‘We refuse to be victims’

A grassroots NGO in and around the city of Rahat is confronting the problem of violence in Beduin society, determined that women do not have to be its victims.

Silver and Elsana_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Silver and Elsana_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the Beduin city of Rahat, north of Beersheba, a steady stream of local women seek help at a drop-in center organized by local women’s activist Mona al-Habanen.
Among them is Rabiya, a mother of 10. Although gifted academically, Rabiya was forced to leave school at 13, when she got married. Now 57, she has anemia and heart problems, but her husband beats her and refuses to give her money for medical treatment.
Habanen says Rabiya’s story is not particularly unusual.
“When I look at what is happening in Beduin society, I see that many women are in a very dangerous position,” says Habanen. “There are problems with domestic abuse, women have too many children, many are denied education, they are afraid their husband will take another wife, who will come and wreck their home.”
The problem of violence against women in Beduin society is serious: according to Physicians for Human Rights, half of all Beduin women experience assault at some point in their lives.
In the Negev’s unrecognized villages, which lack basic infrastructure, clinics and schools, two in every three women are assaulted. Yet it is rare for Beduin women to speak openly about these issues.
Most do not seek help from the police or social services. As a result, many crimes go unreported.
“It’s just not accepted in our society for women to complain to the police. It’s incredibly hard for women to speak out about violence,” says Habanen. However, she is determined that women do not have to be victims, but can and should work together to change this situation.
“For social change to happen, women need to talk about these things,” she insists. “We need to act.”
Habanen is the founder and director of Amerat al-Sahara (“Princess of the Desert”), a grassroots NGO that helps advance women’s rights in and around Rahat. She will not go into details about her own story, but says she was inspired to found Amerat because of firsthand experience of the issues faced by local women.
At Amerat’s Women’s Rights Center in Rahat, a team of local volunteers provide legal help, mental health counseling and social services to women struggling with domestic violence, divorce, single motherhood and the effects of polygamous marriage.
Polygamy is illegal in Israel, but the practice is still common in the Negev’s Beduin community, where around 30 percent of married men are estimated to be in polygamous marriages.
A recent study by Ma’an, the Forum for Arab Women’s Organizations in the Negev, showed how polygamous marriages expose women to poverty, loneliness, depression and physical and emotional abuse.
In some cases, men who have several wives refuse to support one or more of them, with the “left-behind wife” losing societal benefits and status.
Few “first wives” seek divorce, as in traditional Beduin society custody of children is granted to the father.
Women who have dared to speak out against polygamy have been harshly criticized. Last December, the No Excuse for Polygamy campaign by women’s groups was vehemently opposed by clerics in Rahat’s mosques.
Yet Habanen insists that the effects of polygamy on Beduin women are so severe that women can no longer stay silent.
“Many women suffer from depression because they just don’t know what to do,” she says.
BEDUIN WOMEN’S activist Amal Elsana Alh’jooj, co-executive director of the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development (NISPED), agrees that Beduin women should not accept violence as the norm in their lives.
“We should not let men use the excuse that violence against women is part of Beduin culture,” she insists. “That is totally unacceptable. A violent person is a violent person, regardless of their culture or religion.”
Outspoken and charismatic in her bright pink head scarf and trousers, Alh’jooj stands out in a society where women are expected to wear the traditional long black Beduin thawb.
Together with Vivian Silver, her Jewish counterpart at NISPED, Alh’jooj runs a series of projects that help Beduin women empower themselves via education and improved employment opportunities.
Last week, Alh’jooj and Silver were awarded the Victor J. Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East for their work with local Beduin women.
One of the many projects Alh’jooj helped initiate is a grassroots women’s organization in Lakiya that helps women trapped in violent marriages.
“Beduin women don’t report violence to the police because they are afraid they will be rejected by the community. We are trying to create a way that helps women without them losing community respect,” says Alh’jooj. “We’ve created a committee that includes social workers, community leaders, local women’s organizations and also the police.”
Alh’jooj notes that some of the women involved in catalyzing these changes in attitudes toward gender-based violence are not Beduin.
“Since 1967, Beduin men started to marry Arab women from the West Bank and Gaza,” she says. “Those women have no family here, so they feel they have nothing to lose by complaining to the police.”
In its most extreme form, violence against Beduin women results in murder.
According to Amerat’s Habanen, so-called honor killings – the murder of women and girls by male relatives for bringing perceived dishonor on the family through “crimes” like premarital sex – are common in Beduin society.
“Honor killings happen not just here in Rahat,” she says. “It’s a problem throughout the Negev and in cities like Lod and Ramle, too.”
Although precise statistics for the number of women murdered for “family honor” are impossible to determine because some crimes are not reported, a 2008 report by Physicians for Human Rights estimates that some 20 to 30 Arab women are executed by family members every year.
Fear prevents most women from speaking out about the killings, says Habanen.
To break that taboo, Amerat has recently begun a new initiative, Honoring Life, which provides a safe space for local men and women to talk about the violence.
As part of the project, separate groups of men and women are shown a documentary film about honor killings. They are then invited to discuss how the violence affects women.
Participating women are also informed of local places they can go to get help in case of violence.
According to Habanen, the response from participants has so far been positive, and she is determined to take the project to the next stage.
“Amerat has plans to create a Beduin council to build more local capacity and create more resources to deal with this issue,” she says.
As more Beduin women start to speak out against violence, local grassroots organizations are also working to improve women’s educational and economic situation.
AT MIDDAY in the Beduin town of Lakiya, a short drive from Rahat, the busy main street is crowded with girls and women in traditional floorlength black robes and head scarves. Though Lakiya has been a recognized municipality since 1982, tribal conflicts still dominate local life and politics here.
“Until 2002, men here prevented women voting in municipal elections,” recalls NISPED’s Alh’jooj. “When I wrote a paper complaining about how men were confiscating women’s rights, people got angry and burned my father’s agricultural products.”
Yet despite Lakiya’s traditional tribal social structure, it is in this town that the Beduin women’s movement was born.
In 1994, Alh’jooj and her sister Na’ama Elsana helped found the Lakiya Association for the Improvement of the Status of Women.
“I started the association to do something for our own community. I wanted to volunteer and help women,” Elsana says. “I realized that nobody from the outside will help us unless we start to help ourselves.”
Today, the Lakiya Association runs several initiatives in Lakiya and neighboring villages, including a mobile library, day-care centers for working mothers and a women’s literacy project.
The association’s most successful initiative by far is its Desert Embroidery project. Local women create traditional Beduin embroidered items, which are marketed and sold in Israel and abroad.
Participating women are paid cash and also given lectures on health and family planning, a subject that until recently was taboo in Beduin society.
“Even though women here still don’t talk openly about family planning, many now use birth control. If before, the average woman in Lakiya had 13 children, now that average has dropped to around seven,” says Elsana.
Elsana believes that increased opportunities for women to work outside the home have also helped reduce family sizes in Lakiya.
In the recently recognized village of Abu Kaff Umm Batin, just south of Lakiya, kindergarten teacher Sama’ahar Abu Kaff echoes this view.
“I have five kids,” she says. “But I’m pretty sure if I didn’t go out to work, I’d have had 10 by now.”
Twenty-eight year old Sama’ahar works in NISPED’s Bayit al-Umm wa’al-Tifil (Mother and Child House) early years education center.
Established seven years ago when Abu Kaff Umm Batin was still an unrecognized village, Bayit al- Umm now operates under the auspices of the Education Ministry. As well as offering local women a safe place to leave their children for the day, Bayit a-Umm gives them a place to meet, work, chat and create a support network outside the home.
For Sama’ahar, working outside the home has transformed her status in the family from a passive housewife to an assertive woman with rights of her own.
“Before, if I needed money, I had to beg my husband for it, I was dependent on him,” she says.
“But now I have my own money, and that changes things. When I wanted to take a trip to the beach with a group of local women recently, I said to my husband, ‘You can’t stop me going, because now I can pay for myself.’” Yet though Beduin women like Sama’ahar are choosing to have fewer children, large families are still the norm in Beduin society, even in the recognized villages.
And for Beduin women in unrecognized villages, where there are no schools or health clinics to advise on family planning, large families are usually unavoidable.
As a result, the Negev Beduin community is one of the fastest growing populations in the world, with an annual growth rate of 5.5%.
BACK IN Rahat, mayor Faiz Abu Sahiban says the implications of this population growth are serious.
“Rahat is a city of children. In 2009, 2,021 babies were born here: That’s a new kindergarten every week,” says Abu Sahiban, a former principal. “Sixty-five percent of our population is under 18. Providing education is very challenging.”
With a population of around 51,000, Rahat is Israel’s largest Beduin settlement. It is also one of the country’s poorest cities.
According to Abu Sabihan, total unemployment is around 35%, but reaches as high as 60% among women. The level of education is low: Fewer than half of the city’s schoolchildren pass their high school matriculation exams.
While Abu Sabihan is honest about admitting some of the problems women face in Rahat, he is optimistic that social change is starting to happen there, and openly lauds women as agents of that change.
“Traditionally, Beduin girls only go to school until ninth grade,” he says. “Today, more are staying on at school and even going to university.”
However, although more Beduin women want to enter further education, there are many barriers.
While Beduin men go out into society and learn Hebrew, Beduin women usually do not, particularly in unrecognized villages, but also in Rahat. This severely restricts women’s ability to study in mainstream colleges and universities.
“We have women here in Rahat who travel every weekend to a college in Sakhnin [in Galilee] that offers tuition in Arabic,” Abu Sahiban says. “They go there because there’s nowhere closer.”
Yet a lack of local employment opportunities makes it hard for women, even those with higher education credentials, to find work.
In an attempt to improve employment opportunities in Rahat, the city has established a partnership with the neighboring Jewish town of Lehavim and the Bnei Shimon Regional Council.
Under the partnership, a new industrial park, Idan Hanegev, is currently being created just outside Rahat.
Set to open next year, Idan Hanegev will include 2,000 dunams of mostly low-tech, light industry, as well as a new regional hospital and an employment training college.
According to Hagai Ofek, who is managing the project on behalf of the Bnei Shimon Regional Council, the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry and the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry, are contributing NIS 25 million to the project.
Another NIS 5m. is being sought from private investors.
As the region has been designated a Priority Area A for development, companies relocating to Idan Hanegev will receive generous subsidies, including tax exemptions, notes Ofek.
Twenty-four entrepreneurs, including 12 from Rahat, have already signed up to relocate to the park.
“Idan Hanegev will create 6,000 jobs, and we also would like the park to have a factory that employs women from Rahat,” adds Ofek.
While optimistic about the impact of Idan Hanegev on local women, mayor Abu Sahiban admits that training the women for work will be a challenge for Rahat.
“The issue we face is, how do you get a woman who has never left the house to go to work?” he says. “So we are trying to figure out what the factories will want, and then we will start to prepare Beduin women for that work.”
Meanwhile, in Lakiya and Rahat, Beduin women’s activists are determined that they will not give up the fight to improve their own lives.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight. It happens slowly,” says Lakiya’s Na’ama Elsana, as she carefully lays out two pieces of embroidered cloth.
“My grandmother embroidered this pattern as a way to depict her village. In her design, she put the sheikh at the center and the family around the outside. But now, Lakiya is a recognized village; we have our own city hall. Our life changed, so we made changes to our embroidery.
“This new design also depicts the village, but now you can see how the sheikh is on the outside. It is us, the women of Lakiya, we are in the center now.”