The Reality Exposed by Bedouin Women Armed With Cameras

Mothers and daughters from unrecognized villages empowered through photography.

Ilan Assayag

Mahadia Abu-Joda, 53, a mother of 13 and resident of the unrecognized Bedouin village of Za’arura, cradles a red digital camera in her hand. “The first time in my life that I held a camera and prepared to take a picture, about a year and a half ago, I held it upside down and in the wrong direction,” she says through the hijab that conceals her hair and frames her face.

Abu-Joda’s photographs appear in one of the four recently published photography books that document life in four unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev from a feminine point of view: Za’arura, Atir, Wadi al-Na’am and Alsra. The books, which are accompanied by an exhibition on display at present at Multaka-Mifgash, a Jewish-Arab cultural center in Be’er Sheva, were produced by the Negev Coexistence Forum and created during a project operated by the organization Human Rights Defenders, in which about 30 Bedouin women from the unrecognized villages participated.

Abu-Joda was born in Gaza. At the age of 16 she married and moved to Za’arura, which is east of the town of Kseifa and today numbers about 2,600 residents. “About two years ago they demolished our home,” she says when asked why she started to photograph. “We didn’t have a place to sleep. I was among the ruins of the house with all my children. It was cold and rainy. I didn’t know what to explain to the children. I myself didn’t understand why the government did that to me. I didn’t know how to protect them. I was in despair. At the time a young girl passed and told me about the human rights project, explaining that we could learn our basic rights and preserve them by means of the camera and photography. Many of the women didn’t understand what she wanted and asked how it would help to photograph ruins. I was immediately attracted. I wanted to document the injustice done to me, I wanted to show everyone the situation in which we live.”

Today Abu-Joda lives with her family in a hut made of patched sheets of iron and tin. “We haven’t been able to build a new house yet,” she says.

She leafs through the book and by means of the photos tells about the village residents’ living conditions: “There are no paved roads, no clinic, no kindergartens or schools. We don’t receive water and electricity from the authorities. Some of the people use solar panels and some use generators.”

In the pleasant back yard of Sabhia Abu-Joda, 48, a mother of 10 from the same village, women participating in the project gather to decipher photos and discuss human rights. For four years she worked as an assistant teacher in a kindergarten that closed four months ago. Her photos in the book document the kindergarten children. Recently, she says, she dared to leave her home area and photograph the demolition of houses in the village.

She shows the participants photos in the camera’s memory. “When I walk around and take pictures I feel that I’m useful and contributing to my society,” she says. “I hope that the photos will help us in the future to realize our rights and will help in our struggle to get the village recognized.”

Sabhia was born in Ramallah, married at 22 and is illiterate. Fadwa, her 18-year-old daughter who studies in the high school in Kseifa, is also participating in the project.
“She helps me to send emails and files with the new photos,” says her mother. “Photography has brought us closer, it’s enabled us to find a common language.”
Fadwa says that “sometimes people look at me when I take pictures and say that I’m crazy. In our village they’re not used to seeing a woman walking around with a camera, looking at everyone through the lens, searching for a correct angle and disturbed by the quality of the light.”

Fadwa says that she dreams of continuing to photograph and becoming a journalist. “When your home is demolished and the most important thing is taken from you, it’s hard. But when you take pictures and know that you’ve created documentation, it gives you strength not to despair.”

New members join the veteran participants. Almaz, 64, a mother of 11 whose face is lined with wrinkles, explains why she decided at her age to start learning photography. “There are lots of home demolitions here. I really want to document it and show people what we’re going through,” she says.

“All the unrecognized villages that were chosen to participate in the project are at high risk of evacuation and home demolition,” explains Haya Noah, director of the Negev Coexistence Forum. “These villages always attract photojournalists and photographers who don’t live here, and we thought that the local residents should document their own lives.”

Noah says that the “purpose of the photos is also to serve as testimony in the courts when necessary. There’s an attempt here to enable the local residents to produce information, to disseminate and preserve it, thereby questioning the state’s exclusive right to control the information about their village.”

The 30 participants include four or five women aged 18-53 from each village. Most are young.

“It’s not easy to attract women to the project. First you need permission from the village head and they don’t all cooperate,” says project coordinator 30-year-old Yosra Abu Kaf, a mother of three with academic training in the field of art.

“It’s not acceptable for a woman to walk around the village taking pictures. There are some very conservative villages, where the woman’s job is only to clean, give birth and raise children. When I give someone a camera in such a place it scares them, it suddenly changes the social order. Sometimes the woman herself can be afraid of the change.”

Yosra and her sister Sabrin wear hijabs but represent the new spirit among the younger generation of Bedouin women. “Bedouin society is not all the same regarding women’s status,” says Sabrin, a journalist for a local Arabic newspaper and the popular local radio station, who is in charge of field work. “For example, we belong to a tribe that’s more open. You can find Bedouin villages where the attitude toward women is harsh and oppressive, and families in the same village that allow women to develop and study. There’s been a change recently, more women leave home and study and work, but there’s still a high percentage of women who stay home and don’t know much about life outside.”

When Yosra and Sabrin are asked if they feel they’re creating a quiet revolution, they nod.

“I feel that mainly in the women’s development,” says Yosra. “Sometimes when they don’t know something you only have to give them basic information, to guide them, to enable them and then it happens on its own. I feel that this activity is like an underground stream. In a few years it will bring about a change.”