The bondage of matrimony

About one out of four Negev Beduin live in polygamous families.

By LARRY DERFNER
December 11, 2008 10:12
The bondage of matrimony

Beduin 88 248. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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On the way into his house in the Negev Beduin city of Rahat, Samir leads me quickly past a small, bare concrete hut. Inside I glimpse a haggard-looking woman sitting at a table. "That's her, that's where she lives," says Samir, embarrassed, speaking of his first wife. A few steps further is the front door to his old, two-story house. We go in and sit on the cushiony, worn couches in the salon. The TV is tuned to the settler evacuation in Hebron. Soon his second wife - younger, more attractive, dressed in a black-and-gold Beduin robe - comes out of the kitchen and serves us a lunch of chicken stew and meat, rice, humous and pita. She smiles when I thank her, but doesn't say a word, disappearing back into the kitchen. Samir, in his 50s, is a teacher, one of the "educated" Beduin, as he says - not the folkloric, primitive sheikh who keeps a harem for his ego. He took a second wife because his first one couldn't bear him more than one child. "If she'd been healthy," he says, "I'd say there's an 80 percent chance I wouldn't have thought of getting married again." He has 10 children by his second wife - five grown and out of the house, five living upstairs. If he had it to do over again, he says he'd have only one or two. "The expenses are so high. I can't even afford a computer for them." Unshaven on a school day, he seems downcast. He takes his medicine for a chronic illness. Photos of his elders line the patched-up walls. Samir was born in the house. His father had one child by his first wife, then 12 children, including him, by a second. "I grew up herding sheep and goats. In those days it didn't cost anything to raise kids. What did you have to buy them? The more children you had, the bigger your family, the bigger your tribe, the bigger your clan. But today, living in the city, things are different." Rahat, the "capital" of the Beduin sector, is a raw, disordered, sprawling, dirty place filled mainly with poor people, many of whom still keep sheep and goats. In Samir's neighborhood, little children who can barely stand play in the middle of the street, with the cars veering around them. His first wife "took it hard" when he told her he was going to marry again. She didn't want to get divorced - it's a terrible stigma in Beduin society, a ticket to economic ruin, and the Shari'a (Islamic law) courts that decide most Beduin family disputes grant custody of the children to the father, not the mother. Samir felt bad for his first wife and daughter; he didn't want to divorce, either. "I felt that a little girl belongs with her mother." So he moved his second wife into the big house and, a few steps away, built the hut for his first wife and their daughter. That was more than 20 years ago. According to the Koran, a Muslim can take up to four wives, but he is supposed to care for them equally. "At first I tried to spend time with both of them, to sleep some nights here and some nights there, but it didn't work out. Little by little I was spending all my time here," he says, sinking back in his chair, smoking. Today his first wife lives alone, although her grandchildren often come over. Between the money Samir and one of his sons give her, plus a little welfare, she survives. The entrance to her hut allows her to come and go without passing through the house. Unlike in most polygamous families, the children of the two wives "all get along like brothers and sisters," says Samir. He goes over to the hut from time to time to see his first wife. But she doesn't come into the big house. "The wives don't talk to each other," he explains. ABOUT ONE out of four Negev Beduin live in polygamous families: some 45,000 men, women and children. Despite modernization, the rate has been going up in recent years, says Prof. Alean el-Krenawi, who researches Beduin society at Ben-Gurion University. "Maybe it's because some Beduin men have been doing better economically, so they can afford more than one wife," suggests the professor, a Negev Beduin himself. At the other end of the economic scale, though, the culture of poverty also can lead to polygamy. "The men are married off very young by their families; they don't finish school, they're poor, they have no future, they fight with their wives, get frustrated and think that taking another wife will solve their problems. But the problems only get worse," says Krenawi in his office. Polygamy among Israeli Beduin nearly always means two wives, not three or four. Typically, the first wife and her children live separately from the husband's new family, but very close by - in a hut next to the main house like Samir's first wife, or in a new floor built onto the house. It's an obvious recipe for domestic warfare, and that's what commonly happens. "I can't think of any instances of murder, but sure there's violence, there's every sort of fighting - between one of the wives and the husband, between the two wives, between the children of the two wives - every combination you can think of," Krenawi says. As a rule, the enmity begins with the first wife's humiliation and resentment, which deepens as the husband favors the second wife and set of children with more affection, attention and money. It's almost inevitable: The second wife is sought out by the husband, not by his parents as is usually the case in first marriages. The second wife also tends to be younger than the first. The shame and anger, along with the material want, that fall to the first wife and her children result in a range of psychological and social grievances, beginning with depression. Krenawi has found that in general, the more educated a Beduin is, the less likely he is to practice polygamy. "But there are school principals, engineers and other professionals with two wives, so that's not a hard and fast rule," he says. Samir says he knows many other teachers with two wives. He notes that his first wife is illiterate and his second only went to elementary school for a few years. Polygamy is practiced in various parts of Africa and Asia, mainly in rural areas, and not just by Muslims. Beduin from the Negev who have some money are known to bring back young second wives from the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and other poor Muslim countries. Among the Beduin in Galilee, who are more integrated into Israeli society, polygamy is not so common. Officially, the practice is illegal here, but the law has never been enforced because this is a tradition that's embedded in Beduin culture and religion; even activists in the community who oppose polygamy are against the idea of the police and courts coming in to stop it. Beduin society is ultraconservative, traditional and insular; change takes an awfully long time. The keepers of community tradition - clan elders and Muslim imams - are not about to endorse a campaign against polygamy. THAT WAS evident at a BGU conference on this matter that Krenawi organized in late October, drawing hundreds of Beduin from across the Negev. While academics, social workers and Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog talked about what a disaster polygamy is for Beduin, there were other voices, too. "Polygamy solves problems," declared Sheikh Hammad Abu Daabis, head of the Negev Beduin branch of the Islamic Movement, quoted at the conference by The Jerusalem Post. He acknowledged the anxiety and depression that polygamy often causes the first wives, yet he maintained that the arrangement offers a solution for men who've married infertile women or who are tempted to roam, as well as for older, single women who have no hope anymore of marrying a bachelor. In a fairly brave presentation, Talal el-Krenawi (Alean's brother), a Kadima member who was mayor of Rahat at the time of the conference, didn't condemn polygamy, but he came pretty close. He stressed that the Koran compels polygamous husbands to give each of their wives equal financial and emotional support, then joked, "Who is able to treat three wives equally? [Polygamy] is allowed but even the prophet Muhammad did not recommend it." Change is not only mighty slow in Beduin society, it doesn't necessarily mean progress, either. Last month, Talal el-Krenawi lost the mayoralty of Rahat, a city dominated by tall minarets, to Sheikh Fayez Abu Ziban, who headed the Islamic Movement's local election ticket. A bright spot in the election, though, was the candidacy of Muna el-Habnin, a Beduin women's rights activist who had the fourth slot on the "Change and Reform" party's ticket. Although the party won only three city council seats, a rotation agreement gives one of those seats to el-Habnin later in the five-year term. If that agreement is carried out, she will be the first Beduin woman in elected political office in the country's history. A divorced mother of six, el-Habnin, who wears the head scarf and robes of a devout Muslim woman, runs her "Princess of the Desert" organization out of a borrowed, bare office, without even a computer, in the little college next to the Rahat shouk. Among the impoverished, bewildered women who come to her for help are many second wives of polygamous husbands. "Their depression is very severe," says el-Habnin, 37, in a quiet yet intense voice. "They have social workers, but the social workers don't have time to listen to them." She's brought two second wives to the office for me to interview, and they've brought along three of their children and a divorced woman friend. The image of Beduin women is exotic and mysterious; they're typically portrayed with veiled faces or impassive expressions, trudging through the sand in flowing robes, often balancing a basket on their heads. But in a setting where they're free to talk, they're not such severe still-lifes. The three women in head scarves and robes sitting on plastic chairs in el-Habnin's office were laughing and chattering nonstop. The divorced friend was the life of the party, handing out wedges of orange to everyone, including me, while waiting for the interviews to start. Laila and Yasmin, both in their 30s, live well apart from their husbands. Second wives living in the same house or compound as their polygamous husbands are not likely to come to a place like Princess of the Desert, and they're even less likely to talk to a journalist. I asked Prof. Krenawi and four different Beduin activists if they could put me in touch with a wife living in a polygamous family who was willing to be interviewed - even anonymously - and none of them could. Laila's story is that she was engaged at 15, then married and had six children, then left her husband after he met a 16-year-old girl (while he was under house arrest for theft) and married her. As for Yasmin, who has three children, she had an off-and-on relationship with her husband until he met a woman (while he was on parole for theft) and married her. Today Laila and Yasmin work in low-wage factory and housecleaning jobs, which disgraces them further as women in traditional Arab society. Neither wants a divorce; they both want their husbands to come back to them. "For the children," says Laila, a strong-featured, plain-spoken woman. I ask if she still loves him. "Yeah, I guess - but not like before. Just knowing that he's with her fills me with anger." Yasmin, who is tall, black and shy, says her husband's second wife, with whom he has two children, won't let him visit his original family. "He never puts his arms around her," she says, looking at her young, quiet daughter. "One time he came over, and we made this," she says with an exasperated smile, indicating her infant boy playing on the floor. "I once loved him, but now it's just for the kids. I want him to come pay the electricity bill, pay the water bill, pay for food." Yasmin starts to relinquish her shyness. "I've had enough with men," she says, smiling ruefully. "I see a lot of other women in the same situation I'm in." I ask if, when her troubles began, she was able to go to her parents for help, at least for sympathy. Her father is a Beduin - wasn't this an insult to his pride? Yasmin says her father died a few years ago, but before that, "he had two wives. He did the same thing to my mother. My mother understands, but there's nothing she can do about it." El-Habnin explains: "The men support each other. The father of a woman who's been betrayed by her husband could have been a polygamist himself - how's he going to object?" One of the hardest things to understand about Beduin polygamy is that while it favors the husbands at the expense of their wives and children, the husbands end up suffering, too - not nearly as badly as the wives and children, to be sure, but still, they're usually not happy with the arrangement at all. "With all the trouble, the feuds, the envy, the financial responsibilities - a man with more than one wife typically regrets it," says Prof. Krenawi. So why does this way of life go on? If the wives and the husbands and the children of polygamous marriages are so miserable, why don't the Beduin wise up? "Why?" wonders Krenawi. "I don't know. Tradition, I guess. It's a hard thing to break."

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