Straddling freedom and tradition

Beduin women's strides in education don't sit easily with their tradition and the men they leave behind.

strrad feed 2 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
strrad feed 2 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sitting last Thursday in the sparsely-furnished living room of her 16th-floor apartment overlooking the outskirts of Beersheba and the Negev desert, Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder cradled her four-month-old baby, Yazan, while his two-and-a-half-year-old brother Muhammad played at her side. Switching from Arabic to Hebrew, from nursing to talking about her research, Abu-Rabia-Queder - a slim 29-year-old with curly brown hair and a quietly assertive presence - seemed to be caught up in the midst of the delicate and at times precarious balancing act that is at the center of both her everyday life and her recently completed PhD.
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When she graduated from Ben-Gurion University last week, Abu-Rabia-Queder became the first Beduin woman in the Negev to earn a doctorate. Her dissertation, which she recently submitted to the university's education department, focuses on the first generation of Beduin women who pursued a higher education. Her research examined the ways in which this experience shaped their professional and personal lives and the influences it has had on the lives of other women in the Beduin community. "I learned that the Beduin women who ventured out into the public sphere for the first time experienced a series of conflicts, because they broke down the traditional model of female invisibility outside the home," she said. Becoming a positive symbol in their communities, Abu-Rabia-Queder found out, was itself a strategy for coping with the threat posed by their new visibility. Unwilling to cause further social damage to the fathers or brothers who allowed them to study, they often pay a heavy personal price in order to avoid creating a conflict between their male family members and the community at large. ALTHOUGH EDUCATION has become a catalyst for their professional advancement, Abu-Rabia-Queder discovered, the women she studied did not gain such control over their emotional lives and relationships. When Abu-Rabia-Queder enrolled at Ben-Gurion in 1995, she was one of a total of 12 Beduin students at the university. The daughter of the Negev's first Beduin doctor, Yunis Abu-Rabia, and of Jihan, who is originally from Nazareth and married into the Beduin community, Abu-Rabia-Queder grew up in Beersheba, where her father worked. She and her siblings - three sisters and a brother - attended a Jewish kindergarten before her parents decided to send them to elementary school in the nearby Beduin town of Tel Sheva. "We grew up in a house where everyone was always studying and reading. My father himself comes from a very educated family," she said. "His own father had sent him as a young man to a boarding school up north. He married an educated woman, and always encouraged us to get ahead. But it was important for my parents that I become more familiar with Arabic and with our religion and culture." Due to the dire situation of the Beduin school system, however, she returned to attend a Jewish high school in the city. "I grew up in three cultures - Arab, Jewish and Beduin. It's a mixture that not everyone experiences, and it allows me to look at things from different perspectives, both from the inside and from the outside," she said. "My mother taught me never to take things for granted, and my father was very different than other Beduin men. You won't find another Arab mother and Beduin father who raised their family in Beersheba, and who raised daughters like me and my sisters. Having studied in Jewish schools, I never felt beholden to Beduin customs and cultural dictums. We are different, and this is why we can engender change." Her first meaningful encounter with Beduin women came at the university. "Suddenly I was drawn in," she recalled. "I started volunteering in the community, and became more connected to my Beduin identity." Her Masters degree, which she completed several years ago, looked at dropout rates among Beduin girls currently in high school, as well as among the generation of their mothers and grandmothers, in order to understand why they dropped out. She discovered that some fathers didn't recognize the value of education, and saw school as a modern institution harmful to traditional life. "They perceived it as a place that could lead to breaking the most important code of Beduin society - the code of honor," she said. Whereas previous researchers regarded the dropout phenomenon as a problem caused by "Beduin tradition," Abu-Rabia-Queder's point of departure was the understanding that tradition and modernization are two inextricable aspects of the same social and cultural processes. Beduin women, she argued, would have much better chances of acquiring a "modern" education if the Israeli education system would take into consideration the community's "traditional" needs, and create, in addition to coed schools, single-sex schools for Beduin girls that would parallel the single-sex, government-backed schools in the Jewish religious sector. IT WAS AFTER completing her Masters degree that Abu-Rabia-Queder met her future husband, Hussan Queder, an accountant and social activist. The dramatic conflict that surrounded her own marriage became what she describes as her "first crisis as a Beduin woman" and later the core of her PhD research. "My husband comes from a tribe whose status is perceived as low by the Beduin collective," she explained. According to Beduin tradition, women marry within their own tribe. It was inconceivable, from a traditional point of view, that a woman from the Abu-Rabia tribe marry a man from another tribe with a lower social status. "For the first time, I discovered that Beduin customs applied to me, even though I hadn't grown up as a Beduin," she said. "I told my father that after encouraging me to study the way he did, he couldn't expect me to marry my cousin." Finally, Sarab and her husband won the battle over what she describes as a "taboo" marriage in the eyes of the Beduin community - in large part because of her father's status as an important and highly respected member of the community. "This personal experience made me want to investigate what happens in the lives of educated women who went out to study and wanted to make personal choices," she said. "My question was whether education is indeed a tool for progress and independence for women in a Beduin context." In the introduction to her doctorate, Abu-Rabia-Queder called these women "tragic heroines." "Some of them gave up love, but not their independence," she explained. "They ended up marrying men who would give them the kind of freedom they got from their fathers. They became leaders in the professional sphere, but my thesis was that they effected change in the community by changing one norm and becoming educated, while respecting another norm - that of not marrying outside tribal boundaries. "By proving to the community that they did not undo the expected model of female behavior and that they did not threaten to destroy the social structure, they were able to enable a second generation of women to go out and study," she continued. "Many of the women I interviewed are divorced or single, because they could not find compatible partners or gave up a forbidden love in order not to create a conflict between their father and their tribe. They didn't cross the red line because they married within the tribal structure. Within lies their power - what I call 'the power of conformity.'" Abu-Rabia-Queder's hope is that her research extends beyond academia and filters back into the community in which she conducted it. "I look at phenomena that have gone unnoticed in Beduin society - forbidden love, female and educational leadership. It's my mission to illuminate these previously hidden subjects from an indigenous, female perspective," she stated. "I hope members of the community will read what I wrote and realize it's important to know what women think and experience, and not just to view them as silent statues that don't have any feelings. Of course some of what I have written will create resistance, but you can't ignore it. Part of social change is to reflect back to society what is happening within it." Abu-Rabia-Queder herself is grateful for the support she has from both her parents and her spouse. "I'm exhausted right now, but if you'd take the kids out for a walk I'd sit down to my computer and write," she said. "I have a very serious drive to succeed, but it was my husband who stayed home with two kids when I left at 6:30 this morning to go to a conference in Ashdod. I couldn't have written my doctorate without my family." Abu-Rabia-Queder, who now teaches at Sapir College and at the Overseas Student Program at Ben-Gurion University, believes that education is indeed changing the lives of Beduin women in significant ways. "Knowledge really is power. It's not just a clich ," she said. Nevertheless, she is saddened that the change has been so slow to come. "What's happening now is positive, but it's too late. We are in 21st-century Israel, and there are only five Beduin women doctoral students and one doctor - me. But it's not too late. It's never too late to break through." ON WEDNESDAY June 14, a week after Abu-Rabia-Queder's graduation, Rania Al-Oqbi graduated from Ben-Gurion University with the first MD degree awarded to a Beduin woman from the Negev. "Where should we begin?" she asked, sitting last week in a trendy Arab caf in downtown Haifa, where she is doing her residency in gynecology at Carmel Hospital. "I've had a lot of beginnings. Let's start with the last one." Last year, Al-Oqbi - a dynamic, affable 26-year-old with big, candid eyes - spent 6 weeks at Lenox Hill hospital in Manhattan, a period she defined as "the most exciting six weeks of my life." She came back and decided to move to New York after her graduation. "I felt like I just couldn't care any more about the Beduins, the Palestinians, the Arabs," she said, smiling. "I decided it was time to care about me." Over the following year, however, she decided otherwise. "Part of it was because of my mother" she admitted. "But another part was that here, my presence has an effect. In New York, I'd be just another immigrant with a minimal contribution." Interestingly, Al-Oqbi, like Abu-Rabia-Queder, is also the daughter of a non-Beduin mother who grew up partially in Beersheba. "My mother grew up in a Gaza refugee camp. Her own mother had married and then divorced my Beduin grandfather. She was a very strong woman who didn't want my mother to be promised to a cousin the day she was born." Al-Oqbi's parents divorced when she was a child, and her mother Naheda stayed in Beersheba and raised six children on her own, while remaining part of a community that was not accepting of divorced, independent women. She is currently the Hura municipality's consultant for women's affairs and runs a non-profit organization for empowering Beduin women. When Al-Oqbi was 12, her mother decided to move the family to Rahat. "As a 12-year-old, I was considered a radical feminist," she recalled, laughing. "One kid once said he felt sorry for the guy that will marry me - if I find such a guy. At 14, I played soccer with the boys. Girls talked. Suddenly, there were no more shorts, bikes or soccer." It was in Rahat, at the end of 10th grade, that she had the fortune of being chosen to participate in a new program launched by Professor Riad Agbaria, a member of Ben-Gurion University's faculty of health sciences. The program was designed to target talented Beduin high-school students and give them the academic support that would allow them to enroll later at the faculty. "The classes we took in the course of the program were at the level of first-year medical school classes," Al-Oqbi said. "Ever since I remember myself, I've wanted to be a pediatrician. I didn't know about admissions criteria and psychometric exams." Although the grades she received on her psychometric exam were relatively low for a medical school candidate, Al-Oqbi was accepted based on what her teachers recognized as serious intellectual potential. "I remember how during my personal interview this one professor was shocked to hear an 18-year-old Beduin girl talking about the lack of awareness among Beduin girls concerning menstruation," she said, "and about the importance of educating them." ONCE SHE enrolled in medical school at 18, however, Al-Oqbi had to straddle the demands of two different worlds. "My family is relatively liberal, but living in the university dorms, there was always the question of what people will say - if I ride a bike, go to a movie in the evening, go out for coffee with a friend." At the end of her first year in medical school, her friends planned to celebrate in a caf . "I asked my mother and she said no," Al-Oqbi said. "She didn't think there was anything wrong with it, but once again - it was an issue of 'what people will say.' I remember how embarrassing it was to be a first-year medical student having to say my mother won't allow me to go out for coffee. They ended up meeting at someone's house so that I could come." Al-Oqbi herself was in love with a man she could not marry because of taboos on inter-tribal marriage. At present, however, she is determined to marry the person she will deem right for herself. "I won't give up like I did back then," she said. "I know a lot of Beduin doctors, lawyers and engineers who end up marrying 18 or 19-year-old girls. They want their wives to be teachers and be home by two in the afternoon," she said. "Many Beduin girls become exposed to Jewish culture, and get messages about independence and freedom that contradict the ones we grew up on. Then they come home and their younger brothers make decisions for them. Research done at Ben-Gurion has shown that educated women have more chances of being abused by their husbands. With all the non-profit work on empowering women, people forget that the men stay behind and abuse their authority." Women, she maintained, still pay a high price for their education. "Sometimes they remain unmarried in their family's home and have things decided for them," explained Al-Oqbi. "Or they'll marry as second wives just to get out of house. I personally know two women with Masters degrees who have reached an age where they can no longer marry." When she moved to Haifa, she said, things finally changed. "I stopped thinking what people would think if I took a walk in the evening. I started focusing on what Rania wants," she said. At the same time, she continues to lecture to Beduin women on issues like birth control, breast cancer and fertility. "Sometimes women are embarrassed that a single woman like me knows so much more than them about these issues," she said. "In general, Beduin women don't feel comfortable talking to a male doctor. At least 30 percent of them don't speak Hebrew. Sometimes this lack of communication leads to children's deaths because of misunderstandings about medicine, for instance. Most women prefer to pay a private Arab doctor rather than go to a health clinic where nobody understands them. "When it comes to breast cancer, for instance, Beduin women come at much more advanced stages because they knew they had problem, but were uncomfortable about being touched by a male doctor." Despite the difficulties involved in being an educated and independent woman in the Beduin community, she said, she also receives a lot of support. "Both men and women say things like 'why have you left us,' 'we need you here,' 'you belong here with us,'" Al-Oqbi said, and added that she was in favor of affirmative action for Beduin students. "There have to be limits - but the criteria have to be different than those applied to the Jewish population," she said. "I believe that two to three Beduin medical students should be admitted to the university every year, and be allowed to continue if they are successful. The same principle should be applied to other sectors, such as Ethiopian students. "Lots of women I know started out with low psychometric grades and then went on to get very high grades at the university," she continued. "When I treat a patient now, she doesn't ask me what grade I got on my psychometric exam." Ben-Gurion University President Professor Rivka Carmi, herself a doctor who has conducted extensive medical research in the Beduin community, has closely followed Al-Oqbi's journey to and through medical school. Formerly the dean of the faculty of health sciences, she has had a long-term involvement with Beduin education. She said she first became aware of the importance of promoting the education of Beduin women when she realized the benefits of female education for the overall health of Beduin families. "Due to the problematic nature of the Beduin education system," she said, "I began employing strategies that would advance the education of Beduin women." Psychometric exams, she said, were not the right tool for evaluating Beduin students because of the culturally specific nature of many aspects of the exam. As a result, she said she was "willing to follow other models which can evaluate people more directly. The problem is to convince the system to change." Like Dr. Abu-Rabia-Queder, Carmi believes that "one of our original sins in terms of women in the Beduin sector is coed education. Today things are getting better, but we have to restore the damage done over years of high dropout rates. Today, we could have already been in a completely different place." PROFESSOR RIAD AGBARIA, a native of Umm el-Fahm and the founder of the Medical Cadets program, now heads the university's department of clinical pharmacology as well as its Beduin Center. The center is responsible for targeting young Beduin students, assisting them through the admissions process and in the course of their studies, awarding the scholarships that enable them to pursue their studies and helping them integrate into the job market. "When I started the Negev Medical Cadets program, lots of people thought I was crazy for wanting to take high school graduates with no criteria for being accepted into academia and thinking they would be pharmacists and doctors," Agbaria said. Today, he added, he could theoretically open a clinic in the Negev where every healthcare provider - from doctor to lab worker - would be a Beduin woman. "That," he said, "is one of my dreams." Currently, there are 240 Beduin women studying at Ben-Gurion, 45 of whom are enrolled in health sciences. Nevertheless, as Agbaria pointed out, this is still a small number when one considers that approximately 750 Beduin women in the Negev graduate from high school every year, and that a roughly equal number of women in every class drop out of high school. Agbaria said that over the past two or three years, a significant revolution has taken place in Beduin attitudes toward higher education. "There is no doubt more openness to sending girls to university," Agbaria continued. "We have even been able to provide scholarships for two young women who participated in the Medical Cadets program to study medicine abroad, because their families were willing to allow it. "For the first time, the Beduin population is now seeing women working in prestigious professions. There are doctors and pharmacists and physiotherapists working in the community, and I am very optimistic about the future." A crucial issue the Beduin Center has begun addressing, Agbaria said, is the conflict that arises when women graduates return to their community. Over the past two years, the Center has begun offering conflict-resolution workshops to assist college graduates returning to live in a tribal framework, which are led by Beduin Masters and doctoral students. "We teach them how to cope with the prospect of an arranged marriage, how to say 'no' in the right way, how to keep working," explained Agbaria. "There are other conflicts that arise after marriage - it's one thing to be a student, another to be married with kids and still spending time out of the house. We also encourage women not to take off their head covering because that might mean their sisters won't get the chance to get a university education." Another conflict that has arisen within the Beduin community, Agbaria said, is that between educated women and the men who are left behind. "There are now young men who feel the entire world is interested in their sisters, while nobody cares about them," he asserted. "Meanwhile, women college graduates go home and start occupying jobs once reserved for men." As a result, the Beduin Center has now introduced new affirmative action policies and scholarships for Beduin men. "I want them to eventually get the same kind of attention," he said, "so that when they go home they will not live in conflict." n