A life's journey

Nur knew that as a Bedouin—an Arab nomad—living­ in poverty in Israel’s Negev desert, the likelihood of going to university was remote. As a woman, it was almost unheard of. Tribal norms and finances ruled it out.

So the 18-year-old applied in secret to Ben-Gurion University—and was accepted.
Nur (a pseudonym) knew that she needed her father’s permission to go and that he had denied it.

Only when, one evening, a lecturer from the university visited Nur’s father in their home—an encampment with no running water and electricity—did he change his mind. It was then that Nur became one of the first women of the 16-centuries-old Negev Bedouin to go to university.

That was 20 years ago. Today, the education of Negev Bedouin girls is going through an unprecedented and dramatic transformation—thanks in part to pioneering women like Nur.

Back in the 1980s, many Negev Bedouin girls would be taken out of school at the age of 12 to help their mothers at home. By puberty, many families who had not done so already removed their daughters from school. Although this still goes on, the numbers finishing school and going on to university are now in their hundreds.

Records from Adva, an Israeli policy­ analysis centre, show that out of a population of an estimated 160 000 Negev Bedouins in 1987—of whom half are thought to be female—no Negev Bedouin woman was at Ben-Gurion University. The university is one of five in Israel and the nearest for the Negev Bedouin.

A decade later, fewer than 50 Bedouin women were enrolled at the university. Last year almost 250 were on degree or teacher-training courses.

The previous year, the first Bedouin woman from the Negev, Rania al-Oqbi, graduated in medicine and the first, Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder, was awarded a PhD. She is now a visiting fellow at the Centre for Gender Studies at Oxford University and has a book on Negev Bedouin women’s experiences at university in Israel out later this year.

Abu-Rabia-Queder predicts that the number of Negev Bedouin women at university will more than double by the end of the next decade. She says their seemingly sudden embrace of higher education is in part down to a group of about 20 women, like Nur and herself, who pushed the boundaries of what tribal leaders deemed acceptable in the 1970s and 1980s.

Crucially, these women had supportive fathers. A Bedouin woman’s education is at her father’s discretion. Single Bedouin women should not leave the home without the company of their brother or father. Nur’s father ran a considerable risk of estrangement from his tribe when he let his daughter attend university. To avoid shame, he arranged for her 14-year-old nephew to walk her home if classes ran past sunset.

The work of NGOs and of Ben-Gurion University, particularly its centre for Bedouin studies and development, have also played a critical role in encouraging Negev Bedouin women to go to university.

For the past decade these organisations have coached bright girls, who have gone to poorly resourced schools with untrained teachers, in the skills they need to secure a university place. They have then offered them scholarships.

Changes in Bedouin life

Radical changes to Negev Bedouin life have also enabled these women to experience university.

While it is still correct to define the Bedouin as traditionally nomadic, it is no longer strictly true for all. Some still live in tents and keep strong ties to herds of sheep and camels, but others now are in permanent housing.

About 40% of Negev Bedouin live in permanent villages and townships. Salem El-Sana of Ben-Gurion University says: “There has been a significant shift in traditional attitudes toward education in general, and education of females in particular.” Thirty years ago, only the “Shaykhs”—the sons of those connected with the authorities—could go to school.

Yet, it would be very wrong to give the impression of prosperity and of widespread education. More than half the Negev Bedouin population live in villages that are not recognised by the state and do not appear on maps. They survive without clinics, electricity, welfare and running water. It has been estimated that they live on half the per-capita income, have twice the number of children and half the living space of the average Israeli household.

Janine Givati-Teerling, of Sussex University’s centre for migration research, says Negev Bedouin are repressed by the Israeli state and “live on its margins”.

Adva statistics from five years ago show that 75% of Negev Bedouin—men and women—in the unrecognised villages had no education at all and were illiterate. The figure was 25% for the recognised villages. About 90% of Negev Bedouin girls in the unrecognised villages dropped out of school at 13 or 14. The figure was 60% in the recognised villages. This compared with just 10% of the Jewish population and 20% of the Arab population in Israel.

Aref Abu-Rabi’a of Ben-Gurion University says there are simply not enough schools in the desert, and these are of “poor quality”.

“The need to pay for all the expenses of a child at school is usually a very heavy burden on Bedouin parents,” he says. “Those who finish school often obtain only low-paying employment.”

Faced with such disadvantages it seems all the more remarkable that hundreds of Negev Bedouin girls are managing to go to university.

Campus experience

What is life on campus like for them? When quizzed by Ben-Gurion University in December 2006, 65% of female Negev Bedouin students said they had been “more or less cordially treated by students at the university”. Almost a third said they had not received good treatment. More than a quarter said their economic situation during their studies was bad or very bad.

Abu-Rabia-Queder says she was “quite lonely” when she started university: “There were only eight Negev Bedouin women.” But she has never regretted going. “I feel a university education has given me a lot of power and knowledge about the outside world. I now teach Jews and Arabs about the Bedouin. My university education is a weapon to use in front of the establishment. I know my rights better.”

Do their Bedouin brothers and tribal leaders see these girls as shunning the tribe’s way of life?

On the contrary. Female Negev Bedouin graduates speak of an escalation in their social status as a result of their university degree. They say they are treated with more respect, have more authority and are seen as community decision-makers and role models. Many now give public lectures to their villages on education and on physical and mental health.

“There has absolutely not been the feeling that a university degree, or a PhD, was not right for a woman,” says Abu-Rabia-Queder.—Â

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