‘Aisha,” a Bedouin woman living in the Negev, will never forget the day she went with her husband to meet his new wife and arrange their wedding.
“He came to me and said to our small family, I want to get married, but I will be good to you and I will give you all that you need,” Aisha, who did not share her last name in order to protect herself and her family, told a lawyer in 2014.
“He convinced me, you know how it is, the man just gets into his woman’s head. I agreed. He went to ask for the hand of Fatima [not her real name] in marriage, and I went with him. I organized the wedding. I did everything. Two months later, he lost his mind with us. He started beating us [me and my children]. He’d put me on his truck, drag me to my parents’ home, and dump me there.”
According to a 2013 Knesset report on polygamy in the Bedouin sector, Aisha is one of approximately 30 percent of Negev Bedouins involved in a polygamous relationship, when a man has more than one wife.
Polygamous relationships have been illegal in Israel since 1977. However, authorities largely turn a blind eye to it in the Bedouin sector, even though polygamy often leads to domestic violence, sexual assault, and inescapable poverty.
Aisha shared her story with Insaf Abu Shareb, a Bedouin woman who is an attorney and the director of the Beersheba branch of Itach Ma’aki, the Women Lawyers for Social Justice organization. Abu Shareb represented Aisha in court when she successfully sued her husband for polygamy, one of the very few cases of polygamy that wound its way through the justice system in the past decade.
Itach Ma’aki’s Beersheba branch focuses on assisting Bedouin women who are victims of domestic violence. According to Abu Shareb, 99% of women who arrive at the organization’s shelter are in a polygamous relationship.
The Knesset report, published in 2013 during a series of meetings about polygamy with MK Miri Regev, found that both the Population Authority and National Insurance Institute kept official records on polygamous families, even though the practice is illegal.
In 2013, 361 Arab men were registered with the Population Authority as having more than one wife. In 2012, NII gave benefits to 968 women who had the position of “additional wife” in an “enlarged family.”
However, these statistics come from people who registered with authorities through official channels. The Welfare Ministry’s southern division has found that some 30% of Bedouin families are involved in a polygamous situation, a figure gleaned from home visits by social workers and other officials.
According to Abu Shareb, in unrecognized villages — communities not accepted by the state as legal — that figure can reach 50%.
‘It shows he is a man’
Polygamy in the Bedouin sector is different from conventional perceptions of polygamy. When people think of polygamy, they assume it is a man in a big house living with multiple wives simultaneously.
In Bedouin communities, a man will get married, have children, and then decide to take another wife. He will leave the first wife and children and move in with the second wife, leaving the first wife to fend for herself with no means of supporting herself and her children. The first wife cannot get divorced due to cultural shame, nor can she remarry. The first wife must remain available in case the man decides to return to her.
“Usually these are women who don’t know the alphabet, they don’t work, and they have no employable skills,” said Abu Shareb, 34, who grew up in an unrecognized Bedouin village and put herself through law school.
“They are in their 30s and 40s, they’re at the age where they should have a basic career. But for them, the man was the one who does everything, who fills every need, and suddenly, she’s collapsing.”
Most Bedouin women are married at an early age, straight from their parents’ home, and have never lived independently.
Polygamy is permitted in the Quran, which allows up to four wives, especially in cases where the wife is sick, infertile, or failing to produce sons. But Abu Shareb said that the widespread practice of polygamy in the Bedouin community is no longer about religion.
“In the distant past, it was just the sheikhs that could take more than one woman,” she said. “In the past few years, it’s because of the men’s ego. It shows they are strong. It shows they are a man.”
“The Quran says you need to act with complete equality towards all of the women,” noted Abu Shareb. “Complete equality! That includes equality in what you feel in your heart…. And the Quran knows that humans simply cannot act equally, and that’s why you can only have one [wife].”
Flourishing in isolation
Polygamy is illegal in Israel since 1977, when a law made the practice punishable by up to five years in prison and a monetary fine. Jews who arrived from North Africa in the 1950s and 60s, especially from Yemen, also practiced polygamy, but stringent enforcement quickly ended the practice.
“[With Jews], society got involved,” said Abu Shareb. “But with the Bedouin population, [former prime minister David] Ben-Gurion said he didn’t want to open another front with the Bedouins. With all the battles they had already, he couldn’t have another front to fight on. And that is where women were abandoned.”
While polygamy is largely practiced in isolated areas like the Negev, it still has a presence in everyday life in Israel. Bedouin MK Taleb Abu Arar (Joint List) has two wives. In August 2015, Abu Arar’s official Knesset email was also found on a hacked list of 32 million people who registered to use the infidelity website Ashley Madison. “I have two lovers at home, why would I need more?” Arar said to an Israeli radio interviewer in August, denying that he had registered for the site.
Amin Shaaban, a taxi driver from Lod who was killed after a terror attack on Dizengoff Street on January 1, was not Bedouin, but also had three wives and 11 children.
Politicians, including President Reuven Rivlin, offered condolences only to Shaaban’s “wife” — in singular — and children during their visit to the mourning tent in Lod.
Yet according to the 2013 Knesset report, while polygamy can be found in the broader Arab community, it is much more common among the Bedouin.
Please check one: Single, married, or additional wife
Israel’s National Insurance Institute, which manages and disburses state welfare benefits, has an official designation in its internal guidelines for women in polygamous relationships, referring to them as “enlarged families.”
When a woman’s husband leaves her for a second wife, or the second wife is left for a third, the NII has made it exceedingly difficult for that woman to be recognized as a single parent. In order to be recognized as a single parent, a status that confers often critical financial benefits, the woman cannot be living in close proximity to her husband — and certainly cannot continue giving birth to his children.
For Aisha, after her husband’s second marriage she moved out of the house to a shack on the same property. Her husband took all of his things and returned only to beat Aisha or her children. One time she was forced to seek medical attention after he broke her hand. Her family berated her for talking to the authorities while at the hospital, saying it was an “internal family problem” that should be sorted out among the siblings.
Sometimes Aisha’s husband would lock her children in his second wife’s outhouse and force them to clean it. Once, after he had already moved in with his second wife, he came in the middle of the night and raped Aisha in the courtyard outside her shack.
Although it was not consensual sex, because the two were still married by law, this kind of violence is not often recognized as rape, said Abu Shareb. The women themselves do not think it is rape, because the perpetrator is their husband. It is highly unlikely that they will report the rape or involve authorities.
Aisha became pregnant from that encounter.
“In the view of society, [when a man leaves his wife] it’s thought to be the woman’s fault,” said Abu Shareb. “In Bedouin society, a woman will never get divorced, because being divorced will only make her situation even worse within the society. She has this spark of hope that maybe one day he’ll come back, so she won’t break it up. She may not have the strength or the courage. Sometimes they are separated for years and years, and suddenly one day he shows up. And she has to be ready to accept him. Women came to the shelter and said that if they refused, they were simply raped.”
The NII bureaucracy is not sensitive to these women’s complicated situation, said Abu Shareb.
“So the National Insurance Institute says, ‘OK, you told us you’re a single parent — how are you having another one of his babies?'”
To receive single-parent benefits, the NII requires proof that the women are living apart from their husbands, but many Bedouin women, like Aisha, continue to live near their husbands in the hope that their presence will remind their husbands of their responsibility to provide food and other support. There is also the stigma of a woman who returns to her parents’ home.
A spokesperson for the NII said it treats polygamous families, including all of the wives, as a single familial unit. While each family can be different, decisions about a family’s status are based on supporting documents, including bank statements, income reports, and shared property.
This means that the husband and his newest wife get the majority of a welfare benefit that is given to families with no or low income. Thus, a polygamous husband, his newest wife and their two or more children receive the same welfare check as a monogamous family in similar financial straits — some NIS 2,897 to NIS 4,281 per month for those with no or very low income, depending on the age of the children. Additional wives, however, will receive just NIS 649 to NIS 1081 each, depending on their age or the ages of their children.
According to Abu Shareb, if the additional wives were treated as single parents, they could qualify for the single parent benefit of NIS 2,400 to NIS 3,300.
The NII spokesperson said that while polygamy is illegal, welfare officials do not pass information about polygamous families to law enforcement authorities.
“The police are the ones who decide what to do about polygamy, and they have not requested any information about polygamy,” the spokesperson said.
‘Culturally sensitive’ to rape
Abu Shareb’s anger is directed at Israeli society as a whole, which she says has ignored the plight of Bedouin women.
“I think it serves the country not to get involved, because it’s not harming the existing system; the only ones who are suffering are the Bedouin women,” she said.
“It sounds incredible that in a country that has a Bedouin population these problems are so invisible to Israeli society,” she added.
It also makes her furious when authorities or organizations decline to intervene by citing cultural sensitivity to Bedouin culture.
“When people say, ‘Oh, it’s too sensitive,’ I say, ‘What about domestic violence or rape? Do you consider that too culturally sensitive to get involved?’”
She noted that concern over respect for Bedouin culture does not extend, for example, to demolishing illegal Bedouin homes.
Abu Shareb herself grew up in a house that was demolished in an unrecognized Bedouin village near Dimona.
“The state must decide if it wants to invest time and money [in stopping polygamy] the same way the state is investing in house demolitions — an incredible amount of money each year,” she said.
In the end, Abu Shareb believes, it is numbers that may drive the Israeli government to enforce the anti-polygamy law in a bid to bring down the Bedouin sector’s high birthrate. “It will come from a place of demographic fear about the growth of Bedouin society, not the welfare of Bedouin society,” she said.
The situation is exacerbated in part by the isolation, both geographic and cultural, of the Bedouin from the rest of Israel. Few Bedouin have access to school, and girls often do not go to high school because they are mixed-sex.
Polygamy is less prevalent in non-Bedouin Arab communities because the women there have better access to education than their Bedouin counterparts, Abu Shareb argued.
“[Arab] society has had a much faster pace of development than the Bedouin society in their bubble,” she said.
Abu Shareb is a lawyer, and sees in the law a potent weapon in the battle for change. The best method for ending polygamy, she says, is through law enforcement.
“Men who practice polygamy should be worried about going to jail,” she said.
At the same time, women must be empowered economically and socially, so that they can survive once they are independent. One of the main reasons women become second wives, according to the Knesset report, is that once a woman reaches the age of 25 she is considered too old and unlikely to find a husband within her tribe, forcing her family to find a match perhaps as a second wife.
“There must be enforcement, but alongside enforcement there must be other actions, like equality for boys and girls in school, encouraging the independence of women, and employment of women by creating places for Bedouin women to work,” she said. “We need to give women the opportunities to be independent economically and socially so they won’t get damaged from this, but you can’t do this without enforcement.”
Between 2010 and 2014, Israel Police opened 45 cases against men with multiple wives, according to statistics the police submitted to the courts during a 2014 Itach Ma’aki petition to the High Court of Justice. They served indictments in 39 of the 45 cases. Most cases were closed due to lack of witnesses or “lack of public interest.” Only 15 cases in five years were investigated or brought to court. Aisha’s case was one of them.
A prop for the patriarchy
For Abu Shareb, polygamy is one of the last strongholds that enables men to control Bedouin society. They used to utilize domestic violence for control, but greater public awareness, as well as women’s shelters, has created a small but meaningful shift.
“Other issues like domestic violence are now being talked about,” said Abu Shareb. “Because it’s out in the open, a women has options, like going into a shelter. That’s what happens when there’s enforcement. Polygamy is the last weapon for men to protect the patriarchal institutions and their control over women.”
Opposition to ending polygamy, she said, is so strong because any small step is “threatening that security, their certainty at the top of this kingdom.”
“Women are living in fear every day!” she said. “Fear that he’ll get married to another woman, so she needs to be nice, not to annoy him. She needs to be his best servant, because he can threaten all the time that he’ll get married to another woman.”
“I hope others will see polygamy as a defect that a man cannot handle his current situation, that he needs another woman and another woman,” Abu Shareb continued. “Why do you need another woman? Because you must have control over her? You’re not able to function without controlling someone? That’s a personality disorder, a mental disorder. This is not natural for men. Something is pushing him toward self-destruction, because polygamy is really self-destruction. A man has so many children and then abandons them, and what about that family? Polygamy only brings sorrows, including to the man himself.”
Today, Aisha is separated from her husband, though not divorced according to Israeli law. With the assistance of Abu Shareb and Itach Ma’achi, she went to court against her husband, accusing him of polygamy, and won the case. He sat in jail for a few months, and she was awarded a small financial compensation.
Still, Aisha said she is full of regrets: that she agreed to let her husband marry again, that she was so complicit that she went with her husband to ask for Fatima’s hand in marriage.
“Sometimes I wish I would die,” she said. “He threw us away with nothing. No money. No good food. No good life. My clothes are worn out and torn. I can’t buy myself any clothes. My shoes are ripped. I can’t buy shoes. I took NIS 100 ($25) from my sister. I’m embarrassed to ask my siblings for money.”
Aisha said she would change “everything” about her life. “I want to go out and enjoy things, maybe even to travel, like a human being,” she said. “In my entire life, I have never once gone out to have a good time, or to travel. [I’d like to go to] Tiberias. Or the Dead Sea. My health is gone. I am sick… I am sick physically and mentally. I am tired. Life is so difficult.”
“May none of my daughters agree that their husband can take another wife,” said Aisha. “May it not be like this for my daughters.”