A Conversation With Sarab Aburabia-Queder

The first Bedouin woman from the Negev to receive a doctorate has devoted her first book to the subject of women like herself - Bedouin women who have defied the social norms of their society to pursue a higher education and career

Sarab Aburabia-Queder is part of a small and select group of Bedouin women in Israel who have defied the conservative norms of their society and pursued a higher education. In her case, she went all the way to a doctorate -- with the subject of her research being women like herself, who have broken out of the strict confines that generally define the lives of Bedouin women. Aburabia-Queder, 31, recently published her first book, "Mudrot ve'ahuvot" ("Excluded and Loved: Educated Bedouin Women's Life Stories,) Magnes Press, 148 pages, NIS 69), which is based on interviews with 17 women from the Negev who were the first to leave their villages to study at the post-secondary level.

If Israel's Arab citizens are a minority who lead an arguably second-class existence, the roughly 160,000 Bedouin of the Negev could be described as third-class citizens, with the country's highest unemployment and infant mortality rates, and one of the highest fertility rates in the world. About half live in one of seven townships established for them by the state in the 1970s, in an attempt to impose on them a sedentary lifestyle, and the other half, who refused to move into the new settlements, live in "unrecognized" villages that are deprived of most standard services, such as electricity, water and schools. When one adds to these overall conditions a tribal tradition that says that women do not appear in public or interact with men outside the family, it's little surprise that it's still unusual for Bedouin women to attend university or even Arabic-language teacher-training seminars.

Aburabia-Queder earned her Ph.D. in education in 2006 from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Twenty years ago, the university had no female Bedouin students -- but by last year had some 250 studying there. This past year she spent a semester as a post-doctoral fellow at the International Gender Studies Center at Oxford University. Haaretz spoke with her by phone from Be'er Sheva, where she lives with her husband and two young children.

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How is it that your field of study is the peer group that you belong to?It's an important story of our society, and it doesn't get much attention. The whole subject of Bedouin women in higher education is still in diapers -- it only began during the past 30 years. The studies that have been done on the subject until now focused on what took place on campus, but my study looks at the family lives of these women.

It's not only Bedouin women who only recently gained access to higher education -- it's also the men, no?Yes, it's tied up in the country's political history. From 1948 to 1967, Israel's Arab sector was under military rule, and there were no schools for Bedouin. Before statehood, during the British Mandate, there had been, in Be'er Sheva, two high schools in the Negev intended for the children of the Bedouin elite. More than 200 girls went through the system, but nearly all of them became refugees during the 1948 war, so that today, among the Bedouin, we have no educated women over age 65. All the elite left in 1948.

The military government ended in 1967, and whereas in the north, Arab women began attending university, here in the Negev we began building primary schools for the Bedouin. In 1976, the first Bedouin student began to study at a teachers seminar, and only in 1988, did the first woman enter university, at BGU. Even in 1995, though, there were only eight women studying there. Some of the women I interviewed didn't study at BGU, they were sent by their parents to boarding schools in the north. I call this "internal migration," and when they come back, it's often with different values.

Being sent away could cause a real sense of cultural shock, especially when they return. They had to deal with the subject of marriage. Even as social change took place, it stopped at the most sensitive subject, that of couplehood, and the choosing of a partner. Women had to give up on love, and often married men they didn't love. They said to themselves that what matters is that he loves me and lets me do what I want. They weren't ready to pass up on their education. But there were divisions between husbands and wives, and even divorces.

I didn't know there was divorce in Bedouin society.The men these women married were not themselves educated, and they didn't appreciate the idea of the educated woman. They wanted a traditional wife. Actually, it was the women who requested a divorce. Not that it was easy. One woman I spoke with had to wait seven years before her husband would agree to a writ of divorce.

There's no such thing as free choice, everything is based on what your society will allow. Social change was stopped at most painful subject, the subject of couples, and choosing a partner. Social change is very slow, and women gave up one set of norms in order to adopt a new norm, and to create a new generation of women.

Is the situation of Bedouin women in other countries different from those in Israel?I did preliminary research studying differences between Palestinian Bedouin women in Jordan and here. Actually, there, the situation was much better. The UNRWA [UN refugee agency] looked after their education, so there are many educated women in Jordan. I recently read statistics from 2004, which report that 54 percent of the medical students in Jordan are women.

Still, despite all the history, it's important to stress that at Ben-Gurion University, great efforts have been made to improve the status of Bedouin women. They get assistance while they are in high school, and then in the mehinot (college preparatory programs). In many cases, they lower the level that students have to reach on the psychometric [standardized] tests.

It sounds like a program of affirmative action.

It's more than affirmative action, it's actually cooperation with their society, to improve the conditions from which they emerged.

What are the conditions you emerged from?

My mother is an Arab from the north, and my father a Bedouin. He was a sheikh's son, and from age 10 he attended school in the north. He was the first Bedouin physician in the Negev. I studied at a Bedouin school through 7th grade, and then my parents sent me to a Jewish school, Be'er Sheva Comprehensive Aleph High School.

What was it like studying at a Jewish school?

It was during the first intifada [1987-1993], and it was tense. I was the only Arab at the school. Every time there was a terror attack on Jews, I was "interrogated" about how I felt about it, and the questioning wasn't very friendly. It actually sharpened my Palestinian identity, and my sense of being separate. I had friends at school, but my adolescence was separate from theirs. I was a good student, and I was on an academic track. I had studied biology and chemistry, and was considered a leader. I sort of stood out.

Did you maintain your friendship with any of the Jewish girls?

For a while, although today, I'm only slightly in touch with one of them. They all went to the army after high school, remember that. I met some of them again at university. And some today are neighbors of my parents.I had to deal with a variety of different issues at the same time, at different levels of my life. I had to deal with Bedouin society, in which I broke a taboo by marrying someone I loved, and who came from outside my tribal society. But I've also had to deal with Jewish prejudices. Only today, I went to pick up my children at nursery school -- we live in a neighborhood with a lot of religious Jews, and I speak Arabic with my children in public -- and a boy called my kids "smelly Arabs." Tonight I'm planning to go over and talk to his parents.

When we moved into our building, someone posted a sign on the elevator: "Beware: Hamas has arrived." In an enlightened county, that would be condemned as racist.

What are the biggest challenges facing Israel's Arabs?

I would say the educational and economic gaps between Jews and Arabs, which cry out to heaven. There's a real lack of jobs, especially among those with academic educations. There are a lot of Arabs trained as doctors who are without work. Many who studied in university come back and teach in high schools.

If we're going to break this cycle, we need land, we need educational facilities, social services. All of these things can improve the general situation. Personally, I want to write articles, I want to write books. But so much of our lives is occupied with day-to-day issues of survival.

You came back earlier this year from a semester in Oxford. Was it hard to come back to Israel?

Right after we returned, I began teaching at the Sapir College [in Sderot]. My first day at work, the Qassam rockets started falling, and a student was killed. I get goosebumps just talking about it.

Oxford was very tolerant and accepting -- to me as a Palestinian, as a woman, as an Arab. My husband is an accountant, and our kids were a little over 2 and 4 when we went. He took time off from his office to come, and we all went together. When my husband went back to Israel, people were very tolerant and accepting of the kids, who were from a different culture. If you say, I'm a Palestinian from Israel, you get treated very nicely there, and then to come back, and your neighbor's kid calls your a smelly Arab? It's tough. But I don't want to give up my identity. I want my kids to study at an Arab school, and to learn their religion and to learn "who they are." Next year, actually, they will begin at the new bilingual kindergarten in Be'er Sheva.

Have you considered going into politics?

Are you kidding? I'm too talented for that. And politics is very dirty. And I have a family. Every hour that I'm awake, and the kids are asleep, I spend on my work.

My husband is supportive and he shares my values. He made it possible for us to go together to the post-doctoral program. Of course, every woman has to train her husband somewhat. But Hassan comes with the proper background, and he flows with me -- even if he complains sometimes.David B. Green

Haaretz Books Supplement, August 2008