age raised. “I want women to be strong, to be empowered, to choose and plan their own lives, to be represented in the decision-making side and to put women’s issues on the decision makers’ agenda.”

During her tenure, WAV’s achievements include decreasing unemployment among female Palestinian citizens of Israel and integrating those with academic degrees into the high-tech industry.

What most upsets Kaltom now is the increasing violence in Arab society in Israel and especially against women, such as so-called honor killings; the rise of Muslim fundamentalism and the ensuing legitimacy for violence, and the increase in organized crime and resultant violence in Arab towns and villages. Over the past decades, the Palestinian community in Israel has seen a sharp rise in violent crime and shootings, even at public events like concerts. And violence against women specifically has seen events as horrific as a woman who was beaten in public because she was running in a marathon.

What gives her hope?

“That we are here. I don’t give up easily and we have about 40 women and men within WAV – in addition to the volunteers and board members – who don’t give up. In addition to two shelters for battered women and children, we run two halfway houses, a crisis center that works 24/7, an advocacy unit and a community unit that works with women and youth.”

When WAV opened its first battered women’s shelter, it was a taboo act; today, their shelters are always full and Kaltom sees this as evidence of progress towards social change. Unfortunately this means there are lots of victims of violence, but, as Kaltom says, “it also means that women oppose and refuse violence and have this space that enables them to leave the house and find safety.”  

“I know the social change we are seeking won’t happen over a year or two. It is cumulative, step by step. Eventually it will happen.”

Written and reported by Ruth Mason.

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