Negev Bedouins

During the Fulbright trip to Ein Gedi, we stopped on the way back at Lakiya, a sedentary Bedouin village. As many of my readers know, the Bedouin are a nomadic people, but with enough carrots and sticks, many of them have given up the nomadic way of life.

The result has been about what you would expect for an uprooted population: the collapse of economy activity, rampant poverty, joblessness, and crime.

We passed a number of “unrecognized” Bedouin villages–shantytowns that spring up in random locations–before coming to the village of Lakiya.

The houses are very nice, but there are basic problems with sanitation. Jeff went into a convenience store and found that one cooler smelled like rotten meat and had a used butcher knife sitting in it.

We were served coffee and tea in a traditional Bedouin tent while a woman spoke to us about the lot of Bedouin women. Traditionally, a Bedouin man has four wives, and the woman are responsible not only for all the domestic labor (without modern conveniences) and child-rearing labor, but also shearing sheep, milking camels, or whatever else it is that is added to the work of a household when animals are involved.

It sounds like a lot, and it is, but while I was listening, I couldn’t help but think that there was more to the story. After all, women are responsible for domestic and agricultural labor in many societies around the world, while the men engage in business, public life, and other income-generating and status-generating activities. It’s not the only way to divide life, but it’s one way, and it works a lot of the time. Men are good at peacocking and love pissing contests, and the fact that those things usually result in income generation makes women happy. (I’m exaggerating for effect, but it’s true.)

Here’s why Bedouin women have a problem, as far as I understand it: In the mid-20th century, during the transition from nomadic life to settled life, traditional ways of life crumbled and men lost a way of supporting themselves (and their four wives). But when work outside the home evaporates, work inside the home must still go on and becomes even harder. With no way of supporting themselves either, Bedouin women rightly began to resent doing all the hard work for a jobless idler while having no freedom to improve their lot in life.*

In any case, the women’s rights movement has come to the Bedouins. The women began to re-teach other women some of the dying arts of traditional weaving and embroidery so that they would have a way of earning some money for themselves and a way out from their impoverished, restricted lives. They have a website here, and I especially recommend the article Life in the Negev for an idea of the problems the Bedouin community is facing. 

They are working on standing up against domestic violence but have no legal recourse.

As part of a requirement for attending the weaving and embroidery classes, the women also have to attend academic classes–it didn’t occur to me at the time, but she was talking about basic literacy.

Toward the end the speaker mentioned one problem with bettering the lot of Bedouin women: they get an education and find that they have no one to marry. They don’t want to marry a man who is not educated and who has no job skills. Forget about college; few Bedouins attend even high school.

The men, as a group, are angry about the change. I turned to my friend and asked her who was helping the men get an education. She said she thought they were happy being served all day by women and didn’t want the status quo to change.

That’s probably true. But if enough women set the bar higher and say, “I want a man with an education and a job,” then the men will want education and jobs too or they’ll be the ones stuck without anyone to marry. Maybe the women can send their sons to school and encourage them to develop useful skills. The possibility for lifting the whole society out of poverty is there.

* If anyone is interested in reading about the modern history of the Bedouin, here’s an interesting article from Wikipedia on the Negev Bedouin: I didn’t directly use information from it, but I read it to make sure that my interpretations of what I saw were consistent with actual facts.


One thought on “Negev Bedouins

  1. Wow, so many parallels with US society. Low economic status men who drop out of school and can’t support a family. I wonder if women refused to go with them would they be motivated to stay in school? As long as they can get the milk without buying the cow they’re happy. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is now.

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