A group of women in black embroidered dresses weave and stitch colorful homemade designs for scarves, tunics and wall-hangings in a workshop room next to a woven Bedouin tent. It’s a comfortable atmosphere, and the women laugh, chat and offer advice to each other as they work. “Our workplace looks a lot like a family,” says Huda Alsana with a smile. Alsana, a Bedouin, works at Desert Embroidery, the flagship project of the Association for the Improvement of the Status of Women of Lakiya, an NGO based in a rural village in southern Israel.
The 46-year-old is one of a small but growing number of Bedouin women entrepreneurs in the Negev, the desert region that covers more than half of Israel. The Negev is home to some 177,000 Bedouin, who mostly live in towns and settlements unrecognized by the Israeli government, which is methodically demolishing them in order to move the ethnic group to official “settlements” elsewhere in the country. With little to no access to public services, Israel’s Bedouin are recognized as the most economically disadvantaged community in the country.
Women were traditionally at the core of Bedouin economic life. But with the transition from a nomadic agrarian existence to urban living consolidating the men’s role as breadwinners, women were no longer expected to contribute to their family’s income. However, recent business projects launched and run by Bedouin women aim to reestablish their position. “In 1996, we became the first association helping improve the status of Bedouin women in the Negev, starting with employment. We are a very conservative and patriarchal society, where men control everything. That’s why we established this group,” Alsana says.
Today, their embroidery program empowers around a dozen Bedouin women by generating income for their families while preserving their traditional handicrafts, which would otherwise be slowly subsumed by modernity. Their business venue also operates as a leadership center, offering lectures and workshops on business entrepreneurship and more. “Coming home after work, I tell my four sons and two daughters about the importance of gender equality. I think it’s important to make younger Bedouin generations aware of this,” Alsana says.
Gaining financial independence in the male-dominated Bedouin society is often viewed as a dangerous way of bucking convention. Alsana is aware of this, but she considers herself lucky by comparison. “Both my husband and my father have always showed support and praised my entrepreneurial spirit,” she says.
For other Bedouin women, however, the path to financial independence has not been so painless. In 2006, Suheila Abu-Rkeek began working at Desert Daughter, an online shop launched by her sister Mariam, which sells natural Bedouin cosmetics using their grandmother’s techniques and materials. “Many husbands didn’t want my sister to hang around their wives, because her resourcefulness was seen as dangerous,” Suheila says. Her husband was one of them. He did not want her to work, and forced her to choose between work and family. The two ended up separating.
However, Suzan Hasan, director of employment programs and career advancement for Arabs at JDC, an Israeli employment organization for religious minorities, believes such stories are becoming less common. “As a Bedouin woman myself, I see current barriers coming more from outside – such as Israeli employers – than from within the local community,” she says.
The organization she works for runs vocational programs for Arab women aged 25–40. Some 45 percent of them find a job within a year and a half of finishing their training. Most women work in “traditional” fields, such as cooking or embroidery. “They do what they know best, and where it’s easier for them to find employment. Lack of opportunities doesn’t allow them to work in less stereotypical fields, but that’s a start,” Hasan concludes. “In the Negev villages, women entrepreneurship is more difficult. To run successful and socially accepted businesses, it’s better for these women to work from home.”
Despite the fierce opposition they faced, Desert Daughter’s story inspired others to follow their lead and open home-based businesses, in areas such as hospitality, tourism and handicrafts, in the Negev. After working for her sister and learning the basics of business management, Suheila Abu-Rkeek decided to open her own Bedouin hospitality business a year ago. “At the beginning it was hard. There was a lot of competition because many Bedouin women opened food businesses. I would manage to sell only two meals a month. Then my daughter told me about this thing called Instagram,” she says, showing me pictures of food on her business account. Thanks to social media, the word spread and she began making meals and organizing Bedouin culture nights for groups of tourists venturing into the Israeli desert.
With political tensions increasing the threat to Bedouin villages in recent months, including Tel Sheva, where the Abu-Rkeek sisters live and run their businesses, their workplace – repurposed from their brother’s old garage and tent – risks being demolished by government forces.
But Suheila doesn’t seem too worried and keeps working hard to expand her business. She hopes her story of struggle against patriarchal norms will motivate more Bedouin women to believe in themselves and their financial potential. “In the next year, I see myself as a more established business owner, fluent in English and with a driving license, hopefully officially divorced and helping other women advocate for their right to work,” she says.
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Jerusalem Press Club.