Be­duin dig in against gov­ern­ment’s in­ten­tion to crack down on polygamy

The Jerusalem Post - - NEWS - By BEN LYNFIELD

The first ma­jor step in what the gov­ern­ment vows will be a ma­jor crack­down on polygamy among the Be­duin has touched off an an­gry re­sponse from that com­mu­nity’s lead­ers, who dis­trust the mo­tives be­hind the cam­paign.

Polygamy has been il­le­gal in Is­rael since 1977, but in prac­tice, author­i­ties have looked the other way. How­ever, in Jan­uary, Jus­tice Min­is­ter Ayelet Shaked, cit­ing polygamy’s dele­te­ri­ous ef­fect on Be­duin women and chil­dren, spear­headed a cabi­net plan to com­bat the phe­nom­e­non, in­clud­ing the pros­e­cu­tion of of­fend­ers.

Last month, the first such in­dict­ment was is­sued in the Beer­sheba Mag­is­trate’s Court, send­ing shock waves through the Be­duin com­mu­nity, where the per­cent­age of men mar­ry­ing more than one wife is es­ti­mated by women’s-rights groups to be around 40%.

Atiyeh al-Asam, head of the Re­gional Coun­cil of Un­rec­og­nized Be­duin Vil­lages in the Negev, said on Wed­nes­day: “Ayelet Shaked is not con­cerned about Be­duin women and chil­dren. If she was re­ally con­cerned about their well-be­ing, she wouldn’t sup­port the de­mo­li­tion of hun­dreds of homes” in un­rec­og­nized vil­lages, where it is im­pos­si­ble to get per­mits to build legally.

The real rea­son Shaked is crack­ing down on polygamy is to curb Be­duin pop­u­la­tion growth, Asam said. “She’s afraid of the de­mo­graphic threat of ris­ing Arab pop­u­la­tion,” he said.

“We as a Be­duin com­mu­nity have a right to have chil­dren,” Asam said. “No one can en­force on us how many chil­dren we have. Is­rael is in­ter­fer­ing in our cul­ture and in­ter­nal tra­di­tions. Po­lice in­ter­fer­ence is out of place. It is in­ter­fer­ing in our re­li­gious and Is­lamic morals.”

To the wives su­per­seded by their hus­band’s bigamy, the tak­ing of an­other wife can cause them to “come apart psy­cho­log­i­cally,” said In­saf Abu Shareb, head of the Beer­sheba-based NGO Itach-Maaki, which aids vic­tims.

“Women have to take med­i­ca­tions and re­ceive psy­chi­atric fol­low-up for de­pres­sion,” she said. “Women de­scribe it as a knife in the heart, a wound that bleeds for­ever. Some re­ported sui­cide at­tempts.”

“All the re­spon­si­bil­ity for the chil­dren is on their shoul­ders – the woman is made re­spon­si­ble alone for rais­ing and sup­port­ing the chil­dren,” Abu Shareb said. “The chil­dren are also in­flu­enced by aban­don­ment by the fa­ther and his ne­glect of them. This is a trau­matic event the women and chil­dren can’t over­come. Women re­port short­ages of ba­sic food and of money for med­i­ca­tions.”

But the prac­tice is still widely ac­cepted. Amal Abu Thoum, di­rec­tor of the Be­duin Women’s So­ci­ety in Segev Shalom town­ship, stressed that polygamy is al­lowed un­der Is­lamic re­li­gious law, pro­vided the man treats his wives equally.

“The [new] gov­ern­ment pol­icy is un­just and very racist,” Abu Thoum said. “This war is against us as hu­mans. They want to fight nat­u­ral pop­u­la­tion growth in Be­duin so­ci­ety. I don’t feel threat­ened by an­other woman. What threat­ens me is de­mol­ish­ing homes, no job op­por­tu­ni­ties and not hav­ing ed­u­ca­tional fa­cil­i­ties for our sons. The prob­lem isn’t polygamy, it’s racist treat­ment.”

Shaked was trav­el­ing abroad and could not be reached for com­ment. But the Jus­tice Min­istry Spokesman’s Of­fice quoted her as say­ing in the past: “The phe­nom­e­non of polygamy harms first of all the Be­duin women and con­tra­venes the val­ues and foun­da­tions of the state as a demo­cratic state.”

Shaked’s plan cited “a high rate of child ne­glect, vi­o­lence against women, poverty and un­sound re­la­tion­ships in the fam­ily” due to polygamy.

The in­dict­ment charged a 36-year-old man with tak­ing a sec­ond wife in an ar­ranged mar­riage. Meital Olek-Amouyal, spokes­woman for the Jus­tice Min­istry’s South­ern Dis­trict, said the po­lice had opened ad­di­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tions of sus­pected polygamy vi­o­la­tions, but she did not know whether in­dict­ments would be is­sued in those cases as well. Only new cases – those opened after the cabi­net de­ci­sion – would be sub­ject to pros­e­cu­tion, she said.

“The trend is to in­ves­ti­gate and to in­dict if there is enough ev­i­dence,” Olek-Amouyal said. “Ac­tion is be­ing taken on polygamy not only on the crim­i­nal level but also in the civil­ian and ed­u­ca­tional realms. It is an over­all war against this phe­nom­e­non and an ef­fort to change things.”

The cabi­net de­ci­sion spec­i­fied that to com­bat polygamy, La­bor and So­cial Ser­vices Min­is­ter Haim Katz should en­deavor to cre­ate more em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties for Be­duin women, Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Naf­tali Ben­nett should in­cor­po­rate ed­u­ca­tion against polygamy in the school sys­tem, and Health Min­is­ter Ya’acov Litz­man should work on pro­vid­ing ser­vices to polyg­a­mous fam­i­lies. In ad­di­tion, a team in­clud­ing of­fi­cials, ex­perts and com­mu­nity ac­tivists was set up to for­mu­late ac­tion plans for deal­ing with polygamy.

One of the team’s mem­bers is NGO di­rec­tor Abu Shareb. “I am very sus­pi­cious of Shaked’s in­ten­tions, but that won’t pre­vent me from act­ing,” she said. “I want to make sure that what is done is for the ben­e­fit of the women. I think the phe­nom­e­non of polygamy needs to be ad­dressed through an over­all civil plan in­clud­ing all in­sti­tu­tions and ser­vice providers. Decades of crim­i­nal ne­glect can­not be reme­died by le­gal en­force­ment alone.”

(Am­mar Awad/Reuters)

WOMEN PRE­PARE tra­di­tional flat bread in the Be­duin vil­lage of Umm al-Hi­ran, north­east of Beer­sheba.

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