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Rawia Aburabia. Photo by Gali Eytan.
Rawia Aburabia. Photo by Gali Eytan.

A Stranger in my Homeland

Rawia Aburabia, 33, says that even though the situation of Bedouin women is bad, a trend of ‘groundbreaking women’ is taking hold. (Originally published by Ha’aretz – Friday, March 28, 2014)

By Ayelett Shani

You started out as a social worker. What made you decide to go into law?

As a social worker I encountered many wrongs, but I had the feeling there was nothing I could do about them, that I was limited. In my third year I started to deal with “unrecognized” villages [of Bedouin in the Negev]. That just crushed me. What can you possibly offer someone whose life has been trampled by political policy? People are in distress and you can’t help. They have no electricity or water, they are in a dreadful situation. So I decided to study something that would allow me to help on a larger scale, and I chose law, with an emphasis on human rights.

And you work for the Association for Civil Rights.

I head the unit that deals with the Arab and Bedouin population in the Negev, and am a member of the executive committee for equality of personal rights. I deal with all the well-known issues – from home demolitions to forced marriages of underage girls. It’s very complex even for me. On the one hand, I feel committed to people who are fighting for their homes, but on the other hand, as a feminist, I am very critical of what is happening in Bedouin society. It’s something of a duality.

Especially given your background. You are a Bedouin, but you did not grow up in an unrecognized village – rather, in a villa in Be’er Sheva. Your father is the first Bedouin physician in the country, your mother is a teacher and your siblings are academics.

Yes. People tend to imagine Bedouin in tents, but I grew up in Be’er Sheva in a completely secular home, and my parents are educated.

Did you attend an Arab school?

Until fourth grade, when I switched to a Jewish school. My whole starting point is very different from that of the traditional Bedouin girl, and different possibilities were available to me. There was a very strong emphasis on education at home, even over-achievement. While my girlfriends were having children, I collected degrees. I got married only three years ago, and have a six-month-old daughter, so I really don’t fit the stereotype. But the truth is that changes are occurring in the Bedouin society — the rate of educated women is rising.

Really? According to a report I read, 90 percent of Bedouin women in Israel are unemployed, and 60 percent drop out of high school.

That’s true, but significant changes are taking place. In general, the situation of Bedouin women is bad, but we are also seeing a trend of groundbreaking women.

You are now writing a doctoral dissertation on polygamy, which is still prevalent among the Bedouin.

It was also the subject of my master’s thesis. I obtained my M.A. in America and majored in human rights. Polygamy was an urgent issue for me, especially in light of its prevalence among Bedouin. In the eyes of the law, the Bedouin woman is both excluded and transparent. The police take no interest in polygamy.

Israel law forbids polygamy, but there is no enforcement. What kind of numbers are we talking about?

Between 30 and 40 percent of all families. The average is two-three wives per man, and what is especially distressing is that it exists in all classes, in the city and in unrecognized villages, and among the educated as well.

If I understood correctly, the model is that a man marries one woman, and a few years later marries a second, and they all share a household.

That is the most common form. They live in separate homes but are part of the same household. The first wife is the traditional one; the second, the supposedly more modern one. Regrettably, many educated women take part in this repressive practice by agreeing to be the second wife.

Why do the first wives agree to it?

Many of them cooperate with the practice so as not to undergo a divorce. The status of women in Bedouin society is so low that it’s enough for the husband just to threaten divorce. I asked many women why they do not get a divorce, and the answer is that they are simply afraid. The attitude toward a divorcee is atrocious. The woman is dependent on her husband economically, so leaving is not a viable option. She is a prisoner. Even an educated woman. Her hands are tied.

Technically, one can file a complaint about polygamy with the police, but it’s useless.

Indeed. The policy of the state prosecution is not to file charges in such cases. Criminal law in this regard is useless; there is no enforcement and no deterrence.

What do you hope to achieve through your study?

I hope I will be able to propose a mechanism of some sort for coping with this phenomenon; I don’t want it to remain only an academic study. And I also want to place the subject on the public agenda. The law is enforced only in cases when the man marries a Palestinian woman from the territories as his second wife and she wants to live here [in Israel proper]. But in Bedouin society in general, the situation persists uninterruptedly.

How well do you know the traditional Bedouin woman and her way of life?

My father’s family is originally from an unrecognized village. My cousins are the very woman you’re describing. I don’t pretend to represent the traditional Bedouin woman, but I know that life to a certain extent. Both as a social worker and as a lawyer, I constantly come into contact with these women. Still, I am fully aware that my life is different – in terms of the opportunities I got, the places I reached.

Most Bedouin woman are unemployed, because the urbanization forced on their society dislocated them from their traditional roles. When the state decided it would not help these uneducated women with their social-cultural adjustment, but would simply move them, as they were, to one of seven towns built here beginning at the end of the 1970s, it sealed their fate.

It’s ironic to recall that the Jews who immigrated here in the 1950s – from an urban background – had farming communities built for them in the Negev on land taken from the Bedouin. There are more than 100 Jewish communities in the Be’er Sheva district, with an average population of 300, and they enjoy all the infrastructures. In contrast, there are 35 old historical [Bedouin] villages without water or electricity, where homes are demolished every day; the authorities are continuing the policy of suppression and dispossession.

What options are available to a girl who grows up in a traditional Bedouin family?

Let’s take a girl born in an unrecognized village, for example. There are no preschools, so it’s likely she will be at home at least until kindergarten, and it’s impossible to know what will happen after primary school. Any high school there is will be far away. If the parents understand the importance of education, they will see to it that she remains in school. But many times it doesn’t work, because of other factors, such as the fact that the buses that go to the school are coed, and the parents don’t want their daughter to travel with boys.

Does she have to help provide for the family? Will she work outside the village?

No, only at home. And very often, if she drops out of school early, her fate will be to marry at a very young age. The marriage rate for underage girls is very high. There is absolutely no doubt that the Bedouin locales that were built — Tel Sheva, Lakiya, Rahat and the others — are a failed model. The state admits it, too. My feeling is the state wants to keep it like that, so that the Bedouin will remain weakened — hewers of wood and drawers of water, as it were — and not pose a threat.

The Israeli policy of rule involves concentrating the minority in one place so as to strengthen political control over it. All studies show that, by all indices, coerced urbanization bore very deep and had severe consequences. The economic and social situation was aggravated, because Bedouin were uprooted from an agricultural environment to one that is supposedly urban, but does not really offer urban services. There is no infrastructure, no organized industrial zone, the education standard is very inferior. A farce of a whole fabric of life.

How does that affect the status of women?

Catastrophically. They are a minority within a minority, in a repressive patriarchal society in which the men also suffer from weakened masculinity; their homes are demolished and no one takes them into account. The Israeli side now thinks it is going to “rescue” the women. Doron Almog [head of the task force for the settlement and economic development of the Bedouin in the Negev] says that they want to eradicate polygamy and catapult the women into the 21st century. But how, exactly, will that be done, when along the way you are destroying their whole fabric of life, and from your point of view they are just a tool?

What is your feeling when you come into contact with these women? Do you feel guilty due to your different life circumstances?

I can’t speak in their name, because neither I nor anyone in my immediate milieu lives their life. I can only talk about my experience in the face of these women, and I admit that a certain distance exists in my encounter with them. I was fortunate, I received an opportunity which is truly not to be taken for granted. I do not feel guilty but committed to helping them make their voice heard.

How do you define yourself?

As a Palestinian. It really is very complex. One time in court, a judge asked me if I am from the Aburabia tribe. I said I was, and he said, “Really? I know that tribe, I’m proud to say.” He was proud of me, he patronized me, do you understand? Or, one time a radio interviewer said to me, “Well done, achieving what you did in spite of where you started from.” All kinds of remarks like that.

It makes me angry that my identity is belittled like this: I am a Palestinian, even though the Bedouin element is very meaningful in my life. And I get angry at the “We took you out of the tent and brought you to this point” approach. It’s exactly the infuriating Orientalist approach, but my identity is far richer and more complex. One time, when I was a member of a delegation in the United States, we were to give a talk to a Muslim community in a mosque. I was told to wear a head covering. I objected. Why am I being placed in a mold? Why am I not asked whether I am secular or religious, what meaning the head covering has for me?

One of the organizers said, “You know, Hillary Clinton wore a head covering when she spoke to us, what’s the big deal?” I said, “For Hillary Clinton it’s just a kerchief she puts on her head, but for me it has a multitude of meanings and it is an affront.” I refused. [Wearing it] is to ignore who and what I am. That’s why I also got angry when you asked me about the way of life of the Bedouin woman.

I noticed.

I don’t have a clue. I didn’t grow up like that.

What do you think about Israel? What do you feel toward Israelis?

It’s not easy growing up here as a national minority. I think Israel is becoming more and more right-wing, violent and racist. I have never felt such a poisonous atmosphere toward the Palestinians as today.

It’s hard, but you mustn’t let it debase you. I constantly tell myself that this is where I live, and that I must not allow racism and arrogance and paternalism to debase me as a human being, to make me lose my humanity. After every humiliating experience I take a deep breath, write an opinion piece and let it go.

I have undergone profiling with El Al. In the airport here all my luggage was taken and checked, without my being present. They interrogated me. It was insulting and awful; I boarded the plane crying. I mean, I am going to speak about the Bedouin population to human rights committees at the United Nations and I feel good, and then at the airport they say: Just a minute, we will strip you of the person you think you are, we will remind you what your place is and that you are the enemy. It’s harassment. It’s hard for every Palestinian who lives here. There’s a messed-up mentality of a minority, which is the Israeli mentality.

You mean Israeli Jews are a majority who still think, feel and behave like a persecuted minority?

Yes. Even though the majority of Israelis should feel safe, right? Those are moments that almost break me, and I have to remind myself that I, my parents and my grandparents were all born here, and that I should not take to heart a security checker whose parents immigrated here a minute and a half ago from who knows where, and treats me like a security threat. You have to breathe deeply. I have to work on myself very hard when that happens, and also inculcate certain things in my daughter. She will have to be critical and activist, but also look out for herself, so she won’t feel discriminated against. I was taught that everything is possible, so am I going to let a few racists destroy and debase me? No way. On the day I stop believing in that, I will no longer be here. But yes, absolutely: I feel like a stranger in my homeland.

Article link: http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/.premium-1.582443

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