'We Have More Women Than Men'

Siah Altori, 57, who lives in an unrecognized Negev Bedouin town and has four wives, says, "our religion allows us to have four wives, The logic is that it is shameful in Bedouin tradition for a women not to have a husband. If she wants to work or study, it's a problem for her to go alone to these places if she isn't married. We have more women than men, especially because many are marrying Russian women, or women from the North. So we have to make sure women have a livelihood and a home."

Altori says state intervention will not turn the tide against polygamy. Sheikh Sami Abu Farakh, from Rahat, said Islam allows polygamy as long as the women are treated with equality. "It's a right and not an obligation," he said. He said if Bedouin society had an equal number of men and women, polygamy would not be necessary. He believes state intervention is "a way of saying that the Bedouin need to be educated," which angers him.

In contrast, Mona Al-Habanin, of Rahat, director of the Desert Princess association for Bedouin women's rights, says polygamy lowers women's status, and that the use of religion to defend the practice was a "distortion" of religious interpretation. "It says it can be done if there is equality, but there cannot be equality."

Al-Habanin also says supposed concern for women is not really behind the practice. "Mostly men don't take women who are older, divorced or widowed as their second wife . They take young women, for their pleasure." Many such women are for all intents and purposes single parents, but the state does not recognize them as such, she says.

Al-Habanin's associate, Sarah, who asked that her real name not be used, agreed with her. Men use polygamy as a threat, Sarah says. "If you don't do this and that, I'll take another wife, the man says," she said.