As recently as 20-something years ago, none of the Beduin women in the Negev went to university and very few completed high school.
During his period as president of Ben-Gurion
University, Avishay Braverman, currently the
minister for minority affairs, introduced programs to encourage Beduin in general and Beduin women in particular to enroll in higher education.
These programs bore fruit very slowly. It was difficult for Beduin women to overcome the traditions that made them totally reliant on their fathers, husbands or brothers. The first Beduin women to go out of their villages to university were escorted by a male relative - usually a father or a husband. Their studies were hampered not only by the fact that some were married and mothers of several children, but also by the primitive conditions in their villages: lack of electricity, no running water, no heating, no library and only the most rudimentary of services - if any.
On Sunday, 17 Beduin women left their homes in the Negev to travel to the capital and meet with President Shimon Peres, sharing with him their achievements and some of the difficulties that still confront the Beduin community.
Only one, Heiger Abu Sharav, a nutrition counselor from Rahat who is studying for a bachelor's degree at BGU, was willing to talk to The Jerusalem Post prior to the meeting with Peres. The others, especially those living in villages which until recently were not recognized by the state, were wary, and some thought it improper, if they were guests at Beit Hanassi, to be talking to the media before they spoke to the president.
But Abu Sharav had no such qualms.
She said that of the 45 unrecognized Beduin villages, only 11 have anything that resembles a health clinic. The others don't have health services of any kind. There used to be well-baby (Tipat Halav) clinics in eight of the villages said Abu Sharav, but three of them were closed down.
There are 50,000 children in these villages she emphasized, and there is no framework for their care outside of the family environment. There is no day care, so mothers who would like to go to work to supplement the family income and to possibly fulfill some of their aspirations have to stay home to look after the children. Because they are isolated from mainstream society, they are lacking in knowledge, basic community services, first aid and Tipat Halav clinics.
Three infants in Abu Sharav's own family died for lack of health services, a factor that prompted her to seek training and employment at Soroka University Medical Center. There she discovered that even though there were health services available to the Beduin, there were acute communication problems. The doctors and nurses do not understand Beduin culture and tradition, in addition to which most can't speak Arabic, and most of the Beduin women are not sufficiently fluent in Hebrew to understand what they're being told about the illnesses of their children or their own illnesses for that matter.
In reaction to this, Abu Sharav initiated an action group for Beduin studying nursing and paramedics at BGU and at Tel Hai College in the Galilee. All the graduates of these courses will be able to help Beduin mothers understand how to best care for their children.
Ramzia Abu Rabia is the younger sister of Sarab-Abu Rabia-Quedar. Their father, Dr. Yunis Abu Rabia, was the first Beduin doctor in Israel. Though only 26 years old, Ramzia, like other members of her family, is an outstanding achiever. She is the inspector of kindergartens in the Negev.
Miriam Abu Rakiek, who celebrated her 38th birthday on Sunday, was the first Beduin woman to study abroad. She went to England to study marketing and business administration. Although her father financed her, she had some problems when she returned home, because she refused to enter into an arranged marriage. She is still unmarried, and has set up her own cosmetics business, trading under the brand name Daughter of the Desert. Initially she produced soaps, then added creams, lotions and oils, using time honored Beduin formulas. Her big dream is to sell her products at Harrods in London, and maybe after that to go to Paris.
"There's no reason why men should have a monopoly in running a business," she said. "Women are just as capable."
Abu Rakiek said that through her cosmetics, she wants to introduce something of Beduin tradition to a wider public. She went into business instead of setting up an nonprofit organization, she said, because she didn't want to be involved in raising contributions in North America. She wanted to earn her money.
Some of the women are involved together with Jewish women in women's empowerment groups and organizations. One who is a child care inspector said that she had begun working with Jewish organizations "for the purpose of acquiring knowledge to help my people."
Siham Abu Assa is the first Beduin woman to become the principal of a high school, and in an open tender, triumphed over male applicants. "This was always considered to be a position for a man," she said.
Hanna Abu Khaf, a medical student at BGU, comes from one of the villages not recognized by the state. She has worked as a volunteer at Soroka and has also undertaken research into Beduin genetic diseases, where the norm is to marry a cousin. "It's very important to explain their significance to Beduin women," she said.
Zinav Jerbiya is a multi-media artist and art teacher who has opened a Beduin art gallery in the Negev. She has exhibited in many parts of Israel and abroad. She is passionate about preserving traditional Beduin art.
Ahlam Abu-Ramsha, who has a master's degree in social work from BGU, is married with three children. She began studying at a time when her village was not recognized, and out of concern for children at risk, initiated a special program for them, as well as another program for women who wanted to go out to study or work. Today the village has a day nursery that caters to 150 children up to the age of three, and 50 families now have additional income because the women go out to work.
There were other women who were involved in setting up a jewelry production plant to provide employment; advancing the status of women; running a library; and nursing in pediatric oncology.
Peres told them that they represent a major breakthrough in Beduin society and that he was proud of their determination to create this breakthrough for themselves and for other Beduin women. He was fascinated by their individual stories, their courage and their fortitude. "You are a great source of hope for the state with the message that you convey," he said.
Peres advised his guests not to rely on men, but only on themselves. "And I say this as a man whose bureau is run by women."