BEERSHEBA — When Fatma was forcefully married to her cousin at age 19, she became his second wife. He drank and beat her. Her own father, who had married her off to her cousin, did not believe her story of abuse, dismissing them as the complaints of someone who never wanted the marriage in the first place.
Eventually, the hospital that treated Fatma after the beatings put her in the hands of social workers. She was taken to a women’s shelter. She was able to get a divorce without showing up to court, due to her documented beatings.
A year later, she was sent to live with a Jewish family in the north (her “mishpacha,” as she calls them, switching suddenly from Arabic to Hebrew). Fatma asked her real name not be used for her safety.
While living up north, she managed to find another Bedouin man from around Beersheba, who happened to be living there. They fell in love, got married, and raised a happy family with five children. She taught computers at an elementary school.
Twenty years later, she said, her second husband decided to take an 18-year-old as his second wife — so she left him “to protect my dignity.”
Fatma is not alone. Around one-third of Bedouins practice polygamy in Israel, according to a Knesset estimate, though one Bedouin spokesperson put that number at the 20 percent, and another Bedouin women’s rights activist in favor of polygamy put it at 18%.
The penalty for polygamy, which has been illegal in Israel since 1977, is a five-year jail sentence and fine, but it has rarely been enforced. Two Arab-Israeli lawmakers are currently in polygamous relationships.
However, in January, the cabinet gave its backing to a plan to reduce polygamy in Israel, linking it to domestic violence and a slew of psychological disorders.
“Its primary victims are women and children living in polygamous families,” the Knesset proposal reads. “The professional literature indicates that women in these families suffer from, among other things, physical and emotional violence, psychological crisis, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, a lack of satisfaction from marital life, diminished family functioning, and economic straits.”
The proposal would provide welfare, health, and social services to women and children in polygamous marriages in Israel, incorporate anti-bigamy education in the Israeli school system, and create outreach programs, in a bid to raise awareness of the phenomenon.
The interministerial committees tasked with carrying out the plan are still in the research and discussion phase, and, according to a member of one the committees, will present their recommendations for approval by the end of November.
There are also signs that authorities are starting to enforce anti-polygamy laws on the books.
On October 3, prosecutors indicted a Bedouin man on charges of polygamy, the first since the new guidelines were past in January.
The Ynet news site reported that police have opened 15 cases involving polygamy since the cabinet approved the plan in January.
Both Bedouin opponents and proponents of polygamy are deeply skeptical or outright reject the plan, which is being spearheaded by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, arguing that it is really aimed at decreasing the high Bedouin fertility rate, and thereby, ensure a Jewish majority in the Negev desert, where most Bedouin live.
(Atieh Al Asam, a spokesman for Bedouin villages in the Negev)
They further argue that if Israel were truly worried about the fate of Bedouin women, it would first tackle what they say are more damaging issues, such as lack of education, job opportunities, and house demolitions.
Israel’s Arab minority has long maintained that state-sponsored discrimination makes it impossible for them to obtain planning permission to expand their communities. The result is that many families resort to building homes without permission, leaving them liable to demolition.
In February, Justice Minister Shaked defended the initiative to The Times of Israel.
“The well-being of the women and children living in polygamous families is the central issue guiding me,” she said.
One TV report, however, claimed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had referred to the Bedouin birthrate as an “existential threat” for Israel.
According to the Knesset website, the total fertility rate of Bedouin in Israel is about 5.5% per year — the highest in the world.
Israel has also said it is trying to stamp down on the phenomenon of Israeli Bedouin marrying Palestinian women from the West Bank, who then register as divorced — though they continue to be married — in order to claim welfare subsidies and receive children subsidies from the National Insurance Institute.
Forced to have 12 children
Fatma and two other women recently described to a group of journalists in Beersheba how the practice of polygamy among the Muslim population in Israel, but especially within the Bedouin society, had harmed their lives.
Khadra, 46, said she has a “very hard life” taking care of her 12 children. She was married off when she was 16-years-old. She said she planned to have only five children, but her husband had different plans.
He sent her back to her family’s house for years, during which time she couldn’t see the children they’d had together. Their families eventually reconciled, and she returned home to give birth to another seven children.
Yet, she said, their father is hardly around these days and she supports them mostly off of her meager welfare payments, which she said amounts to NIS 160 ($45) monthly per child. When she was younger, she worked in agriculture.
Most of the time Khadra’s husband, she said, is with his second wife, whom he took just six years after marrying Khadra herself. The second wife, who is actually five years his senior, has given birth to seven children.
“I got depressed after the second marriage,” Khadra said. But she stayed with her husband in order to stay with her kids. She feared her children would “hang out in the streets, drink or do drugs” without her.
Bedouin women are treated ‘like cars’
Sulum, 40, has no Israeli ID or residency status. She carries around her children’s vaccination booklet as her only proof of life in Israel, should a cop decide to speak with her. Her body is fully covered in the traditional Islamic black gown and face veil.
She was born in the Sinai Peninsula, which today is part of Egypt, but was controlled by Israel when she was born. Unlike Fatma and Khadra, she cannot register to receive any welfare, as she was never given Israeli citizenship, and only moved to Israel when she was 20-years-old. She sells vegetables to make a living.
Sulum is the sixth out of a total of seven wives who married her husband. Traditional Islam allows for a man to marry at maximum four wives at a time, so before marrying Sulum, he divorced his first four wives. He later married two more after Sulum, but years later divorced them, she said, at her request.
Sulum did not want to be in a polygamous relationship, but when her husband married two more women, she said she didn’t protest, in order to be able to stay with her children.
Sulum, Fatma and Khadra all said that their children became emotionally confused and sometimes detached from their fathers after more wives and their children were added to the mix.
Fatma said she is happy today, despite being twice divorced. She feels in control of her life. She said she owes the state a great debt for the help she received from the police and social workers.
She said she spoke to journalists in order to send a message to women: “There can be a life outside of your home. You can make it without a man.”
When describing the situation of Bedouin woman caught up in the culture of polygamy, she compared their situations to cars.
“When the wife isn’t working out, the men get a new one.”
In right conditions, polygamy would mostly vanish naturally
Atieh Al Asam, a spokesman and head of unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev, argued that polygamy, and much of it harmful effects, would disappear, were the state to provide Bedouins with more work opportunities and education.
In a perfect world, he said, just around 4% of Bedouin would continue the practice — out of loyalty to the traditional culture.
“We know that it’s a problem having so many children,” he said. “Because of the bad situation, it creates bad results.”
The Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in 2015 said the employment rate of Bedouin men is 60%, well below that of both Arabs and Jews. The rate among Bedouin women is 22%.
Men who feel there is no hope for work, he said, tend to marry more wives and find meaning in having more children.
Amal Abu Al Thoum, director of Nisa Badawiyat center, an NGO that works to empower Bedouin woman, would likely be one of those 4 % who continue to promote polygamy should the Bedouin community reach the desired socio-economic standards.
With language peppered with religious phrases such as “peace be upon Him” and “praise God,” she argued that polygamy must be a beneficial practice because it was mandated in the Qur’an.
First and foremost, she said, “It is a rule from God given to us by the Qur’an.”
(Amal Abu Al Thoum, director of Nisa Badawiyat center)
“No law can prevent me from something God gave me,” she added.
Yet aside from its alleged divine origin, she argued polygamy was a way to protect women.
“Polygamy ensures that women are given rights under a legal framework,” she said, rather than “girlfriends in affairs” who don’t inherit God-given rights. She did admit that most girls naturally want to be the only wife.
She said in her own polygamous birth household, everyone got along, and that is generally the case with most.
In a question about what she would tell Fatma, who compared the treatment of Bedouin women to cars, she admitted there are some polygamous marriages that fall into problems.
However, she retorted, “are there no problems with many monogamous marriages as well?”
Marissa Newman and Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.