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Israeli Bedouin women champion social progress

The Israeli Interior Ministry together with the Association of Community Centers initiated a first-of-its-kind course designed to train Bedouin women to become members of executive boards.

“The eye will always be underneath the eyebrow,” says an ancient Bedouin proverb. Aalia Abu Rabia from the Negev Bedouin village of Darijat interprets it to mean, “Women will always be inferior to men.”

Abu Rabia is one of the 24 strong and educated Bedouin women who are trying to change this opinion. She and her colleagues completed a six-month program last December that aims to provide women with both business management and public administration skills. The program is run by the Association of Community Centers and the Interior Ministry. More specifically, this course aims to train women to become members of executive boards in both the private and public sectors.

Abu Rabia, a master’s student in public administration, believes that courage is a necessary condition for women’s success. She has proven her courage when she went ahead with her divorce, despite the very conservative Bedouin society’s negative view of divorced women. “You need a lot of courage, but change is already here even though the men are at a stage of denial,” she said in a conversation with Al-Monitor. “Women can get involved and advance if they act carefully and not try to shatter tradition, taboos and values. If it doesn’t damage the structure of Bedouin society, anything is possible.”

The course was the initiative of the Department of Public Administration of the Association of Community Centers and the Interior Ministry as part of a government policy to empower women in the Bedouin sector. This goal of empowerment is reflected in the government’s five-year plan for the Bedouin sector, which was passed in February 2017. The plan makes a real investment in advancing education in the sector with the aim of reducing unemployment among the Bedouin, especially among women. Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Brookdale Institute show that the employment rate of Bedouin women is only about 24%, the lowest rate among all sectors in Israel.

The data further show that as the level of education increases, so does the employment rate. While 68% of Bedouin women with higher education degrees work, only 7% of women who didn’t complete high school work.

Nitza Nidal, a facilitator of the Public Administration Program at the Association for Community Centers, told Al-Monitor that the goal of the course is to bring about a diverse and authentic representation of the Bedouin public in community administration roles, such as on boards of municipal economic corporations, community centers and boards of education.

“Up to now, there were hardly any Bedouin women on any board of this type, and so we decided to start the course and call on women to join us,” she said. “Twenty-four women participated in the course — all of them with college degrees.”

She noted that participating women understood that “something big is happening in Bedouin society, and they wanted to be part of it, to be involved in decision-making in their communities. We identified strong, educated, eloquent and assertive women with a strong will to have an impact. They were not scared at all, but at the same time they have a deep and intuitive sense of where they can wisely advance without damaging the place of the men in their conservative society. They prefer to work with tradition and not against it, and by going along with it to bring about change. They are no pushovers, and thus will succeed in advancing their goals.”

Nidal believes that change will take time and perhaps not all participants will be able to do everything they want to, but their daughters certainly will. “The inspiration and education of the mothers will raise a new generation of women like them and even stronger,” she said.

These types of courses usually feature women who have already succeeded, women who are real pathbreakers. One of them is Fatan a-Zinati, the director of the Arab Community Center in Lod. Zinati is an inspiration to Arab women who seek change and wish to advance their status. Talking to the participants, she charted the path for them: “There are political and other elements that can put up roadblocks and try to stop your goals,” she said in her lecture. “The extended family, the nuclear family, the environment, they all have a big influence. Try to connect with them and to fight them less, the frontal attack will not always bring results, cooperation is bound to succeed better.”

Nazma al-Huzeil of Rahat, a graduate of the course, agreed. “I don’t like the terms ‘rebellion’ or ‘empowerment.' I like the conversation, the togetherness,” she told Al-Monitor, saying that the community allegedly encourages them, but in fact waits for them to fail and go back to their husbands who are less advanced than the women. “You’re at point X and he can’t even understand you. You speak in terms that he doesn’t understand at all. Thus, advancement has to happen together.”

Imani Hamdan Abu Zeid, one of the standout participants in the course, has already implemented what she has learned and will soon be appointed to the board of the directors of a local public body that works on economic issues along with the municipality of her town, Rahat, the largest Bedouin town in Israel.

She said her husband, Ali, is also a college graduate and he encouraged her to participate. “There is a growing number of Bedouin men who push their women to learn and advance,” she told Al-Monitor.

When an article was published in Rahat about her, she received much encouragement and support from her family, something that attests to the readiness of Bedouin society for change. Change is also political. One of the main candidate lists expected to run in the municipal elections in Rahat in October 2018 has tried to recruit her. Abu Zeid decided not to run, but intends to gather her friends in order to choose one of them to enter municipal politics in this election.

Naama al-Abid, a course graduate from Segev Shalom, explained that men prefer a mature and strong woman to stand alongside them. For her part, she looks to the future. “I want my daughter to get where she wants to go, that it would be possible for her, and it doesn’t matter what it is. Even if she wants to be prime minister,” she told Al-Monitor.

Graduate Amal Abu Hamed from Hura said, “My community has put its hopes on me and told me that my weapon in life will be education. And here I have a weapon and people already fear me, and maybe that’s good.”

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