Be­douin women strive to end polygamy in Is­rael

• By MAYA MARGIT/The Me­dia Line

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • MAYA MARGIT/THE ME­DIA LINE

Af­ter decades of be­ing ac­cused of turn­ing a blind eye, Is­raeli author­i­ties are fi­nally be­gin­ning to crack down on polygamy in Be­douin so­ci­ety and, to this end, have is­sued 15 in­dict­ments against al­leged of­fend­ers. Though the prac­tice was crim­i­nal­ized in Is­rael in 1977 and is pun­ish­able by up to five years in prison, it has con­tin­ued mostly un­abated in Be­douin com­mu­ni­ties. One Arab-Is­raeli par­lia­men­tar­ian – Taleb Abu Arar (Joint List) – has made no se­cret of be­ing mar­ried to two women at the same time.

“It’s been dif­fi­cult to en­force the law, be­cause we’re talk­ing about a tra­di­tional so­ci­ety which for decades has car­ried on with their daily lives with­out [out­side in­ter­ven­tion],” Jus­tice Min­istry di­rec­tor-gen­eral Emi Pal­mor, who headed a com­mit­tee that pub­lished an ex­ten­sive re­port on the mat­ter, ex­plained to The Me­dia Line.

“The is­sue with polygamy is that it is some­thing border­ing on a re­li­gious cus­tom, so how can we get in­volved? I think the state avoided deal­ing with this be­cause it felt that it would be tread­ing on very in­ti­mate grounds. But in the end, in the past few years we’ve come to the re­al­iza­tion that we must en­force the law.”

More than 250,000 Be­douin, a sect of tribal, no­madic Mus­lim-Arabs, re­side in Is­rael, with the ma­jor­ity con­cen­trated in Ra­hat and vil­lages across the south­ern Negev Desert. While it is dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine ex­actly how wide­spread polygamy is, since not all Be­douin mar­riages are logged in of­fi­cial data­bases, re­cent gov­ern­ment fig­ures es­ti­mate that roughly 20% of all Be­douin fam­i­lies are polyg­a­mous.

In Jan­uary 2017, a min­is­te­rial com­mit­tee headed by Pal­mor was tasked with up­hold­ing Is­rael’s anti-polygamy law and pro­vid­ing help to those neg­a­tively af­fected. This past July, the com­mis­sion pub­lished a 315-page re­port rec­om­mend­ing tougher law en­force­ment, but which also ad­vo­cated for al­low­ing Sharia courts – based on Is­lamic law – to con­tinue reg­is­ter­ing polyg­a­mous unions un­der lim­ited cir­cum­stances. Civil mar­riages are not con­ducted in Is­rael and, as such, Sharia Courts are re­spon­si­ble for over­see­ing Mus­lim mar­riages and di­vorces.

Al­though no­body in Is­rael has thus far been con­victed of polygamy, Pal­mor ex­pects that to change. Nev­er­the­less, she noted that crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion is only one as­pect of a wider ap­proach by Jerusalem to ad­dress the is­sue.

“The gov­ern­ment’s rec­om­men­da­tions per­tain to ed­u­ca­tion, em­ploy­ment, treat­ment, wel­fare and health,” Pal­mor elab­o­rated. “The per­cep­tion is that we have to not only pros­e­cute peo­ple but also to ed­u­cate them, en­cour­age [higher] women’s em­ploy­ment rates and also set up frame­works for child­care to al­low women to work and thus be­come em­pow­ered.”

Last month, Jus­tice Min­is­ter Ayelet Shaked con­vened the min­is­te­rial com­mit­tee and or­dered the im­ple­men­ta­tion of its rec­om­men­da­tions. At the meet­ing it was re­vealed that hun­dreds of re­lated po­lice re­ports have al­ready been filed and that men in­volved in polyg­a­mous mar­riages will be barred from work­ing in the civil ser­vice and ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. Notably, the com­mit­tee em­pha­sized that there should be no ex­cep­tions to the rule, and that Sharia courts must com­ply; this, de­spite Pal­mor’s re­port call­ing for ex­emp­tions un­der cer­tain con­di­tions.

The push to erad­i­cate polygamy fol­lows ef­forts by many Be­douin ac­tivists who have spo­ken out against the con­tro­ver­sial prac­tice, like In­saf Abu Shareb, one of the com­mu­nity’s first fe­male at­tor­neys.

“I be­gan ad­dress­ing the is­sue af­ter I saw how harm­ful polygamy was to women, chil­dren and our so­ci­ety as a whole,” she said. “I could see how women’s spir­its were be­ing crushed and no­body paid at­ten­tion, as if Be­douin women were out­side of the pub­lic dis­course.”

Abu Shareb has for years lob­bied Is­raeli law­mak­ers to im­ple­ment stricter poli­cies with re­gard to the phe­nom­e­non, al­though she ar­gues that pros­e­cut­ing those who break the law is not the ul­ti­mate goal.

“You can’t solve this prob­lem only with en­force­ment,” Abu Shareb stressed. “Even though it’s an im­por­tant as­pect, pun­ish­ment is one side of things and has to be un­der­taken cor­rectly.”

Mar­ried at 14

Juli­ette Bader was only 14 years old when she was whisked away from her home in the Gaza Strip to Ra­hat, a Be­douin city in south­ern Is­rael. There, she be­came a man’s sec­ond wife and, in the en­su­ing years, birthed two sons. But the mar­riage was an un­happy one.

“I was al­ways cooking and with the kids at home,” Bader re­called. “I didn’t have the pos­si­bil­ity of go­ing out to study. From be­ing a girl, I [im­me­di­ately] be­came a mother, and it was very hard. I didn’t know what a boy was and sud­denly I had two of my own.”

Less than three years af­ter her wed­ding, Bader de­cided to divorce her hus­band. Even­tu­ally, she re­mar­ried, this time to a sin­gle man, but her child­hood ex­pe­ri­ence has marked her for­ever.

“There are only two rea­sons a woman would agree to her hus­band mar­ry­ing a sec­ond woman: ei­ther she doesn’t love him, or she wants to get rid of him be­cause he’s driv­ing her crazy,” she con­tended. “There is no woman who wants to see her hus­band with an­other woman.”

Now 38 and the mother of seven chil­dren, Bader runs a vis­i­tor cen­ter in Ra­hat, con­ducts guided tours of the city, and gives cooking work­shops. She is one of a grow­ing cho­rus of women liv­ing in Be­douin com­mu­ni­ties to speak out against polygamy.

What does Is­lam say?

Though polygamy pre­dates Is­lam, it is sanc­tioned in the Ko­ran. In fact, un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances men are per­mit­ted to marry up to four women.

“The Ko­ran lays out con­di­tions for polygamy,” Muham­mad Alku­ran, an imam from a mosque in the Be­douin town of Ku­seifa, ac­knowl­edged to The Me­dia Line. “For in­stance, when there is a war and many men are killed, lots of or­phans are left. In this con­text, when there are fewer men [in the over­all pop­u­la­tion], a man is al­lowed to take a sec­ond wife.”

Ac­cord­ing to Alku­ran, one of the stip­u­la­tions in Is­lamic scrip­ture is that a man with mul­ti­ple spouses must be “equal and fair” with all of them, or else suf­fer di­vine ret­ri­bu­tion.

“Un­for­tu­nately, the ma­jor­ity of men who to­day have sev­eral wives in truth set a very neg­a­tive ex­am­ple,” Alku­ran con­ceded. “The man some­times be­comes a vic­tim of this prac­tice, if not him then his first wife, if not her then the sec­ond wife, if not her then it is the chil­dren who suf­fer from his de­ci­sion.”

Polygamy: An op­por­tu­nity for in­de­pen­dence?

Some Be­douin women ar­gue that polygamy is not in­her­ently harm­ful and al­lows di­vor­cées, wid­ows or older women to find com­pan­ion­ship or even gain in­de­pen­dence. For Eh­lam Abu Ja­far, a so­cial ac­tivist and en­tre­pre­neur in Ra­hat, be­ing a sec­ond wife en­abled her to re­ceive an ed­u­ca­tion and pur­sue a ca­reer.

“In the be­gin­ning, my fam­ily was very much against the idea of get­ting mar­ried to some­one who al­ready had a wife,” Abu Ja­far re­lated to The Me­dia Line. “But it was my choice.

“I feel as though I’m dif­fer­ent from oth­ers in the com­mu­nity be­cause I live in peace,” she con­tin­ued. “You can’t tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween my chil­dren and [the first wife’s chil­dren]. We eat to­gether, we go out to­gether. They live next door and come over freely. We live a nor­mal life.”

Abu Ja­far, who at the age of 35 be­gan study­ing and even­tu­ally grad­u­ated with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree, works in Ra­hat’s bur­geon­ing tourism in­dus­try.

“We di­vide things this way: One day my hus­band is here, the next he’s with the other wife,” she re­vealed. “If to­day he’s here with me, he eats din­ner, sleeps, goes to work the next morn­ing and comes back to his sec­ond fam­ily, but he stills sees all the chil­dren.”

De­spite the mostly pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, Abu Ja­far does not want her daugh­ters to fol­low in her foot­steps. “It’s very dif­fi­cult and I don’t rec­om­mend it at all.”

Abu Ja­far may be an ex­cep­tion to the rule be­cause, as Abu Shareb and oth­ers point out, women in polyg­a­mous mar­riages of­ten suf­fer from do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, sex­ual as­sault or de­pres­sion. For these rea­sons, many ar­gue that the gov­ern­ment must put a to­tal stop to the prac­tice.

“A lot of women don’t have any other choice,” Yarona Richard­son, an ex­pert on Be­douin so­cial and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment who works in the Negev De­vel­op­ment Author­ity, said. “If they’re too old or if they want to have a child, there’s no such thing as chil­dren out­side of mar­riage in Be­douin so­ci­ety. [A Be­douin woman] can’t go to a sperm bank, so there’s no al­ter­na­tive.

“My big­gest crit­i­cism is to­ward the gov­ern­ment,” she as­serted. “Al­though they say ‘We’re against it,’ and al­though we’re in a demo­cratic coun­try and it’s ac­tu­ally il­le­gal, they still haven’t found a way to re­ally [demon­strate] zero tol­er­ance to­wards it.”

(Il­lus­tra­tive; Photos: Vic­tor Cabr­era)

STREET SCENE in Ra­hat, a Be­douin city in the south­ern Negev.

JULI­ETTE BADER speaks to some of her chil­dren at her Ra­hat home.

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