Bedouin women forge new territory as university students

beersheba | Every morning, Hana’a Abokaf leaves her village on the slopes of the Negev Desert, where electricity is powered by a generator, and camels and goats graze near cinderblock and tin houses.

Abokaf, 20, rides the bus to the university where she is a first-year medical student.

She is part of a revolution of sorts in her deeply conservative Bedouin community: Abokaf is among some 250 Bedouin female students now enrolled at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

In recent years the school has made attracting and retaining Bedouin students, many of them female, a top priority.

“I always wanted to be a doctor,” a smiling Abokaf says, her lavender and black headscarf fastened tightly over her hair.

It’s a bold statement, as Bedouin women usually stay at home to raise children. They often are not encouraged to complete their schooling; more than half of Israel’s female Bedouin are illiterate.

Growing up, Abokaf says, she noted the need for Bedouin doctors in her community when her grandmother became ill and found it difficult to communicate with the Hebrew-speaking doctors, who were from a different culture.

Other gaps, some striking, exist between the Bedouin and the rest of Israeli society.

Bedouin families tend to be large — 10 children is not uncommon — and are among the country’s poorest and most-neglected populations. In their gradual transition from a nomadic to a more urban lifestyle, they have faced major challenges.

Their communities have high rates of crime and unemployment. Bedouins have considerably worse health and education services than their fellow Israelis. And their infrastructure can be appalling or even nonexistent, especially in “unrecognized villages” such as the one where Abokaf lives.

(Unrecognized villages is the term used for Bedouin areas that Israeli authorities do not officially acknowledge. Israel does not provide these areas with basic services, hoping that families will agree to move to one of the “recognized” Bedouin villages and towns in the Negev.)

Abokaf’s friend, Siham Elmour, 19, also studies medicine. She considers herself fortunate because her family has supported her decision. “My father knows my life will be one of study, but the family also knows it is something that will be helpful in the world,” says Elmour, one of 11 children.

Her family also hopes she will close some of the gaps between Bedouin society and the rest of Israel. Elmour and three of her sisters — also students at Ben-Gurion — are among the new wave of confident and educated young Bedouin women.

Elmour says she believes that growing up under difficult circumstances may foster the urge to make a difference.

“We are going to try to solve the problems because we come from within the culture,” she says.

The Center for Bedouin Studies and Development at Ben-Gurion helps coordinate the university experience for students. It is charged with advancing higher education among the Bedouin, and provides scholarships, counseling and special university-preparation programs for high school students and graduates.

Established a decade ago with the help of Robert Arnow, a New York City real estate developer and former chairman of the university’s board, the center also aims to promote academic research about the Bedouins.

With a population of 200,000, the Bedouins comprise one-quarter of the total Negev population.

“For an American Jew to be identified with Bedouins in the Negev is very important,” Arnow said at a ceremony this summer marking the institute’s 10th birthday. “It has to do with values, Jewish values.”

The university has gone from having almost no Bedouin students 20 years ago to 420 male and female Bedouin students today. Before 1990 there was only one female graduate student. Since 2000, many more have gone on to do graduate work.

Its first female Bedouin student to graduate as a medical doctor, Dr. Rania Okabi, is now doing her residency in obstetrics and gynecology, hoping to increase the presence of Bedouin women in the health field.

Most female Bedouin students focus on the humanities and social sciences, though the school is trying to spark interest in science and technology.

More Bedouin students need to learn scientific fields, said center director Ismael Abu-Saad. The center hopes to increase the number of Bedouin students preparing for such professions as nursing, physical therapy and social work — all much-needed services in their communities.

Abokaf and many of her Bedouin peers often study at the university’s main library using its books and computers (electricity can be scarce in their villages). Some students described having to study by candlelight at home and being asked to help with younger siblings instead of focusing on their studies.

Saffa Algaar, 23, is one of two female Bedouin students in the geography department. Families have been reluctant to let their daughters major in the subject because it involves field trips, some of them overnight, to various parts of the country.

Algaar says family members have backed her academic choice. “They let me go but they don’t stop calling [on her cell phone], asking, ‘Where are you? What are you doing? When will you be coming home?'” she says.