Breaking Down Barriers: Bedouin Women Take Reins of Their Future in Israel
JNS.org – For hundreds of years, Bedouin tribes have wandered the deserts of the Middle East — and to this day, many cultural traditions unique to the Bedouin have remained unchanged, almost appearing frozen in time.
While many Bedouin, particularly in Israel, are no longer nomadic, they continue to live in tribes. While the world around them has taken on gender equality and women’s rights, Bedouin society remains rooted in its patrilineal hierarchy, with one of the most marginalized female populations in the world.
However, as Israeli Bedouin communities in the Negev Desert — where the majority reside –begin to move towards the future, women are leading a path towards change.
Several years ago, the Jewish National Fund (JNF-USA) partnered with Project Wadi Attir to expand its reach into the Bedouin community, and positively impact the lives of all Bedouins, particularly women, by offering increased opportunities for them.
Wadi Attir was founded 10 years ago in conjunction with the Bedouin town of Hura and the Sustainability Laboratories, a US-based nonprofit that pairs traditional Bedouin values and skills with Israel’s cutting-edge renewable-energy production, sustainability approaches, soil enhancement and resource recycling programs in arid lands.
More importantly, the project is breaking down social barriers and challenging the traditional status of women within Bedouin society, while preserving and respecting the essential values and traditions of their culture.
Lina Alatawna grew up and lives in Hura. With a McDonald’s around the corner — and shepherds herding sheep and goats in the sandy hills — the clashes of worlds couldn’t be more evident than in Hura — a town of nearly 20,000 residents. Breaking the traditional Bedouin model of women staying at home, Lina excelled in science and math growing up, earning her bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering, and a master’s in industrial engineering. This gave her the opportunity to leave the community for a more professional environment.
”When I heard about the work that Wadi Attir was doing, I knew this was the way to give back to my community,” she said.
Originally hired as manager of research and development, Alatawna is now the first female CEO of Operations at Wadi Attir. “If I can be highly educated and become a CEO at 28, Bedouin women can be whatever we want,” she added.
Wadi Attir now has 30 employees, 50 percent of whom are women — a statistic higher than in most workplaces in Israel. Alatawna hopes that not only will she set an example for Bedouin women, but that Wadi Attir can serve as an example for the greater Bedouin community and Israeli society.
“The world sees Bedouins as deprived and poor,” she said. “Wadi Attir is an example of the other face of Bedouins — and Israelis working, living and growing together.”
The parents of Yasmeen Abu Fraiha made the brave decision to leave their Bedouin town of Tel Sheba in the middle of the night to move to the Jewish town of Omer, a lush oasis in the Negev — in order to give their children new opportunities. Living most of her life separated from the Bedouin community, and after becoming a doctor specializing in genetic diseases, Abu Fraiha decided to devote her work to give back to her roots.
“My father always says that the difference between Tel Sheba and Be’er Sheba is a five-minute drive, but 100 years away,” quips the 27-year-old.
Understanding and respecting the traditions of arranged marriage in the Bedouin community, Abu Fraiha saw an opportunity to converge her two worlds. Today, she provides free genetic testing to Bedouins prior to marriage to help couples partner safely, and decrease the rate of genetic diseases in the Bedouin community. She is also an active member of Wadi Attir’s board of directors.
For Ghadir Hani, who grew up in northern Israel, a life of co-existence with her Christian and Jewish neighbors was the norm. As an Israeli Arab woman in the diversely populated coastal town of Akko, the 22-year-old moved to the Negev, and decided to devote her work to building bridges between Arabs and Jews by creating innovative ways for them to encounter each other.
As one of the founding members of Wadi Attir, Hani works as the executive secretary and managing director, and in her spare time works with NISPED — an Arab-Jewish center for equality and cooperation in the Negev — as the coordinator of Women’s Economic Empowerment Projects.
Of course, she and other women recognize that the majority of change is taking place for those individuals under age 35. The older generation, like many other ethnicities and religions, is typically more at home or doing the more traditional work of those who’ve come before them.
Still, Hani believes that women are going to be the leaders who will bring peace to Israel; she thinks they mainly just need the confidence and the prospects to do so.
“We are proof,” she stated, “that Arabs [and Jews] — secular and religious — have a future together, for all of us and our children.”