Bedouin women fight old values and vandalism to try and improve their lot
Bedouin women fight old values and vandalism to try and improve their lot
Haaretz - June 2, 2005
By Nir Hasson

Two weeks ago Hassin al-Sana, a veteran volunteer at the association for the improvement of the status of women, in the Negev Bedouin town of Lakia, was awakened by her neighbors at 1 A.M. The association's textile workshop had been set on fire. It turned out the blaze had been started by individuals who oppose the association; they had broken a window, poured incendiary liquid inside and ignited it. "It took firefighters 40 minutes to get here, by which time we had put the fire out ourselves," Sana said. "It was hard for me to see the place, it hurt."

The next morning, as the dozens of women employed in the workshop surveyed the damage, many of them broke into tears. "There are women who support their children from this work," Sana said. "I myself collapsed and was taken to the hospital."

The fire was not the first time the workshop has been targeted. But this time the women decided not to keep silent. Yesterday they organized a protest against the vandalism and against the men who are trying to destroy what they are building.

Bedouin woman are probably the most deprived group in Israel. Although in recent years many young women have finished high school and even gone to university, they usually return home afterward and do not work.

Hence the importance of the workshop. In addition to the textile work, the workshop operates a mobile library, the only one in Lakia, which serves some 400 children, as well as a literacy project for women in Arabic and Hebrew. The association also operates a daily pre-school for working mothers from 7 A.M. to 2:30 P.M. and runs a leadership development project for teenage girls.

But its flagship is the textile workshop, which employs 165 women from Lakia and the surrounding unrecognized Bedouin communities, and is probably the largest employer of Bedouin women in the Negev.

Welfare authorities estimate the unemployment rate among Bedouin women at between 85 and 89 percent. To overcome the cultural aversion to women working outside the home, they take the work home with them. "They create traditional Negev Bedouin embroidered designs," including bags, pillows, and tablecloths, said the association's treasurer Ataf Ataf Abu Sa'ad. The products are sold at the Eretz Israel Museum and the Haifa Museum among other places, and they recently received a large order from the chain store GRAS.

But embroidery is also part of the project; the women participate in courses on health, relations with the school, and other subjects. The project has won recognition and support from a number of bodies, among them the New Israel Fund and the European Union.

The fire consumed raw materials, seared sewing machines and caused major structural damage that will keep it shut for at least a month, according to the women who work there. "I managed to send my son who is studying in Germany 500 shekels a month from what I make here," one woman told the group gathered at the protest.

The torching of the workshop is about more than material damage. "There are people who want Bedouin women to stay at home," Abu Sa'ad said. "The men are jealous. `Why should a woman drive, why should a woman take the leadership away from us'[they say]?"

"We are directing our protest to the whole community," Amal al-Sana, who founded the association, said.

MK Taleb al-Sana, a resident of Lakia, who came to express support for the women, said, "Not only can't the Bedouin community catch up to the Jewish community, it can't catch up to the Arab community. And we can't get ahead unless we make it possible for women to become educated and take initiatives."

The gathering also protested the phenomenon of vandalism that is rife in the town. "We feel a lack of belonging to society, and so we see computers stolen from the schools and the breaking of street lamps," MK Sana said.

"There was a time when there was not one thief or drug addict here," al-Karim al-Sana, Amal al-Sana's father, said. "People cared about each other. Everybody went to work every morning, we even had a soccer team that made it to the second division. Today nobody cares. This association is our hope to bring back a little of what once was."