More than 30 percent of Bedouin men in the Negev region of Israel have more than one wife, according to new research published this week by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
According to the study, which focused on the status of Palestinian Women with Israeli citizenship, 30% of Bedouin women also live in a polygamist marriage. The results of the study were presented Wednesday during a one-day symposium on the status of Palestinian Women in Israel organized by the institute, which promotes interdisciplinary study and discussion of issues related to philosophy, society, culture and education.
The research, headed by Dr. Sarab Abu Rabia-Queder and Dr. Nomi Weiner-Levi, also found that an astounding 90% of Bedouin women in the Negev are unemployed, with many of them living in illegal villages not recognized by the authorities and therefore not eligible for welfare.
While a high number of Arab women are unemployed, data collected for the study also found that there has been a sharp increase in the number of Israeli Arabs graduating from university - 51%.
Van Leer Institute fellow, Professor Hanna Herzog, who serves as Director of the Israel, Palestinians and Mediterranean Neighbors umbrella, commented that "Today, Arab women are more employable and independent than ever before."
Insight offered by the study into the practice of polygamy comes just a week after a 22-year-old woman from the Bedouin town of Rahat was arrested by police on suspicion that she murdered the four-year-old son of one of her husband's other wives. The boy's father said that the woman had been jealous of his other wife because she was unable to have children herself.
While the Van Leer's symposium on the status of Palestinian Women in Israel was taking place Wednesday, the Knesset Committee on the Status of the Woman held a session on the subject of polygamy among Muslim communities here. Chaired by MK Nadia Hilou (Labor), the committee heard from MKs, government officials, police, and Bedouin leadership about the practice, which is illegal under Israeli law.
MK Abas Zkoor (Ra'am-Ta'al) defended polygamy, saying that Islam sanctified it. However, he said there needed to be certain conditions such as whether the man taking multiple wives could financially support such a large family.
Others present, such as Sheikh Saliman Abu Hamid argued that it was part of Bedouin culture and asked "Why is Israel making problems for the Bedouins?"
Bedouin MK Taleb El-Sana (Ra'am-Ta'al) spoke out against polygamy, saying that trying to crack down on those who take more than one wife via legal channels was missing the point. He said the key to preventing the practice was to improve the status of women through education and employment in the Bedouin and Arab sectors.
"We need to teach men that if they want to provide sufficiently for their families then they should not have 21 children," El-Sana added.
Hadash MK Dov Hanin said that the main problem caused by polygamy was that it was leaving many women and children in the State of Israel without any official status and therefore with out any basic human rights.
"We have to acknowledge that this is a serious problem that affects the lives of people every day," he said.