‘silent Revolution’ Changes Life for Some Bedouin Women in Israel

A recent day brings welcome news for the small group of young Bedouin women who come to this tin shed in a corner of their windswept desert village every week to study. “Funding has come through so you will now be able to study for your high school matriculation exams,” Hanan Al Sanah announces to the group, made up of women in their early 20s, cloaked in long dark dresses and head coverings and sitting in a circle of chairs on a bare concrete floor.

Their serious faces instantly break into wide smiles.

Most of the women never studied beyond the fifth or sixth grade. Traditional Bedouin society kept women and girls at home and more than half of Israel’s female Bedouin are illiterate; this group of women is among the first generation in their society with the potential to move beyond the confines of their villages to study, to work and to find a new sense of self.

“Our confidence has grown. I feel I can now help my son with his studies,” said Amneh Elhwashleh, 23, her baby son sitting on her lap. “I have stronger presence now.”

Israel’s Bedouin population numbers more than 150,000, most of whom live in the Negev.

Becoming more educated helps Bedouin women in many aspects of their daily lives. Not only can they read Arabic and Hebrew newspapers and do math equations, these women can also read the expiration dates on food packages, no longer buying out-of-date products for their families.

A “silent revolution” is rippling through the women of Bedouin society in the Negev Desert. Some are taking a stand against abusive husbands, others are attending colleges and university and many more are bringing home a paycheck for the first time.

“We believe in the women. They have the tools, and are the ones who will be able to help their tribes,” said Al Sanah, 24, a model of a new breed of young Bedouin women: university educated, confident and giving back to the community. “One of our students wants to run a nursery school and another wants to head a health project for the village. We see them as those who will bring progress to the villages.”

Al Sanah is the community and education project manager for a Bedouin women’s empowerment organization called Sidreh. The name was taken from the name of a desert tree believed by the Bedouin to have medicinal powers for women.

The organization is one of several in the Negev Desert supported in part by the New Israel Fund, and its goal is to strengthen the status of Bedouin women through literacy projects, raising women’s awareness of their civil rights and issues such as domestic violence and women’s health.

Education is the cornerstone to efforts in uplifting Bedouin women, field workers say.

Souad Abo Ajaj, 38, with piercing black eyes and a rust-colored head scarf, remembers weeping when she saw girls setting out for school in the mornings after her father, a school principal, deemed her 10th-grade education more than enough for a girl.

“I was very angry. I had been the top of the class and I felt like all my efforts were for nothing,” said Abo Ajaj, adding, “I felt like my potential had not been fulfilled.”

At age 18, two years after dropping out of school, she was married and went on to have 10 children. She says her life changed direction when she started taking women’s empowerment courses sponsored by Shatil, a project of the New Israel Fund.

She took every course they offered — starting with a class on first aid followed by courses in women’s health and hygiene, financial independence, and domestic violence.

Her husband, who initially approved of her taking courses, later changed his mind.

Once, while several months pregnant, she told him she was going to the doctor for an ultrasound.

In fact, she says, giggling as she retells the story, she was going to a class.

“Before this we did not know our rights. In our culture when a husband beats his wife, she stays quiet and tells no one,” said Abo Ajaj, who speaks in a raspy, confident voice.

After taking the domestic violence course, she confronted her husband — who did occasionally beat her, she said — and told him he had to stop.

She now has found work and an income teaching public health to other Bedouin women.

She said she was devastated when her husband recently took on a second wife — a common practice among Bedouin men — and decided she would support herself financially with the knowledge she had gained from the Shatil courses.

Abo Ajaj’s story notwithstanding, Safa Abu Rabia, the director of Bedouin Women’s Empowerment courses for Shatil, says the changes they try to make are gradual and are coordinated with Bedouin men.

Importing a Western style of feminism would only backfire, she says. Instead, the goal is to work within the cultural milieu to make changes, not collisions.

She said the effect the courses have on the women is striking.

“They often say, ‘Finally someone is listening to me, asking me what I think,’ ” she said. Abu Rabia, herself the product of a home with a Bedouin father and an Israeli Arab mother who supported her efforts to get an education, said she is moved by the results of the courses.

“I did not think it would move so quickly, it’s like a snowball,” she says. “I can’t keep up with the number of success stories.”

Rulla Elathuna, director of the Association of the Promotion of Bedouin Women’s Education in the Negev, also a grantee of the New Israel Fund, said that today, more than 150 Bedouin women are enrolled in university, about five times the number in 1995. Many more are studying in colleges in the Negev, she said.

Today, she said, there is more awareness among parents of the importance of educating their daughters, in part because there are numerous organizations laying the groundwork, doing outreach to communities and helping make education for women more socially acceptable.

There is also more organized transportation from Bedouin villages to places of higher education, important for traditional families that do not approve of their daughters traveling alone. Further, there are more government-funded stipends and scholarships for Bedouin women.

“But Bedouin women are still having a difficult time despite the advances. There are many problems,” said Elathuna. “For example, women still need to ask for permission to keep studying.”

When women are kept at home and forced to drop out of school, marriage and children quickly follow, limiting their immediate opportunities.

Bedouin women have the highest fertility rate in Israel, giving birth to an average of 5.8 children.

Their status in traditional society is very much connected to how many children they bare and the pressure to have a large number of offspring is even greater for women who are part of polygamous marriages — because these women feel more pressure to prove themselves by having more children, according to Julie Cwikel, founder and director of the Center for Women’s Health Studies and Promotion at Ben-Gurion University.

Despite this obstacle, it is often mothers who pave the way for their daughters.

Sana Heger, 51, who takes part in a weaving project for Bedouin women called Lakiya, has worked her way up from weaving to being the woman in charge of dying the wool that is used in making carpets by the women. She tells a visitor how she spends her salary: on university tuition for her daughters.

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