Empowering Bedouin women: what gets lost in translation (Shifting Sands. Stories from the Negev Bedouin community)

‘I don’t know.’ We were sitting in the Rahat Women’s Association office, discussing with Sabha – the CEO of the organization – the mission of this charity. She had just got asked by her guest about feminism, and what the Arabic word for it was. She didn’t know. This seemed paradoxical since, viewed from the outside, Sabha’s charity might well be labelled ‘feminist’. The Association strives for the economic and social empowerment of Bedouin women in the city of Rahat and in the Negev more widely. These women often fall victim of the society where men have the upper hand and can afford to manhandle women. This precipitates social problems such as domestic violence and polygamy. Sometimes, women are also prohibited to leave the house, which prevents them from working and deepens the (often already existing) economic difficulties. It can also lead to the depression in women.

Yet the boss of this ‘feminist’ charity didn’t know the word for ‘feminism’ in her native language. As I would later realize, the challenges of running a charity in this community reached beyond issues of linguistic nuance. I worked in this charity for half a year, assisting in marketing, fundraising and translation. During that time, I strived to observe what the nitty-gritty reality of running a grass-root charity looks like.

An office meeting at the Rahat Women’s Association. (photo by author)

Sabha’s vision to found the NGO grew out of her personal experience. As a twelve year old, she started becoming aware that her family was living on the breadline. Her mother was not in employment, so Sabha decided to take the initiative herself. She got herself a sewing teacher, learned to make clothes and started selling them. She managed to get a sewing machine, but since in her desert village, they didn’t have electricity, she ended up sewing manually. Later, in 2004, she founded her charity in Rahat to help other women help themselves.

For the purposes of running the organization, her own life experience has undoubtedly worked to Sabha’s advantage. For one, it has made her very sympathetic to the women’s plight. ‘I have been in their shoes,’ she says. Her background also means that Sabha is sensitive to the cultural context. Indeed, cultural nuances can easily be misunderstood by foreign-run NGOs. The Association, on the other hand, strives to improve the situation from within. For instance, the charity has run several vocational courses in hairdressing, sewing or make-up. Graduates of these few-months-long courses can then open their own home businesses in their field of expertise. This strengthens the family economically, but at the same time does not force the woman to work outside the house – a practice often considered inappropriate by Bedouin men.

Overall, the charity tries to improve the situation without simultaneously violating some largely accepted – or at least prevalent – cultural norms and practices. This policy is, however, not without its controversies. It may sometimes apply even to norms which by Western standards would be considered categorically unacceptable. In such cases, the challenge is to find for the most optimal ways of translating the idea of social progress into the context of the Bedouin culture.

For example, the charity offers counseling and legal aid to women whose husbands have taken on another wife. In addition to the destructive psychological effects this has on the woman, polygamy often also results in the abandonment of the first wife. This, in turn, leads to impoverishment when the breadwinner is taken away. Sabha puts a part of the blame for the existence of polygamy on women. She suggests that some women do not offer sufficient emotional or practical support to their husbands, instead placing on them unreasonable demands. According to Sabha, this can set the husband on a quest for new love, or make him violent toward his wife.

In such situations, the charity might encourage the woman to try to talk things through with her husband and find a solution together, rather than immediately report him to the police or seek a divorce. In this conservative society, a divorced woman will enjoy no respect. Moreover, given that it’s the husband who is usually the breadwinner, she will likely fall into poverty.

From a Westerner’s viewpoint, polygamous marriage is out of question. In Israel, this practice has been illegal since 1977. Polygamy had initially been practiced in the community of Yemenite Jewish immigrants. However, stringent enforcement quickly ended the practice. In contrast, in case of the Bedouins – a community on the fringes of the Israeli society – the authorities have overall been slow to prosecute the perpetrators. Yet this practice is relatively widespread in the Bedouin community. According to a Knesset report from 2013, about 30% Bedouin families are polygamous.

From the charity’s viewpoint, this practice is not desirable. At the same time, it may be considered a lesser evil in comparison to living as a divorcee, and therefore may be tolerated in certain cases. Rather than removing the problem altogether, therefore, they may attempt to mitigate its harmful effects through dialogue.

A similar solution may occasionally be proposed in cases of domestic violence – a phenomenon also all too common among the Bedouins. Rather than immediately trying to obtain divorce, it may be preferable for the couple to seek reconciliation. This will prevent the social and economic difficulties which are the aftermath of divorce.

A Bedouin family from Rahat at a wedding. (photo by the author)

A further challenge that I became aware of was that of transferring vision into action. This charity deeply and truly cared about the issues they set out to tackle – least because many of the employees had experienced them themselves. On the other hand, they had little resources and expertise. There seemed to be a chronic shortage of funds. As a result, they couldn’t afford to invest in consultants and experts to work with the charity on a regular basis. They were also unable to hire professional fundraisers, instead relying mostly on short-term volunteers and one-off consultants. However, being the kind of charity that they are, the Association has traditionally relied on grants to support its operations. Nevertheless, due to lack of a permanent fundraising team, they struggled to sustain a stable income from grants. This, in turn, meant that they were unable to run their projects effectively or launch new ones.

In short, a lack of resources was preventing the influx of further resources. It seemed that you already need to have undergone a development in order to develop further. This reality is ironic. The Association is working in an underprivileged community where – by definition – there would be relatively little resources.

Despite these difficulties I had experienced, when I was leaving the charity, I was thankful for the opportunity to work there. It had given me a glimpse into the challenges of translating the concepts of progress and development in a highly traditional and conservative community. If something had certainly developed, it was my understanding of what international development was. Also, I was hopeful. With stubbornly determined people like Sabha, progress – albeit slow – wouldn’t be lost.

About the Author
Dorota, originally Czech, is a Semitic linguist, working at the University of Cambridge, where she also obtained her PhD. She researches Neo-Aramaic - the language of Jewish and Christian minorities from Kurdish Iraq. She also teaches and works on Biblical and Modern Hebrew. She's lived and studied in Israel, working in a charity advancing Bedouin women and at the Polish Embassy.
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