Beduin women press for more rights

Empowerment group works at grassroots level, taking matters into their own hands.

beduin woman and child (photo credit: Orly Halpern)
beduin woman and child
(photo credit: Orly Halpern)
In a scathing and comprehensive report released at a conference in Beersheba Thursday, Beduin women leaders in the Negev accused the government and their society of discriminating against them and called upon their fellow women "to take matters that concern them into their own hands." It also called upon the government to officially recognize the 37 Beduin villages in the Negev where at least 60,000 live without access to basic services such as electricity. Dozens of women, young and old, most dressed in long skirts and colorful headscarves, listened intently to the discussions of the report, titled "The Arab Women in the Negev: Realities and Challenges." They came from villages all over the Negev to attend a two-day conference at Ben-Gurion University. The conference and the report were organized by Ma'an - the Forum of Arab Women's Organizations. "It's good to be here," said Shtayeh Tarabin, a 30-year-old mother of four who came with three of her children and three sisters. "We women need to learn so we can rise to a higher level." Much of the empowerment work is taking place on a grassroots level, with little government involvement. The report calls on the government to be more involved. Tarabin lives in Segev Shalom, one of seven townships built by the government with the intention of housing Beduin in a permanent location. She and her older sisters never went to school and are illiterate. Her two youngest sisters dropped out after sixth grade. Now all of them are taking classes in a caravan in their township provided by Sidreh, a local Beduin women's organization. Its members helped prepare the 97-page report, along with a seven other women's organizations. "I want to read and write for my children," said Tarabin, holding one-month-old Wahib. "They will study and I must be educated for them." One of the major problems facing Beduin in the Negev is that the government does not attend to their basic rights. Half of the Beduin in the Negev live in villages that the government does not recognize, leaving them without basic services such as electricity, public transportation, postal services, local high schools, and insurance. Travel outside the village is not acceptable for women in the conservative Beduin society, so they have limited access to higher education and work. The report recommends that the government recognize the Beduin villages and build factories in their areas. Over the last generation, Beduin society in the Negev has experienced many changes and rapid development, which has caused social upheaval. The society has been pressured to change from a nomadic one, with Beduin living in tents and surviving off agriculture and sheepherding to a more permanent one, living in cement homes with mortgages in communities with high unemployment. The sudden change was particularly negative for Beduin women, both young and old. In the past, though most were illiterate, they could contribute to their community by making tents and carpets, tending to the animals, and making food products such as cheeses. Now the older women living in townships are consumers not producers, explained Amal A-Sanaa, a member of the Forum and the director of the Arab and Jewish Center for Equality and Economic Cooperation. "They have become a burden to their families and lose their voice in decision-making," said A-Sanaa. Moreover, she explained, they were disconnected from their children who go to school and who know how to use the Internet. The younger generation of Beduin women have their own set of problems. "I call them the 'conflict generation,'" said A-Sanaa. Young Beduin women were divided between their culture, which called for obedience to elders and men, and the Western society they encountered in university, which encouraged independence, ambition, and self-reliance. Ma'an members plan to present the report to the members of the Knesset and to UN bodies dealing with human rights. Hanan A-Sanaa, a member of the Forum and the Sidreh coordinator for adult learning, said that societal discrimination against Beduin women could be solved if the government didn't compound the problem. "I believe that Beduin traditions prevent the advancement of women," said Hanan, who presented a preliminary report to the CEDAW committee at the UN in July. "But if the government gave women their rights to housing, transportation services, health services, and social services then we women could put our energy into working on changing the traditions."