Impressions of Israel
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Impressions of Israel

Laura Chavanne, Creative Director for Grand Circle Foundation, shares firsthand impressions of Lakia, Israel

We were a group of nine Grand Circle associates traveling together on a whirlwind tour of Israeli history and culture. We had already seen a good deal of the country, having come from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the shores of the Dead Sea. On the whole, I was impressed by how modern the country was—forward-thinking despite its respect for tradition.

In Lakia, I felt as though we'd traveled back in time

We arrived at the village via the highway that cuts through the Negev Desert, flanked by sand dunes and the occasional herd of goats. It was on this highway that we learned how a large percentage of Israeli Bedouins live: in sprawling roadside settlements comprised of makeshift houses, some of which are only slightly more substantial than tents. Because these settlements are not recognized by the government, the Bedouins who reside here have no status in Israel. And while previous generations of semi-nomadic Bedouins actually preferred to live outside of society, today, with modern civilization encroaching on their borders, they find themselves faced with the challenge of assimilating into a culture that has, quite literally, grown up without them.

Lakia is one of a handful of townships designed to address these challenges. Set up by the government in 1982, these villages provide Bedouins with homes, grazing land, and educational opportunities. More and more Bedouin men are gradually entering the urban workforce. Progress may be slow, but at least there is progress. Women, on the other hand, have greater obstacles to overcome. They have few marketable skills, and fewer opportunities to go out and acquire them. Many are not permitted by their husbands to leave the home to seek employment.

The Association for the Improvement of Women's Status in Lakia, the first organization of its kind in Israel, is a bastion of hope for Bedouin women who wish to advance their position in this traditionally patriarchal society. Founded by a team of four women in 1992, this NGO focuses on the ancient craft of embroidery to help women earn an income—and a sense of independence. We were privileged to speak with one of the founders, Naama Alsana, with the help of a translator. She explained that as many as 70 women have been employed here at one time, though that number has fluctuated during periods of political instability. Today, the association supports 50 women. At the beginning of each month, embroiderers visit the association to pick up supplies for new projects and drop off their completed work. Before they are paid for their efforts, they must complete one mandatory task: a lecture on women's rights, courtesy of the association.

While the association focuses primarily on adult women, Grand Circle Foundation has helped them extend their influence to the next generation. Through our Young Bedouin Women's Leadership Project, girls aged 14-18 are currently learning to speak English—a huge benefit for future employment in an area where the quality of Arab-English instruction in schools is notoriously poor. Further courses will include women's empowerment and college preparation.

Naama explained that there are now at least eight women's associations in the Negev Desert—which is promising news for Bedouin women as a whole. But upon hearing the stories of the women of Lakia, I was shocked and saddened by how much further they have to come. Naama is one of the lucky ones: she comes from a very liberal family—and as the granddaughter of a sheikh, she actually had the means to attend university. But even though her family supported her, she was excommunicated from her tribe. Today, she is fortunate to be married to a man from another tribe who understands the importance of her work. They have four children, including one daughter—who is studying accounting in college.

A more typical case would be that of Hassin, one of the association's cofounders. She explained to us that she has never been married—and likely never will be, as long as she continues her work at the association. She'd been briefly engaged to a man from another tribe, but her family forbade her to go through with the wedding. "This is still a 'macho' society," she explained. "I am an outsider. They believe I am doing something wrong by taking this path. So I will not marry within this community."

Some members of the community have resorted to far more dangerous methods to express their disapproval: back in 2005, the embroidery workshop at the women's association was burned to the ground. Evidence of scorching still remains on the sign outside the tent, a constant reminder that the journey for these women is far from over.

Despite their many challenges, Naama, Hassin, and their colleagues are more hopeful than ever. "We were on our own when we started," Naama says, "but now we are sure we can change things." The association has three male members, and schools have begun educating boys to think differently from a young age. The women have also founded a committee against polygamy in Bedouin society, and men are beginning to take notice. One woman was so furious when her husband took a second wife, she insisted upon a divorce—despite the fact that only men are traditionally allowed to make this request. Thanks to legal assistance provided by the women's association, her divorce was eventually granted.

Hassin, who has never been married to begin with, wouldn't have it any other way. "I don't even want to marry," she says. "Today, this is my life." Thanks to Hassin and her colleagues at the Association for the Improvement of Women's Status, Lakia is finally looking toward the future.

Featured in our March 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.