Are Bedouin Women Taking on Male-dominated Sheep Farming?

Rahat Mayor Faiz Abu Sahiban says women should stick to helping their husbands, raising children.

The winds of change are blowing through Israel's Bedouin sector. For hundreds of years, Bedouin men tended their flocks, while women cooked and raised the children.

Now a new initiative is threatening to disrupt this ancient balance. A joint venture between the Agriculture Ministry and the Danish Foreign Ministry will teach women from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan to raise flocks of dairy sheep and develop sheep's milk product businesses. This idea, however is facing stiff opposition from the mayor of the Bedouin town of Rahat, who contends that women are to help their husbands only in educating their children.

There are some 2,400 sheep farms in Israel, with about 520,000 sheep and goats. The farms are owned by about 550 Jewish farmers and about 1,850 minority group farmers. In 2006, the sheep and goat sector was estimated at about NIS 740 million. In light of these figures, the Agriculture Ministry decided to teach women how to profit from their livestock. The purpose of the special course, which opened Tuesday in the Ramat Negev Regional Council with 15 students, is to promote and preserve the regional culture of sheep farming in the Middle Eastern countries, while focusing on teaching women the best way to raise, tend and milk sheep, and how to recognize and treat the most common sheep illnesses. The women will also learn how to establish small dairies. This initiative, however, which challenges the Bedouin lifestyle, is not viewed kindly by the conservative forces in this sector, who oppose the idea of women becoming involved with sheep farming.

Rahat Mayor Faiz Abu Sahiban, who belongs to the Islamic Movement, insists that women should stick to raising children.

"It is not the women's job to raise sheep," says Abu Sahiban. "Their job is to help their husbands to educate the children. The women need to educate the next generation," he said.

Anat Egber-Kornmehl, director of the course, explains how this workshop course will help the women to improve their knowledge.

"In our region, there are many sheep, and therefore a lot of milk. We will teach the women how to produce better milk with low bacteria counts and about switching from manual to automated milking, which is preferable from a hygiene perspective."

Nina Lehman, head of training and research at the Agriculture Ministry, explains why the course is offered only to women.

"This course is very unique in that it is taught by women for women. Flocks in rural regions are usually tended by women, but they do not always have the authority and the knowledge to manage the flock, and that is exactly what we want to give them."