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

By Simon Griver, April 24, 2008

Polygamy is common among Bedouin Arabs in the Negev. Now the Israeli government wants to stamp down. But is it too late? An Israeli army tracker killed last month while patrolling 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. The Israeli government’s programme 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’an is an umbrella organisation for 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 bringing about change but more slowly 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.”

Last updated: 3:17pm, May 20 2008