Israeli Arab Women Forge Businesses and Break Society’s Shackles

It sure would be easier, however, if conservative segments of the community like the Bedouin weren't so queasy about men and women mixing.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Amal Abu Karen Afawi, who opened a visitors' center for Bedouin culture in the Negev, January 2017.
Amal Abu Karen Afawi, who opened a visitors' center for Bedouin culture in the Negev, January 2017. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The story of Amal Abu Karen Afawi, who was born in the Bedouin Negev village of Lakiya, was never routine. Unlike the path her father had sought for her, to become a teacher, she insisted on studying nursing. She worked for two decades at Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva, in the unit serving the Bedouin. She also headed the Health Ministry’s Be’er Sheva office for that community.

Three years ago Abu Karen Afawi began working part-time on her own business. “I’m responsible for everything,” she says, having renovated a 19th-century building that her forefathers built "a palace,” she calls it.

In 2008 she opened it as a visitors’ center for the preservation of Bedouin culture; the six women there make products such as soap, jewelry and Bedouin cosmetics; they also cook, give lectures and run workshops on cooking and crafts.

The idea had come from her grandmother. “This was the first building built in the Negev, before the Bedouin began building regular homes. We considered the house a palace because it’s very large and built in a special way of clay, stone and straw with a three-layer ceiling and arches, a building style that isn’t customary in Bedouin society,” Abu Karen Afawi says.

“My grandmother said I needed to do something for Bedouin women who sit at home without work and are dependent financially on their husbands. Her idea was to open the palace and employ older women who can’t go to study.”

Abu Karen Afawi also delivers lectures to Bedouin women on health issues with an emphasis on women’s issues. “There isn’t enough awareness of the subject and it’s important to raise it,” she says. She organizes the lectures with Bedouin women’s groups, to which she also donates money.

One priority is exercise. “It’s not accepted for women to work out in an exercise room, and financially, this isn’t available to them, so I also provide sports classes for them and teach them how to train at home,” she says.

Abu Karen Afawi’s success was preceded by a number of difficulties. “I found it difficult to ask my parents’ permission to use the palace,” she says.

Rasha Galab Sif working the land in the Galilee, January 2017.

“There was also a financial problem because I needed to take out a loan for my initial capital, and my husband wasn’t so enamored with the idea. He wondered if I would stick with it and if the business would be profitable. In the end, I saved money until I had amassed a large sum and I added the loan to that.”

The fact that she’s a woman didn’t help either. “If I were a man, a lot more doors would have been opened for me. Let’s start with the smallest issue, renovating the house,” she says.

“When a woman wants to renovate a building, she makes contact with men who work in construction, and it wasn’t easy. I needed to do it through my brothers. It’s also not easy to take out a loan as a Bedouin woman. When you’re a woman, you need to explain each step to everyone, and since I employ women, I’m always put under a microscope.”

Multiple problems

Sometimes the problem is worse than a microscope. “One time I came to the building and saw that part of it had been destroyed. It was a kind of reminder  that they could harm me,” she says.

“It’s a problem because if men come into the palace, they ask whether they’ll see the women. When guests come to eat, we prepare the food in an exterior kitchen so they don’t mix and so the women won’t be preached to when they return home to their husbands. If I were a man, would anyone ask me who I employed?”

Another difficulty was promoting the business. “It requires a website, but I didn’t have the funds, and even now I only have a free Facebook page,” she says. “I go to every tourism fair and pass out leaflets and business cards.”

Also, the location lacks proper infrastructure and road access. “More than once, for example, they stole our signs,” she laments. “Now I want to expand, but I can’t get land because there isn’t land allocated for tourism in Lakiya. I’d like more training and advice from the Tourism Ministry. I have the feeling there isn’t enough attention to Arab tourism.”

The Tourism Ministry, for its part, said it “assists every entrepreneur and population group with professional consultation through tourism incubators that provide every entrepreneur with professional advice supporting him at every stage .... About 130 entrepreneurs from Arab, Druze and Circassian society receive incubator consulting every year, and as a result, they establish successful tourist businesses.”

According to the ministry, Arab towns and villages had received healthy funding to develop tourism.

Maryam Abu Rakeek, an expert on natural and organic products, Tel Sheva, January 2017. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Rasha Galab Sif, an Arab woman from Yanuh-Jat in the Galilee, worked in high-tech and then decided to open a business selling medicinal plants. She now has other jobs as well; she delivers the mail and volunteers in her village’s community center.

“The business is too small at this stage, and I need to work in other fields to occupy my time and bring in more income,” she says.

After she finished high school, Galab Sif studied computer programming at Erez College under the auspices of Microsoft. But she left her high-tech job quickly; she said it turned her into “a human robot.” She then opened a few unsuccessful businesses with her husband at the time, and in 2008 she began looking for a new project.

“The idea came from our kitchen,” she recounts. “I decided to go back to my roots, to work the land. In groves near the village there are a lot of medicinal plants. I began looking for plants, conducting experiments and consulting with the village elders about the correct use of each plant.”

She then planted a garden with medicinal plants near her home. She now has a plot of 1.5 dunams (0.37 acres) owned by her parents; there’s also a small visitors’ center. The staff is largely Galab Sif and her children.

“When visitors come, I serve herbal tea and traditional cookies, and then I give a lecture about medicinal plants,” she says. “I also have a shelf of products for sale that I prepare with the plants, including spice mixtures and jams.”

An unmarried woman

At first, the visitors’ center was set up outside the village, but after Galab Sif was divorced, she moved it to her house. “That’s how it is with unmarried women,” she says. “It’s not well-received to be outside the village alone.”

In addition, the visitors’ center, which in the past was open to the general public, is now open only to women.

“Because I don’t have a husband, it’s not accepted in my society to have men come into my house. In the past, I was advertised on the website of a Galilee development organization, and tour guides would bring visitors to me,” she says.

“Since I have limited the business to women, there’s less interest and women’s organizations aren’t supporting me. If I were a man, everything would be easier; my target audience would be broader and I wouldn’t be limited regarding mobility.” Still, she adds: “I learned everything on my own and built everything from scratch.”

Maryam Abu Rakeek too is an educated woman who returned to her roots. She was born in a Bedouin tent encampment and lived there until she was 12. She would watch her grandmother make and administer folk medicine.

“I viewed it as something primitive, and after I moved with the family to a regular house in Tel Sheva and went to school, I became even more distanced from tradition,” she says. Ultimately, Abu Rakeek earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in Britain.

“I returned to Tel Sheva and I didn’t want to be fixed up with a husband as I was offered to be, so I stayed home and thought about what to do. In Britain, I learned about natural and organic products, and I decided to return to what I had veered away from and to make camel-milk soap, olive oil, and skin creams and oils made from desert plants,” she says.

“I began writing down my grandmother’s recipes, and during the year that I sat at home I started making the products, packaging them nicely and selling them to women who are neighbors and friends.”

After seeing the fruit of her labors, Abu Rakeek rented space near her home where she began producing on a larger scale. In 2007 she opened a visitors’ center.

“The first year was hard because people didn’t know about the place, but in 2008 I began receiving groups,” she says, adding that the center now employees five women who harvest the plants, make the soap and receive the groups.

“It wasn’t easy. I didn’t have financial support, and being a single-woman entrepreneur isn’t something viewed favorably, particularly when I refused to get married. In addition, I didn’t have savings to build the center. Still, I didn’t give in to the difficulties. The next step is marketing products abroad. I have a vision and hope to reach it.”

For her part, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel says socioeconomic growth in Israeli Arab society is directly linked to entrepreneurship. She says she promotes a wide range of initiatives and grants to encourage entrepreneurship in Arab society, particularly by women, “because a healthy country encourages entrepreneurship.” She vows to lift any impediments, “whether through grants, loans or advice.”

“The goal is to create infrastructure that’s enabling and supportive. As an expression of this, the Social Equality Ministry is fostering grants and investments in the tens of millions for business entrepreneurship in Arab society,” Gamliel says.

“This is a national, social and economic interest of the first order, and bringing it all together will ensure that the trend is encouraged, with more and more entrepreneurship in Arab society, more and more tourism in Arab society, and as a result, more and more tourism entrepreneurship.”