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Bedouin Women

By Hind Hajar Salman

Translated by Hind Husseini

The Bedouin community is an open society by nature. Since Bedouin “houses of hair” (tents) have no walls and the desert lacks fences, it is practically impossible to separate women and men, as is common in other urban or rural communities in Palestine. Furthermore, women participate alongside men in animal grazing and land cultivation. Thus, among Bedouins, the relationship between men and women is founded on understanding and trust. In addition, tribe members are generally connected by blood or kinship ties. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the entire tribe to maintain its good reputation and respect – rather than laying that weight only on the shoulders of women, as is prevalent in some other societies today.

A Bedouin judiciary rule states, “Women are honest and not liars.” This implies that they do not need proof to support the validity of their words, presuming they won’t risk damaging their reputation for no reason. In other words, in modern feminist terminology, “We believe the survivors.” Bedouin women’s independence and actions are determined by their standing within the tribe. For instance, in the absence of a tribe’s sheikh, his wife would manage the tribe’s affairs, and she had servants who served her and assisted her with household chores.

Prior to the Nakba, the Bedouins maintained an agrarian lifestyle. They relied on farming and raising livestock for their livelihood. Bedouin women were equal participants and played a significant role in daily life. They assisted men with farming, cattle grazing, and managing the family’s affairs. While the women of the tribe had to travel long distances to get water and gather firewood, these tasks also provided them with the opportunity to interact with one another, which served as an outlet.

After the Nakba, many of the most significant tasks Bedouin women had been in charge of were taken away from them. This included the making and maintaining of the “houses of hair.” Bedouin women were known for their skill in tent-making. It required shearing sheep to obtain wool or collecting camel and goat hair. These fibers had to be washed and purified before the women spun them into fine threads that they then used to weave large pieces of cloth. The process of making and maintaining the “houses of hair” was difficult and time-consuming. For example, women used to start weaving winter tents during the summer. Women were also in charge of adjusting the tent according to the direction of the wind. They used to assist each other in carrying out these activities, which created a social solidarity that no longer exists today.

The occupation altered the character of the Bedouin lifestyle, as Israel confiscated land, imposed forced urbanization by moving Bedouin communities to so-called “modern” towns, and adopted and implemented racist laws. For example, “houses of hair” were replaced by stone houses built by men because Israel passed a law that banned the raising of black goats – the hair of which women had used to weave their tents. Permanent houses furthermore prevent Bedouin women from direct contact with their surroundings and limit their responsibilities to child-raising and household chores.

Researchers who have studied the role that Bedouin women played in the past have concluded that it was a conventional role. Nonetheless, it was appropriate and acceptable given the historical, cultural, and environmental context in which Bedouin women lived at the time.

A woman in the traditional costume of Palestinian Bedouins who originally lived in the Bir al-Sabe’ area. They now live as refugees in Gaza, after having been forcibly expelled by Zionist gangs in 1948. Photo by Fadi Thabet.

“If the shop closes, we’ll go hungry” is a remark you may hear frequently from elderly Bedouin men who use this saying as a metaphor for the shift of Bedouin culture from a self-sufficient and production-oriented lifestyle to consumer-oriented dependency. “We were happy and enjoyed the bounty of our land, but we needed medical treatment and textiles,” says Hajja Ruqayyah Al-Sanea in a documentary film, indicating that Bedouins were self-sufficient and merely required health care services and clothing.

The confiscation of Bedouin lands and the forced relocation of Bedouins not only strongly altered their lifestyle but also interrupted their economic activities. Thus, women were obliged to change their responsibilities, adapt to new circumstances, and adjust to a new and unfamiliar work environment. As they had to consider pursuing new tasks, they were faced with the harsh reality of limited opportunities. The situation was exacerbated by the absence of an authority that cared about their needs and requirements, let alone the fact that they were unqualified for regular employment.

While everyday challenges and the harsh living conditions in the desert force Bedouin women to grow strong and resilient, Israeli-imposed changes significantly hamper women’s traditional connection with their environment and economic opportunities.

Customs, traditions, and cultural restraints frequently make it difficult for Bedouin women to work. They used to be self-sufficient, hardworking, and active in household economics. For example, women used to produce and sell dairy products and textiles. This is much less an option today due to Israeli access restrictions on grazing grounds and the resulting reduction in livestock rearing among Bedouins. Several obstacles prevent Bedouin women’s integration into the labor market, including practical constraints such as the lack of nearby workplaces, inadequate public transportation, a shortage of childcare facilities, and a poor education system.

Bedouins Without Borders has thus come up with the idea of holding women’s handicraft workshops. They aim to create job opportunities that are connected to Bedouin heritage and tradition. Focusing mostly on Bedouin handicrafts such as leatherwork and weaving, these crafts utilize materials that are available in the Bedouins’ environment and transform them into products with high marketability and modern usability while preserving the Bedouin culture. In addition, these workshops serve as a gathering place for women and provide an environment that is similar to their old way of life. Amina, one of the beneficiaries, explains that for her, the workshop is about exchanging new ideas with other women. She is happy to have acquired new skills and gained a source of income. Maryam, another beneficiary, appreciates that these gatherings allow her to slip away from the dreary routine of daily life.

  • Hind Hajar Salman serves as coordinator of the women’s program at Bedouins Without Borders. She is a political feminist activist and relationship life coach.

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