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(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
The oppressive laws and policies implemented by the State of Israel since its creation are the main obstacle to personal and economic freedom for thousands of Beduin women here, according to Dr. Nadra Shalhub-Quarquian, project director of research on women's issues at Mada Al-Carmel Institute and lecturer in the Hebrew University's social work and criminology departments.
Speaking last week at the fifth annual Ma'an-Forum of Arab-Beduin Women in the Negev conference on "Arab Women in the Negev and the Job Market: Exclusion or Integration," Shalhub-Quarquian argued that the cultural barriers preventing southern Arab women from joining the workforce and gaining economic independence were minor compared to Israel's "colonial policies" towards them and its paternalistic approach to certain aspects of Beduin tradition and history.
"We have to look at both the physics and the chemistry [in the situation of Beduin women in Israel]," Shalhub-Quarquian told the crowd of mostly Beduin women and some men who were present at the conference, held at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba.
"Physical pressures from outside severely affect the chemistry of our individual relationships inside," she continued, highlighting what she called Israel's "historical violation of human rights and how it has affected the legacy of every woman in this region."
Shalhub-Quarquian brushed over the internal inequalities of the traditionally paternalistic Beduin society, focusing instead on Israel's failure to recognize villages containing thousands of residents or to develop the practical infrastructure - health, education and welfare services - needed for basic freedoms in towns that are legal.
"We have to look at the pyramid of oppression and cannot focus only on the cultural barriers," said Shalhub-Quarquian, who lives in the Jerusalem area. "We have to stop accusing ourselves and ask the state what it has done to enable us to be free."
Shalhub-Quarquian, who spoke about her personal quest to encourage her own three daughters to be more assertive, also referred to problems caused by poor Hebrew language skills and land issues faced by many of Israel's 180,000-strong Beduin community.
All these external elements served as barriers blocking Beduin women from joining the workforce and becoming economically independent, she said.
According to information presented at the conference, the Negev holds the highest concentration of Arab women in the country, and only a very small percentage of are employed in recognized jobs. Roughly 70 percent of the entire Beduin population is unemployed, with 75% living below the poverty line.
"It is time for Israel to recognize the historical injustice," Shalhub-Quarquian told The Jerusalem Post following her presentation. "The state needs to check laws that encourage discrimination, its zoning and planning policies and budget allocations."
Ma'an Director Safa Shehada, who also spoke at the conference, said that Beduin women faced multifaceted challenges in obtaining personal rights and the freedom to participate in the workforce.
"Women's rights are an integral part of the international rights of all people," she highlighted. "But there are many obstacles for Beduin women, including local customs and culture, as well as lack of governmental services in towns that are industrialized.
"These issues have been neglected for many years," said Shehada. "It's time that we asked why [they] have been ignored for so long and we call on everyone both here in the Negev and across Israel to wake up and try to tackle this problem."
Minister of Minorities Avishay Braverman, who served as president of Ben-Gurion University for 16 years before joining the Knesset in 2006, said there was no question that Israel should invest much more in developing the Beduin sector and said that in his current role he would do all he could do improve the situation.
"When it comes to these minorities we have a moral obligation to work towards equality for them," said Braverman, who was intensively involved in increasing the number of Beduin students and faculty at the university. "It is not only important for them, but also for the State of Israel that we work towards better integration for them."