Israeli anti-polygamy activists run into Islamic opposition

Negev clerics and politicians infuriated by women's campaign to stop polygamous marriages among Israeli Beduin.

A Beduin woman and child 311 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A Beduin woman and child 311 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A women’s group campaigning to stop polygamous marriages among Israeli Beduin is running into strong resistance from Islamic groups and even some politicians.
The organizers of the "No Excuse for Polygamy" campaign, launched at the end of November, have been called infidels in newspaper editorials and accused of serving the Zionist agenda by limiting the Arab birth rate. Last Friday’s sermon in a mosque in the Beduin town of Rahat warned worshipers to protect their wives and daughters from the woman's movements.
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Even heads of Negev regional councils representing Beduin towns have publicly denounced the anti-polygamy campaign.
Safa Shehadeh, director of Ma'an – the Forum for Arab Beduin Women's Organizations of the Negev, one of the groups behind the anti-polygamy campaign, said she expected traditionalists to push back. But the reaction has been more aggressive than she had expected.
"There were no personal threats against us," Shehadeh told The Media Line, "but some of the articles published by members of the Islamic Movement and municipal leaders included tacit threats."
In Islam, a man may marry up to four wives on condition that he provides for them equally. But in most Arab societies the phenomenon is frowned upon and in Israel polygamy is illegal, punishable by up to five years in prison.  Nevertheless, the custom is deeply rooted in the culture of the Beduin Arabs who traditionally were tent-dwelling nomads but who have gradually been settled in permanent towns like Rahat.
Husbands will have their polygamous marriages sanctified religiously but not in the government marriage registrar. Indeed, many second, third and fourth wives are officially listed as single parents, entitling them to allowances.
Since polygamous marriages aren’t recognized by the government, no official statistics exist. But the Research and Information Center of Israel’s Knesset, or parliament, estimates that somewhere between 20% and 36% of Beduin households in the southern Negev region, where most of Beduin live, are polygamous.
The Working Group for Equality in Personal Status Issues (WGEPSI), which organized the campaign against multiple marriages, believes the number is at the high end of that range.  It blames a lack of education and an undeclared Israeli policy of legal non-intervention as the main causes.    
Primarily a media campaign using posters with women's testimonials, the "No Excuse for Polygamy" initiative also holds meetings and seminars aimed at educating single women about the price of polygamy. The campaign defending polygamy has been more visceral.
A menacing red and black advertisement published in Al-Hadath, a newspaper published in Rahat, urged women who had failed to get married by age 30 to find a husband to share.
"What is the solution for 7,513 unmarried women in the Negev over the age of 30?" the advertisement rhetorically asked. "Polygamy -- a shariah-sanctioned solution!" it said, answering its own question by defending the practice as approved under Islamic law.
Heba Yazbak, WGEPSI's activities coordinator, said she was heartened by the counter-measures.  "This proves that our campaign has really destabilized them," she told The Media Line. "Many men in the southern branch of the Islamic Movement are married to more than one woman, so they have a personal stake in this."
Yazbak noted that the counter-campaign calls itself the Committee for Women's Equality in the Negev, a name similar to her own organization. It also copied the logo and poster design of the original anti-polygamy campaign.  "It seems that our campaign threatens everyone," she said.
Sheikh Hammad Abu-Da'abes, head of the Islamic Movement's southern branch, said the women's movements had no answer to the growing problem of spinsterhood in a fast-urbanizing Beduin society.
Some 200,000 Beduin live in Israel, mostly in the Negev desert. With an annual growth rate of 5.5%, Israeli Beduins are one of the fastest growing populations in the world.
"Women are the greatest beneficiaries of polygamy," Abu-Da'abes told the Israeli-Arab weekly Kul Al-Arab. "Spinsterhood has reached 25% in Arab society, and when we fight polygamy we shut the door in the face of many women who wish to marry half a man due to their inability to marry a full man."  
For that reason, Abu-Da'abes criticized Arab men who take foreign women in addition to their Arab wives, saying he would like to issue an Islamic legal opinion, known as a fatwa, against mixed marriages.  
Yazbak dismissed Abu-Da'abes’ argument, saying polygamy causes poverty and dissolves the family structure. She asserted that Israel’s policy of non-intervention was part of a larger strategy to keep Arab society in Israel impoverished.
"Israeli law is not applied in the Negev," she said. "This is a marginalized and neglected part of the country."   
Shehadeh of Ma'an said the opposition to the women’s campaign won’t sway her from fighting polygamy.
"They tried to question our legitimacy, our credibility and our patriotism, but this is a human rights issue,” she said. “We don't even go into the religious question of whether it's permissible or not."