No room for big love

Having won a scholarship to produce a film on polygamy in her Beduin community in the Negev, Kamla Abu Zeila hopes to spark real change.

Kamla Abu Zeila 298.88 (photo credit: )
Kamla Abu Zeila 298.88
(photo credit: )
In the Beduin township of Rahat located in the Negev, a woman with two sons works toward her second degree in communications and English. In her spare time, she has made two movies, teaches English at a primary school and takes care of her home. Her name is Kamla Abu Zeila. Her movies have publicized problems within Beduin society, such as illiteracy, and need for increased education among girls and older women. She has received a scholarship from the London-Yaffa Ya'ari program, a partner of the New Israel Fund (an Israeli civil rights advocacy group) to produce a film on polygamy in Beduin society. Arik Ya'ari of the London-Yaffa Ya'ari scholarship program explained that applicants are chosen based on their ability to make a difference in the lives of others. Abu Zeila was chosen from a pool of over two dozen applicants and more than a dozen women have won the scholarship since the program's inception three years ago. Aimed at empowering women, the annual scholarship is given in memory of Ya'ari's mother, a Polish immigrant who helped establish and run social welfare services in Israel during the state's inception. "The idea is to choose women that can be agents of change in society and, in particular within their communities," said Ya'ari. Abu Zeila's upcoming film is entitled The Second Wife. Focusing on the issues surrounding polygamy in Beduin society, the film will explore the reasons men take second wives and ways in which women can empower themselves in their relationships. "In Beduin society, we don't talk about the problem of polygamy," Abu Zeila told The Jerusalem Post. "Women don't see it as a problem. They accept polygamy as a part of life, and, I want to say that this is a problem, even though we don't talk about it. In some cases, a woman doesn't even know that her husband is going to take a second wife." Despite the deeply rooted traditions of her community, Abu Zeila remains convinced that change is possible. "I believe that when women have an education, they will be aware of their rights and will be able to make choices about their families and c o m m u n i c a t e with their husbands," she said. She has worked tirelessly to educate women in her community about their rights, and hopes that her film will act as a starting point to raise awareness. The 31 year-old, who earned her first degree at Beer Sheva University, also told the Post about her father-in-laws struggle to keep her from returning to school after her children were born. "Men [in our community] don't believe a woman needs to have an education. They want a woman in the house," explains Abu Zeila. "I had a real problem the first year I went back to school after my son was born," she recalls. "I had to go back to school, and in my village they say that I left my son and I don't care for him," she continued. "These days I get home late, at around seven o'clock. This was very difficult for my husband's father. He didn't like that. "[My husband's father] even complained to my father [about my educational aspirations]. He asks my husband if he's sure I am at school," Abu Zeila said with a hardened voice. The reality is that Abu Zeila is part of a tiny minority of Beduin students who receive a higher education. The current level of education in the seven permanent Beduin societies in Israel is very low. Over 70 percent of girls drop out before finishing high school. "I believe that when women have an education, they will be aware of their rights and they will have the choice and ability to speak with their husbands about second wives," she said. Abu Zeila estimates that at least half the men in Rahat have taken second wives, and often, the second, younger wife will come to dominate the household. "A husband ignores his first wife," she told the Post. "He doesn't see or care for her like he did before. The second wife gets all the attention and love. He completely ignores the first wife," she continued. Her own relationship with her husband is troubled sometimes. Abu Zeila remarked that when they fight, he threatens to "take a second wife." "This will not be a problem for me. I will divorce you," she says playfully. "I joke with him and we talk about it. But, you can't be sure." Abu Zeila has been conducting interviews for months in preparation for her film which will be based on a compilation of many women's stories in Rahat. Production is scheduled to begin in late July. Abu Zeila will work with eight other women, including two of her sisters, in order to shoot, edit and produce the film. The eight have been meeting regularly to discuss the project. "If you ask me, why do I do this, why do I work at this issue for six years? The answer is because of my sons. I don't want my boys to have to face the pressure to have a second wife," she said. "If I need to make my son's future good, I have to start from the neighborhood, and from there change society."