Arab feminists fear Israel’s anti-polygamy plan is opening volley in a war of wombs
While condemning polygamy, some activists claim justice minister’s seemingly benign steps represent an attempt to curtail birthrates among Israel’s Bedouin
Amal Abu Sa’ad is the second Bedouin Israeli woman to obtain a doctorate. Married twice — to two brothers in a shanty town in Israel’s southern Negev desert — and widowed twice, she is a university lecturer who specializes in genetic diseases resulting from inbreeding. The latter of her husbands, Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an, 47, was shot dead by police during the demolition of the Umm-al Hiran last month, in an incident that also claimed the life of an officer, and whose circumstances are still murky.
The first time she decided to become a second wife, when she married her first husband Mohammed Abu al-Qia’an, it was in order to retain the freedom to pursue her academic goals, she told the HaMakom independent news website late last month.
“I was afraid to marry someone I don’t know really know anything about. After the wedding, he could tell me, ‘Now you are my wife, sit at home…’ The only one who told me that he was interested in my studying and completing my doctorate was Mohammed,” her first husband. “He promised me freedom. That was the most important [thing].”
After Mohammed’s death, Abu Sa’ad became his brother’s second wife (he later took a third) for social security and due to fears the extended family would take her children away should she leave. “The children belong to the father’s family. That’s how it is,” she said.
‘He promised me freedom. That was the most important [thing]’
Less than two weeks after the razing of the town and violence that surrounded it, in which an Israeli policeman was also killed, the cabinet approved a welfare, health, and education plan to “eradicate” polygamy. The program largely targets the estimated one-third of Bedouin men who have more than one wife, which is illegal under an Israeli law — carrying a five-year jail sentence — that is rarely enforced. Joint (Arab) List MK Taleb Abu Arar, a sitting lawmaker in Israel’s Knesset, has two wives.
(The cabinet on Sunday also approved a separate, multi-billion-shekel five-year plan to improve the socioeconomic status of the country’s Bedouin community by bolstering housing, providing employment training and improving public transportation.)
The seemingly innocuous anti-polygamy proposal has been met with resistance from Arab Israeli women’s rights activists, who despite their proclaimed opposition to the practice, say the plan has “racist” undertones. Some have gone as far as accusing the right-wing government of attempting to drive down Bedouin birthrates. The timing of the plan and the figures driving it are “suspicious,” the activists say, specifically questioning the motives of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
“The sudden awakening, from a right-wing government, specifically from the Jewish Home party, in my view, stems from racist motives. The Bedouin woman doesn’t really interest Minister Shaked, but rather the demographic threat. And I think this program is a way to camouflage the demographic threat,” said Dr. Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder, a Ben-Gurion University of the Negev expert on Bedouin women who was the first female in the community to obtain a PhD.
“The goal of the program is to reduce Arab fertility,” she charged.
Shaked dismissed the allegations out of hand as “unfounded,” insisting her sole consideration was the well-being of the women.
With the government poised to take action against polygamy for the first time, the plan would create both a task force of local authorities, government officials, activists and other professionals to hammer out a plan within six months, and a ministerial committee that would implement it. Headed by Shaked, the ministerial committee is composed of the education, interior, welfare, health, social equality and agriculture ministers.
The proposal gives the Education Ministry and Health Ministry a four-month deadline to build educational curricula on polygamy and design special health services for women and children in polygamous families. It also tasks the Welfare Ministry with creating a program to integrate Bedouin women in the workforce, as well as offering other social services for their families.
Joint (Arab) List MK Aida Touma-Sliman, who heads the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality — the first Arab to hold such a position in the Israeli parliament — was among the first to express reservations about the plan.
“The timing of the plan to reduce polygamy raises serious concerns that it stems from a patronizing, racist approach and without any honest concern for the well-being of the Bedouin and Arab citizens,” she wrote on Twitter earlier this month.
Palestinian feminist groups and women’s rights activists chimed in to condemn the proposal, while stressing their rejection of polygamy.
“We oppose the worrisome trend of polygamy, which must be eradicated, since it infringes the rights of women, discriminates against them, and causes psychological harm to the women and children,” the Kayan Feminist Organization said in a statement. “At the same time, this current program is part of the right-wing government’s plan, which includes destroying houses, seizing land, and evicting the residents of the unrecognized villages in the Negev from their homes. What motivates Shaked is not the interests of the women, but the demographic balance — and this we reject unequivocally.”
Lamia Naamnih Cimanuka is the general coordinator of the Welfare Ministry-funded Assiwar organization, which runs a hotline for sexual violence victims and offers educational programs against violence. She maintained the motives for the plan were “very suspicious.”
“Law enforcement against polygamy is something that should have been done a long time ago, and I’m in favor, but everything that is proposed here is, in my view, at its core very, very racist… Personally, and as a feminist organization, we have no confidence that the people sitting [on the committees] are really thinking about the well-being of the women and children,” she said.
She also noted that the proposal mentioned the large number of children born to polygamous families.
“I think that from the state’s perspective and from a Zionist perspective, there is much encouragement for ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ and to have more and more children. That is, among one population it is very, very necessary to have children, and suddenly here, it’s something of a danger,” she said.
In a statement to The Times of Israel, Shaked said she was “surprised to hear these sources think they have access to my intentions and thoughts.
“Obviously, these speculations that were raised are unfounded,” she said. “The well-being of the women and children living in polygamous families is the central issue guiding me.”
These women and children need state assistance, she said, beckoning the groups to take an active role in the program.
Will reduced welfare help or harm?
One of the specific criticisms of the plan was proposed cuts to child welfare benefits to men with more than one wife. Such sanctions, the activists argued, would ultimately hurt the women and children depending on them for financial support in a community where poverty rates are high.
Insaf Abu Shareb, a Bedouin woman who is an attorney and the director of the Beersheba branch of Itach-Maaki, the Women Lawyers for Social Justice organization, described it as “not a good plan, a plan of enforcement and economic punishment.
“Enforcement is part of the solution, but it’s not the initial step,” she said. “The Bedouin society is a poor one. There is so much poverty and so much unemployment, you can’t discuss cuts as a penalty.”
If a husband is put in jail or fined, said Abu-Rabia-Queder, the Ben-Gurion University lecturer, “who will take care of the women, who will take care of the children? It’s a problem.”
Cimanuka, of the Assiwar organization, similarly noted that “in the end, any money they don’t give will harm the women and children.”
But all were in favor of education and advocacy to reduce the phenomenon, and both Abu Shareb and Cimanuka cautiously said they would work with the government program, if asked. Proponents of the plan, still in its preliminary stages, said it would be implemented in coordination with organizations and local municipalities linked to the Bedouin population.
Abu Shareb said she would work with the government “under my terms, my demands, without crossing any of my lines.
“Because at the end of the day, it serves my community, serves the women — and that’s my job,” she said.
Polygamy, she added, is “bad, it’s something that destroys the women from inside. And it’s something that harms the whole society, it isn’t just the women.”
Abu Shareb said she was optimistic about the prospects of change.
“We are looking toward the future. Women whom I’ve met say, ‘Okay, we got screwed over, we were hurt, but come on, for the next generation, for our daughters and granddaughters, I want it to be different. I don’t want them to endure what I’ve endured,'” she added.
Do you rely on The Times of Israel for accurate and insightful news on Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
- Support our independent journalism;
- Enjoy an ad-free experience on the ToI site, apps and emails; and
- Gain access to exclusive content shared only with the ToI Community, including weekly letters from founding editor David Horovitz.
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel eleven years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel