One wife isn’t enough... so they take two or three

Polygamyis­com­mon among Be­douin Arabs in the Negev. Now the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment wants to stamp down. But is it too late? Re­port by Si­mon Griver

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES -

AN IS­RAELI ARMY t r acker ki l l ed l a s t m o n t h whil e p a t r o l - ling the fence di­vid­ing Is­rael from Gaza was sur­vived by his seven chil­dren — and his two wives. On the day the sol­dier’s Jeep was blown up by a road­side bomb (his name was not re­leased at the re­quest of his fam­ily), he was due to re­turn home to the Be­douin set­tle­ment of Tel Arad, in the Negev desert, for a tra­di­tional Be­douin Mus­lim be­trothal cer­e­mony... to the wo­man pledged to be­come his third wife.

Al­though il­le­gal in Is­rael, polygamy is wide­spread among the Be­douin Arabs liv­ing in the Negev. Al­though no of­fi­cial fig­ures are avail­able, es­ti­mates sug­gest that any­where be­tween 25 per cent and 50 per cent of men in the 180,000-strong Negev Be­douin com­mu­nity have more than one wife.

Is­rael’s Min­istry of Wel­fare has just launched a pro­gramme to tackle polygamy. “The phe­nom­e­non has be­come an epi­demic,” says Wel­fare Min­is­ter Isaac Her­zog, “and its emo­tional, eco­nomic and so­cial im­pli­ca­tions on women and their chil­dren are un­bear­able.”

Kamla Abu Zeila, a film­maker and so­cial ac­tivist based in Ra­hat — Is­rael’s largest Be­douin town, with a pop­u­la­tion of over 50,000 — has made a doc­u­men­tary about polygamy called Please Give Me a Son. “Polygamy poi­sons an en­tire so­ci­ety,” she says. “The in­sult to a wo­man when her hus­band an­nounces he is tak­ing a new wife is dev­as­tat­ing. But much worse fol­lows over the years. The ri­valry be­tween wives and their chil­dren is rid­den with jeal­ous in­trigues, and the men suf­fer too.”

Be­douin men them­selves are re­luc­tant to go on record about mul­ti­ple mar­riages. When asked by the JC, sev­eral men po­litely de­nied that they had more than one wife — even though this was not the case — while oth­ers sim­ply re­fused to be in­ter­viewed.

One man launched an an­gry di­a­tribe against what he termed the hypocrisy of the West. “I don’t want to be part of an ar­ti­cle which is bi­ased against al­ter­na­tive Is­lamic life­styles,” he said. “In the West, men sim­ply take a mistress or a bit on the side, and if the sec­ond wo­man has chil­dren they deny pa­ter­nity claims. In our so­ci­ety, a man ideally takes care of all his women and chil­dren.”

An­other man in his mid-40s de­scribed his polyg­a­mous mar­riage as idyllic. “I re­cently took a young wife with the agree­ment of my first wife,” he said. “We are all very happy to­gether.”

Pro­fes­sor Elian al-Kari­nawi, head of the so­cial-work de­part­ment at Ben Gu­rion Univer­sity of the Negev, does not share this pos­i­tive view. His re­search com­par­ing polyg­a­mous and monog­a­mous fam­i­lies in the Negev sug­gests that the chil­dren of polyg­a­mous fam­i­lies have higher school drop-out rates, higher rates of crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity and more psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems, and the wives them­selves are more prone to de­pres­sion and have lower self-es­teem.

TheIs­raeligov­ern­ment’spro­gramme is of­fer­ing 150 polyg­a­mous Be­douin fam­i­lies coun­selling ses­sions as well as sem­i­nars on man­ag­ing house­hold ex­penses. The aim is to raise aware­ness of the so­cial, eco­nomic and psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems caused by polygamy. If it is ef­fec­tive, it will be ex­tended through­out the Negev.

Safa Schada, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Ma’an, the Fo­rum of Negev Be­douin Women’s Or­gan­i­sa­tions, de­scribes the gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts as too lit­tle too late. “We wel­come the ini­tia­tive, but a lot more re­sources and de­ter­mi­na­tion must be put into fight­ing polygamy if we are to solve the prob­lem,” she says.

Ma’anisanum­brel­laor­gan­i­sa­tion­for 12 grass­roots Be­douin ac­tivist groups. Its flag­ship project is the Be­douin Women’s Rights Cen­tre in Beer­sheva, which rep­re­sents Be­douin wives in civil courts and Sharia re­li­gious courts in claims, mainly eco­nomic, against their hus­bands. “Over 90 per cent of the nearly 100 cases we han­dled in 2007 in­volved the prob­lems re­sult­ing from polygamy,” ex­plains Ms Schada.

Polygamy is by no means unique to Is­lam. It was preva­lent among Jews in bib­li­cal times, and Jews in Mus­lim coun­tries per­sisted with the prac­tice will into the 20th cen­tury. Even as re­cently as the 1990s, im­mi­grant Jewish men from the Ye­men were ar­riv­ing in Is­rael with more than one wife.

Yeela Raanan, di­rec­tor of ex­ter­nal re­la­tions for the Re­gional Coun­cil of Un­recog­nised Negev Arab Vil­lages, notes that the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment has al­lowed in Jewish im­mi­grants with polyg­a­mous fam­i­lies, but has shown zero tol­er­ance to­wards Jews born in Is­rael who want more than one wife.

“In ef­fect, to tol­er­ate polygamy in the Be­douin sec­tor but not among Jews is a form of racism,” she in­sists. “The Is­raeli gov­ern­ment must also take some of the blame for polygamy which has grown enor­mously over the past gen­er­a­tion. Be­fore the es­tab­lish­ment of Is­rael, few Negev Be­douin could af­ford more than one wife, and polygamy was usu­ally the pre­serve of sheikhs. In the early years of the state, the Be­douin were ea­ger to be­come Is­raelis and adopt Is­raeli cul­tural norms, and polygamy was out of fash­ion. But the Be­douin feel re­jected and dis­crim­i­nated against by Is­raeli cul­ture and have moved back to tra­di­tion.”

Dr Raanan notes that polygamy is looked down upon as prim­i­tive by all the Arabs of Is­rael and Pales­tine, in­clud­ing the Be­douin of north­ern Is­rael.

But Farouk Am­rur, chair­man of the Beit Berl Jewish-Arab In­sti­tute, and a mem­ber of the steer­ing com­mit­tee for the new Min­istry of Wel­fare pro­gramme, does not want to see the gov­ern­ment pros­e­cut­ing bigamists.

“Many Be­douin men see mar­ry­ing an­other wo­man as an op­por­tu­nity for re­newal,” he says. “To strip them of this op­tion in one step is im­pos­si­ble.”

Suad Abu-Ajaj, 41, a Be­douin mother of nine from Ke­si­fya in the west­ern Negev, whose hus­band took a sec­ond wife two years ago (she re­fuses to re­veal his name), also urges cau­tion. “Some women be­come fem­i­nists and start mak­ing waves,” she says. “But Be­douin so­ci­ety is very con­ser­va­tive, and I don’t think rock­ing the boat is our way. I am bringingaboutchange­but­mores­lowly and more qui­etly, by giv­ing cour­ses to Be­douin women about health and ed­u­ca­tion. My eldest daugh­ter, Jas­mine, stud­ies science at univer­sity and she will have the right to choose who she wants to marry.”

PHOTO: ASAP CREATIVE

AC5K2F Iraq Life 2005 In the desert tri border re­gion of South­ern Iraq a be­douin fam­ily the man of the house as­sum­ing cen­tral posit

PHOTO: COUR­TESY OF NEW IS­RAEL FUND

Arab so­cial ac­tivist Kamla Abu Zeila: “Polygamy poi­sons so­ci­ety”

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