Bedouin women weave tradition, economics together

A woman dying wool for the Lakiya weaving project in the Negev. (Thomas A. Schmidt)

A woman dying wool for the Lakiya weaving project in the Negev. (Thomas A. Schmidt)

LAKIYA, Israel (JTA) — Every April, the sheep in Israel’s southern Negev are sheared by their Bedouin herders, beginning a process that ends with the production of hefty rugs woven by women from this Bedouin village using a 4,000-year-old technique.

Though the method is old, the women who run the project are part of a new generation of Bedouin women whose work is empowering women who for millennia were denied social and economic opportunities in their conservative society.

At Lakiya Negev Weaving, a project of Sidreh — a nonprofit Bedouin women’s organization supported by Shatil, the grass-roots Israeli arm of the New Israel Fund –  everyone involved in the production of the rugs, pillows and wall hangings is a woman, from shepherd to weaver to manager.

he group’s showroom is situated at the entrance to the town of Lakiya, just off the main highway and a few minutes’ drive from Beersheva.

It wasn’t always in so prominent a location.

The group’s first building, established shortly after the group was created in 1991, was burned to the ground and its money stolen before the weavers could be paid.

“I think we were a threat to the men,” says Hala Abushareb, a Bedouin woman in her mid-20s who runs the showroom. “But now the daughters see that their mothers are useful. When women are oppressed, men see it. It’s OK when women get paid. A woman pays money to send her daughter to school and to university when she didn’t go herself and now the attitude is different.”

Abushareb has a degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva.

Israel’s Bedouin population numbers roughly 160,000, with the vast majority in the Negev. Bedouin women, who used to work in agriculture and weave tents for shelter, are still in transition in a society that is undergoing dramatic change.

Once agricultural nomads, Bedouin in Israel are increasingly adopting lifestyles similar to those of other Israelis — building permanent homes, working in non-agricultural jobs, sending their children to school and living in established towns or the Bedouin city of Rahat, about 20 minutes north of Beersheva. Some have made these adjustments willingly; others have clashed with the Israeli government over grazing rights, land use and politics.

Despite these changes, Bedouin women are still mostly discouraged from working outside the home. Lakiya Negev Weaving has been successful by enabling the women to work from their homes.

No longer weaving tents since most families live in homes made of adobe, stone or corrugated tin, the women of Lakiya Negev Weaving keep the ancient Bedouin tradition of weaving alive by creating carpets and other items. As a condition of their employment, the women also must agree to take part in an educational seminar on women’s health.

The organization employs about 70 women, down from a high of 150 when the economy was stronger. Last year the women produced 64 carpets, some of which ended up in Israel’s fanciest neighborhoods. At the European Union’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, a room called Lakiya is filled with rugs made by the women. The rugs also sell in stores in Jerusalem and Haifa.

After the sheared wool is cut from sheep, the puffs are spun into raw wool by hand on a wooden spindle, then dipped into huge boiling vats of dye before being placed in the sun to dry. The women take the wool and weave it on a hand-made loom, leaning over it on their knees as the wool is held up across two cinderblocks.

The rugs feature either the five traditional Bedouin colors — black, deep green, dark red, white and dark blue — or contemporary weaves from a palette of 35 colors.

Students from Israel’s top fashion design college, Shenkar in Tel Aviv, provided the weavers with contemporary designs on paper strips, and the rug’s buyers come from all over Israel.

Sometimes, if a customer orders a large rug, neighbors and friends come to the weaver’s home to help out, or the rug is assigned to a home where several women in a family can work on it at once.

The showroom near Lakiya’s entrance doubles as a meeting place for the women, who often come with their young daughters in tow.

“It’s also a social meeting,” Abushareb says. “The women enjoy it. They work a few hours a day, every woman on her own schedule."

NEXT STORY