When a Palestinian, Muslim woman went on Israeli Big Brother

Shams, a hijab-wearing, Palestinian woman went on the Israeli reality TV show to teach Jewish Israelis about her humanity. She was naive to think she’d succeed, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support her. 

Shams, the Palestinian, Muslim woman participant on the Israeli TV reality show, Big Brother. (Screenshot from the show's Youtube trailer)
Shams, the Palestinian, Muslim woman participant on the Israeli TV reality show, Big Brother. (Screenshot from the show’s Youtube trailer)

It’s hard with these Palestinians everywhere, even on Big Brother. I admit and confess, I know next to nothing about the reality show. When I was approached a few months ago in an attempt to interest me in participating in the show, I was amused and laughed at the very mention of the crazy idea. The network representative who tried to persuade me to come to the audition told me that if I wanted to convey a message to the people, this was the best platform. I want to convey a message, I replied, “Just decide who counts as the people, and I will consider.”

I explained that the participants in the program, especially the women, are objectified, and why this is contrary to my feminist ideology. I received, in return, an explanation that there has been a conceptual change — this time there will be a “big sister”. I quickly realized that there was no chance that the message would be conveyed in a telephone conversation, so I elegantly refused the offer. Since then, I have wondered, who is going to be the Arab woman to raise the ratings for Big Brother. Who would nonetheless dare to enter this artificial human laboratory, a beehive of Israeli Jews looking for instant fame?

And indeed, on the first episode of the show, a Muslim woman entered the Big Brother house — with a hijab, as the media like to point out. Shams Marie Abomokh, 30, an art therapist, married, and mother of three from Baqa al-Garbiyyeh. I recognized on the screen the woman who, weeks earlier, destiny had brought us together for a long discussion about the role of the Palestinians in relation to the refugees from the civil war in Syria and our relationship to Israeli aid organizations.

I was impressed at the time by a woman who knew what she wanted, articulate, ambitious, and opinionated, who was aware of the complexities of Palestinian identity in Israel, and, like most of us, laboriously refined her identity. Between the sentences and the glances, shone forth a naiveté that stems from a good place of deep faith in human beings and their ability to listen, understand and change. In other words: A feminist woman.

Between Arab conservatism and Zionist insolence

Shams’ entry to the Big Brother house sparked a storm in the Arabic-language social networks. The news sites covered the controversial event. The public debate that ensued emitted the fragrances of an open and vital democracy, filling me with hope.

The old and loathsome patriarchy also raised its head in several posts and comments, as if to remind all Arab women and men seeking progress and equality that we still have our work cut out for us.

The person receiving most of the criticism is Shams’s husband. How could an Arab man permit his wife, his honor, and his reputation to be trampled on and soiled, they told him. Your wife stays with half-naked men in the same house and you’re happy, the talkbackers shrieked. Tribalists and nationalists claimed that Shams represents only herself. They announced that the town of Baka denounced her, that her mother was not at all from the conservative and Muslim Wadi Ara (as if her home town of Lydda is the largest and most modern city in the country). They said she represents a loss of identity and is a disgrace to all Palestinians.

Religious people and conservatives are dealing with the issue of the “Greater Hijab.” How does a hijab-donning woman of faith and tradition leave her home and her children and hang around in front of cameras with strange men and women in a bikini? The good Muslim, they claim, not only veils her head, but lives a way of life that requires “special conduct.” This is an interpretive discussion in itself in Islam, and Shams in her actions specifically refutes this argument — that the hijab removes the woman from the public sphere in order to preserve her exclusion. I think that, to the Jewish ear, this argument rings true.

The husband, Hosam showed signs of distress. Although he is professionally engaged in the publicity trade, he did not anticipate the intensity of the online responses. He quickly explained to everyone, in a detailed statement of opinion, what was included in the contract with the production company, according to which Shams’ privacy would be maintained, as would her prayer hours, and that she would sleep separately. Shams’ family also announced that if the contract is violated they would demand her removal from the show.

To counter all this, many reactions and articles were published expressing support for Shams on the part of those who support the freedom of choice of women and their families. Friends and colleagues talked about her, backed her up and said that they trusted her to teach the Israelis a thing or two. There were also those who did not understand the buzz about the strange event, which is less known in Arab society, and,who for the first time learned what “Big Brother” is. Despite the pointed criticism, to my delight so far, the borders of decency have not been breached. I did not find posts on the web that called for verbal abuse or punishment or violence.

The events in Gaza dominated the agenda, followed by Ramadan, which glued us to our dining tables and television screens that offer those fasting around the Arab and Muslim world a flood of news broadcasts and series. The emotional discussion about Shams’s participation in Big Brother has dimmed somewhat. Meanwhile, the Jews — who were enthusiastic about their level of pluralism, tolerance and democracy for a short time — ticked a box. There is a Muslim Arab woman in the Big Brother house. Mission Accomplished.

A typical Zionist response

In recent days, however, this narrative has encountered difficulties and obstacles from specifically Zionist directions. It was the Jews’ turn to protest against Shams. Yesterday a petition came my way calling for Shams to be ousted from the Big Brother house because she was “inciting against the prime minister.” The petition, launched a few days ago, has already garnered more than 5,000 signatures. The petition’s initiators wrote: “This resident attacks, incites, and sows division amongst us under the guise of naiveté. Shams spreads lies about the history of our people. She is disparaging our religion, the state, and its leaders. We mustn’t remain silent and accept this. The time has come for the producers to make a significant change in the house, the time has come to say, we tried – it did not work. Shams go home.”

What provoked this Zionist reaction? It turns out that it all began with the episode that was broadcast last Monday, on the last mission received by the Big Brother occupants: the space mission (indeed, someone there was likely spaced out). The residents were asked to build the first Israeli colony on Jupiter (ironically called Tzedek in Hebrew which means justice, as if justice will be found there). Then the complex Israeli situation emerged from the closet.

The House Committee convened to decide on the character and symbols of the new space colony. To decide upon nationality, national anthem, which leader would be commemorated, the official religion and the national dish (in the end they chose Bamba, a peanut flavored snack, after hummus and falafel proved to have insufficient Israeli roots), and other questions that were supposed to cause controversy among the residents.

During the discussions, Shams raised important political issues. For example, in the discussion on the official religion of the colony, the Palestinian participant insisted that the “Muslim crescent and the Christian cross, should be shown, and the … e …” she stammered. One of the participants completed her sentence with “Star of David,” and added, “Is it hard for you to say that?” Shams explained to the participants that they can choose the religious symbol that suits Judaism, but that the new colony should reflect and give room for everyone.

It was clear in advance that the struggle for the great leader was lost, and that she would not succeed in convincing any of the united Zionists to choose Yitzhak Rabin. The group chose Ben-Gurion as a leader to be commemorated in the space colony, and Shams explained to one of the participants that her choice of Rabin was actually a compromise, because his biography is full of wars and horrendous things he did to the Palestinian people.

At one point during the crisis she got up and wrapped herself in a scarf with Palestinian embroidery, but no one understood what she was actually trying to say. The sole participant who wanted to understand what Shams was talking about and asked her a question received a painful explanation about the distress and the difficult feeling that even when they are asked to establish a new “Israeli” colony, as part of a game, when there is an opportunity to change things, the group did not recognize the Palestinians and her presence, and chose the exact same reality. “I’m a Palestinian, I was here and I’m staying here, I’m not going anywhere,” she said with tears in her eyes.

The young Jewish woman tried to identify with Shams and make it easier for her, but all she managed to issue was a superficial statement that everyone “comes with background and beliefs from home, there is nothing to do,” and that she does not understand politics but just wanted to know what is bothering Shams personally. For a moment I felt real anger at the naive Shams, who believes that she can move the mountains of Zionism that weigh on the minds of the participants in the program.

But why am I angry? After all, most of the Palestinians I know, including me, are still trying to heal the Jews from their own sickness in different ways, and with very little success.

The expectation that someone from a group of graduates of the brainwashing system of the Education Ministry and the army will be able to stand up to such an argument with an intelligent Palestinian like Shams, with so many years of training and experience as a Palestinian in Israeli society, is unrealistic. After a couple of predictable sentences about the Holocaust, and a bit about how they “want to throw us into the sea,” the powerful and reasoned arguments in the average Israeli’s arsenal run out.

And when the arguments run out, as eventually they do, the average Israeli —frightened and confused — will unfortunately have no choice but to send Shams on a journey of no return. From here on, the offensive may only intensify. The path leads to slander, delegitimization, and incitement that many Palestinians, as well as political activists and leftists, have already been subjected to. After all, it takes just one sentence that is not pleasant to the Zionist ear, one Shimon Peres whose funeral you will not attend — and you will be denounced as an antisemite who must be crucified.

So, right now, we must support Shams. To put aside the discussions about whether or not she should have gone on Big Brother and support her. Yes, dear Jewish and Palestinian leftists, I am talking to you, now you have to go down to the people, get your hands dirty and take part in the reality TV industry for a short time — for good purposes, and God forgive me.

It is even more important that my feminist friends forgive me for this position. I decided to block my nose and stand beside Shams: the woman from Baqa who courageously challenged many Palestinians and Arabs across the world, who is not even aware of their existence yet, and tries to survive in isolation with a group of Jewish Israelis.

Translated by Yoni Molad for the Middle East News Service edited by Sol Salbe, Melbourne, Australia. A version of this post first appeared in Hebrew at Local Call. Read it here.