Marriage of convenience?

Recent enforcement of the law against polygamy in Israel is raising questions about its practice in Bedouin society

December 23, 2017 05:07
Children in the unrecognized village of Wadi al-Na’am

Children in the unrecognized village of Wadi al-Na’am. (photo credit: LINDA GRADSTEIN)

 FATIMA (NOT her real name), a Beduin woman from a community close to Beersheba, was forced to marry her cousin before she even finished high school.

She told her parents that she didn’t want to marry him, both because she would be his second wife and because she didn’t like him, but they ignored her wishes. Fatima dropped out of school and quickly became pregnant.

“He was violent with me,” she says softly, her face covered completely with a black veil. “I told my father about it, but he said I was lying. Once I was in the hospital three times in one month. My family told me that if I went to the police, they would beat me even more.”

She estimates she was in the hospital more than 20 times over the next few years.

And one of those visits to the hospital probably saved her life. A nurse saw marks from the beating and informed Israeli authorities, who took her from her husband’s home, and moved her to a women’s shelter in northern Israel.

“I was 19 and I didn’t know how to deal with these issues,” she says. “But the government really helped me and I am grateful to them.”

She was sent to a women’s shelter, and because of his violence, her husband lost custody of their two young children, whowent to live with Fatima’s mother.

After a year in the shelter, Fatima was placed with a Jewish family in the Galilee who owned a hotel. She worked at the hotel, finished her high school degree and even went to a private college to learn to be a computer science teacher.

During that time, the Beduin community pressured her husband to divorce her and he eventually agreed.

While working at the hotel, Fatima fell in love with a young Beduin who was also from southern Israel. They married and had five children together, the youngest of whom has cerebral palsy.

They were happy together, she says. But four years ago, after she was spending most of her time in the hospital with their disabled son, her husband decided to take a second wife, and married an 18-year-old girl. He has since had three children with her.

If Fatima chose to remarry, she would lose her children, she says, so she has not even considered it.

“My husband justified the marriage by saying he needed a woman at home,” she says. “In Beduin culture, a woman is like a car. If it needs repairs, just get a new car.”

She was not willing to accept the second wife and demanded a separation “for my dignity.” She’s sad about the way it ended, she says, but believes she made the right decision.

THERE ARE no definitive figures for how many Beduin women in Israel are in polygamous marriages. Israeli women’s groups put estimates at between 30-40 percent, while some Beduin organizations say the figures are lower.

Polygamy is illegal in Israel, but until recently, the law was never enforced. There is no civil marriage in Israel, meaning that all marriages are conducted by religious figures (a rabbi, a priest or an imam), and then registered with the state.

According to Islam, a man may marry up to four wives if he treats them all equally.

In Beduin society, having more than one wife and fathering many children are seen as expressions of a man’s virility. Indeed, it is common for men to marry two women, and occasionally, three.

While the first marriage is conducted by an imam and registered with the state, the second marriage is only a religious marriage.

Beduin representatives say polygamy is a means of providing women with economic and social protection.

In traditional Beduin society, women cannot live alone, so they either live with their parents or their husband, explains Atiyeh al-Asar, head of the Regional Council for Unrecognized Beduin Villages.

“There is no marriage by force – if a man proposes a second marriage, he asks the woman’s permission,” says Al-Asar. “If she agrees, it’s because she wants a better living situation, or independence from her parents, or she is looking forward to having a child.”

When it comes to children’s rights and services, there is no difference between children born to a first wife and those born to a second wife. Israeli state benefits, such as child allowances, are awarded according to the mother, which means a mother receives benefits even if her marriage is not state-sanctioned.

All children born in Israel are entitled to free education, but Beduin children often have to travel far to get to school, and have no way of doing homework at night. Poverty rates in the community are high, with unemployment at about 30% for men and 80% for women.

The Israeli government also provides monthly “child allowances” as well as financial grants for each child born. In the past, these allowances increased dramatically after four children, further encouraging high birthrates, but the law has since changed, and now there is a flat rate of about $40 per child per month.

POLYGAMY HAS been illegal in Israel since 2007, with a penalty of five years in jail and a fine. But it has been mostly ignored, at least until recently.

Somewhat ironically, according to Israeli media reports, two Beduin members of the 13-seat Joint (Arab) List are in polygamous marriages. A spokesman for one of the two said the parliamentarian did not want to discuss the issue.

However, several months ago, the Knesset began enforcing the law, and in October, police indicted a Beduin man for having two wives. Police say about 15 cases have been opened so far, and two indictments have been issued.

“We are doing hard work to reduce polygamy in the Beduin in the south of Israel,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said at the recent Jerusalem Post conference.

“It’s very important.”

Many Beduin and their advocates maintain that the government does not have their best interests at heart.

They claim the law’s true motive is to restrict the growth of the Beduin population in the Negev.

“We feel Israel is interfering in our culture and our tradition,” says Al-Asar. “Ayelet Shaked has demolished more than 100 homes here. She is not concerned about the Beduin, but she is afraid of the demographic threat.”

“The war against polygamy is a war against God’s rules,” says Amal Abu Thom, who heads an organization that promotes Beduin handicrafts. “Islam came to protect women’s rights. The second marriage is to preserve Beduin social stability.”

Thom says she would not feel threatened by the presence of another woman in her home and that it is seen as a normative part of Beduin culture.

“The main problem is not polygamy. It is police arresting our brothers and sons and demolishing our houses in front of our children,” she charges. “It is very racist. It tries to limit the natural growth of the Beduin.”

There have long been tensions between the government of Israel and the Beduin community. There are an estimated 240,000 Beduin in Israel, almost half of whom live in “unrecognized villages,” which are not connected to the Israeli electrical grid and receive few services.

Most Beduin live in the Negev region in southern Israel, with almost 50% of them living in seven government-built towns and the rest in 46 villages, 35 of which are unrecognized and 11 of which were officially recognized a decade ago.

The Israeli government has been trying to convince Beduin in the unrecognized villages to move to the seven Beduin towns, so far unsuccessfully. Unemployment, poverty and drugs run rampant in these areas and many Beduin refuse to move there.

Domestic violence rates are also high.

Insaf Abu Shareb, the founder of Women’s Lawyers for Social Justice, believes that among Beduin domestic violence rates, both physical and emotional, are between 70-80%.

Many women never complain, she says, and police often close files that are opened.

Very few men are prosecuted or ever serve jail time.

Abu Shareb is part of a government committee that seeks to find a solution to polygamy.

While she supports the initiatives against the practice, she insists that other issues must be tackled first.

“The first step should be a civil plan of working with the community, including the men and women, for a change in society, especially offering a solution for women who are beaten,” she says.

“We must be careful not to affect an already weak population. We must do more to strengthen them economically first.”

As for Fatima, she has no intention of going back to her husband unless he divorces his second wife. She says that she supports the government initiatives to end polygamy, which she says harms the children as well as the second wife.

“It is not only for the wife but for the children as well,” she says. “If a man has 10 children and there isn’t enough food or money, how is that good for anyone?" 

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