BEDOUIN WOMAN DEFTLY SKIRTS TRADITION; SHE BENDS THE RULES, BREAKS STEREOTYPES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LAQIYA, Israel -- In the not-so-distant past of her ancient nomadic tribe, Amal El-Sana would have lived in a tent in the desert, and her role in life would have been fixed by restrictions as old as time.

Lately, her Bedouin people have been gathered into modern villages. The tent has been replaced by cinder block. The camel has been replaced by the pickup truck. Children are going to school.

But even so, Amal El-Sana is far ahead of most of her people.

The petite, articulate 24-year-old has broken nearly every female stereotype of the Bedouin.

She finished high school, attended college away from home and established the Laqiya Women's Committee to improve women's lives in her village.

She enrolled in graduate school, traveled alone to Europe and chose the man she will marry.

El-Sana moves deftly.

"We have a saying, 'walking between the raindrops,' " explains Haia Noach, the director of a nonprofit organization serving Bedouins in Israel's southern region.

"Amal knows very well the rules and the limits and the things she can do to try and make a change.

"She manages very well."

But in the male-dominated Bedouin society, Amal's own father, Kareem, encouraged his daughter to pursue her dreams.

"All my girls I brought up very well, not just Amal. I couldn't learn, so I wanted my children to learn," says Kareem El-Sana, whose 13 children include a pharmacist, an engineering student, two secretaries and a social worker.

And in Laqiya, Amal El-Sana is admired and respected.

"All the mothers want their daughters to be like Amal to advance," says Seham El-Assewi, an 18-year-old schoolgirl who works with the women's group founded by Amal and some like-minded friends.

"She is studying. She is promoting us. She is fighting our fights."

Amal and Laqiya represent the changing face of the 100,000 Bedouin of the Negev, where their tribe has lived since the fifth century. Their stories depict the successes and failures of Israeli government policy to move the Negev Bedouin to a sedentary life in seven urban towns like Laqiya.

Today, Laqiya's 8,000 people live mainly in concrete-block houses. An occasional satellite dish can be spotted on a rooftop of a villa. Many more homes have tin shacks out back to house goats, horses or sheep.

Israeli government services are clearly visible -- decorative light poles are being installed on the streets.

The children attend school in a modern building with a center courtyard.

But as of 1992, only 45 percent of the Bedouin in the Negev lived in the planned towns, according to a study by the Adva Center, a social research group in Tel Aviv.

Unemployment in those communities was the highest in Israel -- 20 percent. And 80 percent of those who worked often did so away from home, the study found.

The education level among the Bedouin explains in part how different Amal is from the others.

The dropout rate among Bedouin high schoolers last year was 67 percent, compared with 43 percent of Arabs and 16 percent of Jewish students, according to the Israeli Ministry of Education.

At Ben Gurion University in the Negev, the institution closest to the Bedouin towns, fewer than 200 Bedouin students have graduated since 1993.

Of those, only six were women.

Amal was among them, and she is the only one pursuing a master's degree there, said Ismael Abu-Saad, an educator in the field.

Abu-Saad attributes the low enrollment to the quality of education provided for Bedouin students. Many can't pass the necessary entrance exams, he said, and those who do can't afford college.

But what makes Amal exceptional in her community is not so much her college degree. It's her ability to walk between the raindrops, to straddle the cultural divide and help women, young and old, cross over. Or to stay put with self-confidence.

The assimilation of the Bedouin, a process that began 20 years ago, complicated family relationships and undermined the role of women.

Women like Amal's grandmothers shared in the work of the family, tending herds, overseeing the household finances, managing the family.

With the move to the towns, men who found jobs worked outside their villages. Women became hostages in these new "boxes" in which they lived, says Amal.

Many older women can't read and write. They have few opportunities to work outside their homes.

As a teen-ager, Amal helped form the women's committee to promote women's health, teach village women how to read and write, and bolster their self-esteem.

The committee established a day care center and a project to market women's traditional crafts; Amal helped secure college scholarships for 10 Bedouin students.

She has been bucking tradition since childhood. She learned to repair cars. She managed the family finances. And she went to college.

But she did not leave her roots.

"I have a strong connection to this place," Amal says as she sits in the bungalow that serves as the office of the women's committee.

"There is a lot to do here. I can change many things here."

Amal sees herself as no different from other young women her age. But she is different.

She is a social worker who will study next year in Canada. She reads such women's classics as Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own." She carries a cellular phone.

"What she is doing is revolutionary" in the context of her community, says Suraya Nujeidat, a Bedouin feminist and activist from the north of Israel.

Her difficulties are with the Islamic conservatives of the community who have become more outspoken in recent years.

For the second consecutive year, they objected to the annual Mother's Day program, even though it dates back 10 years.

In Laqiya, the celebration, formerly organized by men, now is the responsibility of the women's committee, to emphasize the important role women have in the family.

Last year, however, religious conservatives objected to the celebration because they viewed it as import from the West.

Amal was forced to cancel the event after local boys cut electricity to the village hall where it was to be held.

This year, Amal went on the offensive. She held the event at the school. She invited a religious woman to speak about the important role of women in Islam.

Muslim religion values women and gives them the same rights as men, Amal explains. Their jobs are different, but one is not better than the other.

"I have no problem with Islam. I love Islam," says Amal, the granddaughter of tribal judges and the niece of a member of the Israeli Parliament.

"I have a problem with people who interpret Islam in the wrong way, in a very narrow-minded and extremist way."

About half of the 120 women invited to the Mother's Day event this year attended -- much to Amal's delight.

The honored guests wore the long embroidered dresses traditional among Bedouin. Flowing white and black veils covered their heads as is customary for Muslim women.

Their daughters, including Amal, wore the long printed skirts and clunky shoes popular among the 20-something generation in Jerusalem.

They covered their heads, but with modern scarves.

"The things that Amal is doing are not against Shariah [Islamic law]," says Ahmad El-Sana, the head of the local Islamic committee, who also is Amal's uncle.

"The Prophet Mohammed said the reach for knowledge is a religious duty for every Muslim man and woman.

"Amal's duty is to use her knowledge for her society."

Still, Haija El-Sana, Amal's mother, worries for her daughter. She worries about the "harsh men" who may object to her activities.

"She is not helping herself. She is helping society," the mother says.

Amal does help herself, though, in some ways that push closer to the limits.

Last fall, an Italian anthropology student working in Laqiya invited Amal to Turino to meet with feminists there. According to Islamic law, a woman is forbidden to travel without a male relative.

Amal talked to her father. If it's good for your future, the father told her, then go.

"You will see how the West looks at us," he said.

Amal's uncle makes a point of explaining to an outsider that Amal's work and trips outside the village "are with the knowledge of her brother and father."

"It's a very hard task she takes upon herself," says Haia Noach, the executive director of the Shatil organization's Be'er Sheva office.

"It is a very traditional society. The status of women is very low. She is a magnificent woman. But you still need the support of your family around you."

In love, as in her daily life, Amal has also bucked convention. For the longest time, she thought she would never marry. She saw too many bright women succumb to the traditional roles of a spouse.

But while traveling in Italy, she visited Anwar, a childhood friend and former classmate attending law school there. She fell in love with him.

Upon her return to Laqiya, she spoke to her father about marrying Anwar.

He didn't tell her no, but he didn't tell her yes.

Determined, Amal recruited her uncle, brothers and friends of her father to lobby on her behalf.

It was a hard sell, but today, Amal wears a necklace with a silver charm that is half of a heart. Her betrothed wears the other half.

This last liberty set her sisters laughing: "What kind of girl tells her father she wants to marry?"

A girl who walks between raindrops.

Pub Date: 4/27/97

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