Bedouin women exemplify Israel’s contradictions

ABOVE AND OPPOSITE PAGE:  A Bedouin woman in Khashem Zaneh weaves a rug which will later be sold online. Photos: Rahna Barthelmess 

By Larry Levin, Publisher/CEO

Khashem Zaneh, Israel — As we sat in a rug-making facility operated by Bedouin women in a Negev town — basically, a feminist business collective in humble surroundings that sells its woven wares online — I could not help but consider the bigger picture.

Israel is a place of massive cultural contradictions. A rapidly evolving and innovative society that in many important ways is stubbornly fixated in the past. A government headed by brilliant world-class leaders but often fraught with a rampant lack of communication and cooperation. A largely secular society that is controlled in key ways by religious institutions.

Included in this backdrop of contrasts are any number of issues that pertain to Israeli women. During a recent visit, I was able to observe and consider some of the problems and opportunities that fill the gender-related landscape.

The trip combined a visit to the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly, held twice a decade in Israel, with a mission visiting programs the St. Louis Federation funds and focusing on issues of import in contemporary Israeli culture.

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Various strands involving women and girls told a broad and complex story. The current initiatives to change antiquated Jewish divorce laws; highly-visible stresses at the Kotel about how and where women can pray; and Arab women striving to build new hope for their communities, were just three indicators that things are evolving in a great many areas for Israeli females.

One of the most compelling plot lines relates to Bedouin women and girls. For buried far below the headlines of recent stories about tension in the Negev are implications for how the lives and hopes of Bedouin females will be affected.

News has been rife in recent months with the plight of Bedouins in the Negev. Numbering over 200,000, the once-nomadic people are scattered through reams of villages across the desert. A precious few of these villages have been formally recognized by the state, while 45 have not; lack of recognition most often means no roads, services, local schools or electricity, and precious little water. And the ongoing claims to land by individual Bedouins have proven difficult at best under current Israeli law.

A vicious and public political debate rages on about the proposed Prawer-Begin bill before Knesset, which would relocate Bedouin populations from villages into towns. Detractors cite discriminatory treatment, paternalism and an intent to clear larger tracts in the Negev for Jewish settlers. Supporters claim the kinds of medical, education and other facilities intended to improve quality of life for Bedouins cannot be fully attained without some level of consolidation.

With a ton of exposure in the news, the bill appears to have slowed in the last couple weeks, but ultimately, given political pressures, some compromise is likely to occur. And when it does, there will be significant impact upon the role of women in Bedouin culture as a shift to town life accelerates.

Traditional village life for Bedouins is not easy, even for those living in recognized communities. But in Khashem Zaneh, an unrecognized village of about 2,300 that we visited, it’s particularly challenging. Though Bedouin pay health care taxes, there’s no clinic. And schoolchildren must board a bus and travel a great distance each day to attend a publicly-funded Israeli school.

This presents a problem for females, for once the Bedouin girls reach early teens, cultural mores prevent travel at a distance from the village to continue their learning. So for many, the formal education process stops quite early.

The lack of local services and employment affects females in other ways. While Israeli law limits men and women to one spouse, Muslim law allows four, and Arab men at the lowest end of the economic spectrum, Bedouins among them, are more likely to violate the law and have additional wives. This is not a practice that those advocating for gender equality see as particularly healthy.

There is one economic positive for women in Bedouin village life, and that is, women are allowed by cultural standards to retain anything they earn. That is, of course, to the extent there is a source of earnings from local or nearby tasks.

The transition to town life, however, presents a wholly different set of issues. When Bedouin from different villages come together in a township, the cultural norm precludes women from being out and about with strangers. So generally women end up spending much of their time inside, without work and without the opportunity to have a positive financial, cultural or social experience.

But the problem worsens when Bedouin men, coming from the more rural setting of the village, cannot get gainful employment in the town. Then not only are the women without pay they can keep for themselves, but many more issues ensue from the men being unemployed, domestic violence being one of them. The result is a downward spiral in the family structure.

All of that makes Sidreh and the Lakiya Weaving Project (www.lakiya.org) that much more remarkable. It’s a nonprofit weaving business in the Bedouin town of Lakiya, that brings women together to create products and utilize the revenues not only as earnings for the women, but to facilitate further empowerment of females. Rugs and other woven goods are sold in several Israeli stores and online (in the United States through a distributor, www.bedouinweaving.com).

It is, in many ways, the quintessential social entrepreneurship. Providing a source of income for about 70 families, Sidreh also performs the task of empowering women through high school and adult education, helping women understand their rights, sharing stories through a newspaper and otherwise, and developing leadership and capacity skills. Mothers have been able to pay for their daughters’ continuing education as a result of the program, creating a feedback loop of more enlightenment, more advocacy, more choice.

The operation is one that is not popular amongst all, as it turns some traditional role models on its head. But its success and ability to provide financial stability to families gives it respect and stability, so much so it has survived, grown and flourished over three decades.

There are ample challenges to Bedouin communities in being forced from villages to towns if the Prawer-Begin bill or some variant becomes law. Aside from the obvious issues of forced relocation, transitions from villages to towns present numerous issues relating to economics, family life, and women’s and girls’ roles. The Sidreh model, however, offers hope that an earnest effort at empowerment can have a lasting impact on women and girls in the Bedouin villages and towns of the Negev.