We in the Bedouin community do not normally discuss sensitive issues like polygamy with the general Israeli public. We have already seen that any interest that may exist among Jewish Israelis in this subject extends only to the "demographic" implications of multiple marriages among the Bedouin.

But the topic is important on a purely human level, and needs to be placed on the public agenda, because it is something that hurts us, the female members of the country's Arab population. In fact, it is something that should interest the entire public, which rarely knows much about what's going on next door, among the Arab citizens of the state.

Unfortunately, nearly every Bedouin woman in the Negev is at risk of becoming a "first wife" if we don't take action against the phenomenon.

The conventional assumption about polygamy is that it is permitted in Islam. It is essential, however, to be precise about the source of the sanction in Islamic law. Hence, while there is multiple marriage that is permitted by the faith, in most cases today, the practice is being followed for social reasons alone, with no connection to the religion.

First, it must be said that Islam gives women many rights, and even commands men to treat them with compassion and love. Second, it is clear that the divine logic regarding polygamy derives from humanitarian motives, and is connected to existing social circumstances in any given historical period. Sura 4 ("The Women"), verse 3, in the Koran relates clearly to the question of polygamy: "And if you fear that you cannot act equitably toward orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice [between them], then [marry] only one or what your right hands possess. This is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course."

Which is to say, polygamy is sanctioned only in the cases of widows whose children have been orphaned by such events as war. These women can be taken as second wives so that their children will be cared for and protected. The verse goes on to declare that if a man is unable to treat both his wives equally, in both material and emotional terms, he shouldn't marry a second time. It also suggests that even if a man tries to behave in an egalitarian manner, he won't succeed, which can be interpreted as practically ruling out multiple marriages as an option.

Furthermore, there are additional restrictions on a second marriage, which can take place only if the first wife is incurably ill, or is unable to bear children. Additionally, both the husband and the wife must agree to such an arrangement.

Unfortunately, there is a very wide gap between the very specific guidelines laid down by the Muslim religion and the reality that prevails among the Bedouin population of the Negev. According to studies and surveys, the incidence of polygamy among the Arab population of Israel stands at about 30 percent of all marriages, and includes educated sectors of the population. They can be divided into two categories.

In general, Bedouin custom dictates that men and women marry within their own tribe, and virtually all marriages are arranged. Within this context, the most common cases of multiple marriage involve men who were compelled at a young age to marry a woman they had not chosen, so as to allow their older sisters to marry the brother of the bride. This act saves the sister from remaining perpetually single and guarantees her "defense" (sutra, in Arabic). After a number of years, the man may get to know and fall in love with an educated woman, someone who is his intellectual equal, and she will become his second wife.

Among women, such cases frequently involve educated ones who haven't been permitted to marry outside their tribe. Eventually, they are left with two alternatives: to remain single or to enter into an arranged marriage. Because of their advanced age, and the relative freedom they know that being married will afford them, they will agree to be wed to a man who already has a wife. Both the men and women in these two examples are victims of tribal rules and traditions that are hard to shake off.

The second category is more worrisome, and involves men who marry a second (or third, or even fourth) time simply out of a desire for "sexual variety" or to feel young again, or perhaps even for financial reasons. Islam refers to such marriages as "marriages of pleasure" (mut'ah, in Arabic), and explicitly forbids them.

Marriage to more than one person at a time is illegal in the State of Israel, yet for 60 years the law has not been enforced because, as officials explain (unofficially), Israel has no interest in interfering with Bedouin life or customs. Hence, Bedouin women may be victims of patriarchalism on one side, and of the law on the other. What point is there to laws from which an entire community is exempt? What good is a law that is unable to defend a woman from abuse by her own community? Not to mention the fact that Bedouin women don't dare appeal to the authorities for help, for fear that their children will be taken from them.

As a Bedouin-Arab woman in Israel, I have watched as such "marriages of pleasure" have become established. I have been witness to women's helplessness before the phenomenon, and even to the tensions that it creates both between the wives and between their children, in addition to the economic and emotional neglect they experience.

The solution, I would submit, is for the Bedouin to allow marriages outside of tribal borders, a measure that should limit the number of women who feel compelled to save themselves by wedding already-married men.

Over the past two years, a number of Bedouin women's organizations in the Negev have tried to come out against the phenomenon of polygamy, whether by raising awareness of the issue within the community via conferences, or by using religious dialogue as a way of moderating it. But in each case, they have been met by merciless attacks from religious officials, who continue to promote the practice by comparing our situation to that of the states in the West. Their argument is that, if in the West, there is prostitution, then "at least in Arab society, we do it via legal marriages."

Sadly, it is statements like that that simply legitimize the institutionalization of "marriage for pleasure." For this reason, I call on all those who care about the welfare of the Bedouin community to take action on the matter.

Dr. Sarab Aburabia-Queder is a lecturer at the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research of Ben-Gurion University, and a feminist activist in the Bedouin community.