JERUSALEM – This past weekend I stayed with a woman in a town in the Negev desert, Rahat, who used her own hardship and lack of rights as an impetus to assist women in similar positions. Between jokes about hating the beards in Rahat and delicious tea, her story left me with a great deal of hope.
The Bedouins in Israel have lived in the Negev for generations, but have faced a great deal of issues under Israeli governance. With several villages living without recognition from the Israeli government, impermanent structures dominate the expanding landscape of the desert.
Beyond the poverty and racial issues provoked on the surface of this controversy, women face an especially difficult fate. Honor killings, in which family members kill women for such crimes as sex outside of marriage, go unreported, save for a blank grave away from the village. Men take multiple wives, and since this is illegal under Israeli law, the second and third wives technically don’t exist. This leads to several issues, especially for their children who need identification cards. Most marriages are arranged, and when they fail, men automatically gain full custody of the children.
In this disempowering landscape for women, Mona found her voice. Faced with losing her six children in a divorce, she fought for four years to gain joint custody. She was confronted with fierce opposition within her town, but her unpleasant experiences led her to create an organization, Amerat, for Bedouin women in the desert. While many noteworthy organizations offer women economic empowerment and improve quality of life, Mona has crossed into more controversial waters to challenge the destructive status quo in the region.
NGOs are often deterred from addressing cultural practices that violate human rights because of the values of multiculturalism and respect for traditions, but Amerat is taking on this daunting task with passion, and avoids such controversy with a grassroots approach. Mona’s bravery astounds me; as men claim that she isn’t a true Muslim and threaten her, she continues to protect and speak up for women in the area.
Just as I expressed wonder at the bravery of Women of the Wall, who work within Judaism to create reform, I am awestruck with Amerat’s valiant battle within Islam and the Bedouin community for equal rights for women.