Empowering Bedouin Women

Desert Entrepreneurs


Aishah was 30 years old when her husband took a younger second wife and abandoned her and her three young children.  She was unable to find a way to support herself, and as a member of a polygamous Negev Bedouin tribe where divorce is unthinkable, she couldn’t even claim single-mother status in order to get welfare assistance.

That was five years ago. Today Aishah (not her real name) is one of about 20 members of the Al Sanabel cooperative that operates a catering business in the Negev township of Hura.  Every day of the school year,  the  Al Sanabel food production plant turns out 7,000 hot meals.   During the past year,  the venture earned a handsome profit, with Aishah and her fellow members even receiving dividends amounting to the equivalent of an additional two months’ salary.

Al Sanabel is one of several social entrepreneurial initiatives founded  in recent years in an attempt to help the community development of the Negev’s Bedouin population,  says Kher Albaz,  co-executive director of AJEEC-NISPED, an Arab-Jewish NGO that helped launch Al Sanabel.

“One out every two Negev Bedouin families lives below the poverty line,” says Albaz, describing the plight of a population  of more than 200,000.  Albaz is a social worker who grew up in Tel Sheva, one of the first Bedouin townships  to be recognized  by the Israeli government and gain access to national infrastructures.

Economic and health problems are particularly severe for the approximately 100,000 Bedouins  living in towns that are not recognized by the government, notes Albaz.

The bleak physical conditions of the  unrecognized towns are visible to anyone who takes the hour-long train journey  south of Tel Aviv to the outskirts of Be’ersheva where tin shacks dot the desert countryside.  Because their homes  are not connected to the national electricity grid, many residents use  polluting diesel-fuel generators to heat and light their homes. In order to get water for drinking and washing, they  rely on water tanks that vendors haul in by tractor over  the unpaved roads.  And with no easy access to health clinics , the infant mortality rate, according to a Ministry of Health study, is up to five times the national average.

About 15 years ago, Amal Elsana Alh’jooj, a Bedouin woman who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and the late Yehuda Paz, a pioneering leader of Israel’s aid programs in the developing world,  established an organization, today part of AJEEC-NISPED, that is trying to create better economic opportunities for the Negev Bedouin.

One of those efforts,  was the founding of  Desert Embroidery, a women’s cooperative that today employs about 80 artisans in the Bedouin town of Lakiya, northeast of Be’ersheva.

“We wanted to start with something that we know how to do, and every Bedouin woman knows how to embroider,” explains Nama Elsana, a 48 year-old mother of  four, who is one of the cooperative leaders.  She points out that coop  members purchase raw materials and market their products together, and jointly maintain  day care facilities for their children.

“The idea that Bedouin women could become  more independent was not something that was easily accepted by many of the men in our community,” says Elsana in an understated way, as she describes how the  embroidery workshop was burned to the ground in 2005, as the result of an act of arson perpetrated by local men.

“We knew exactly who did it and we gave their names to the police,” recalls Elsana pointing out that the local male police force offered no cooperation. The culprits were never caught.

“But our spirits weren’t broken. The incident only made us stronger,” says Elsana, who helped organize the rebuilding of the workshop. “Since then they have left us alone.”

Today the coop gift shop offers colorful products for sale that include everything from traditional Bedouin tribal dresses to chic IPad covers. As Elsana takes visitors on a tour of the showroom, she explains how the intricacies of embroidery designs can reveal quite a bit about both customary Bedouin culture and the revolution in gender relations that is underway.

“The color  on the front of the traditional dresses worn by  unmarried girls  is purple. Red is for married women and blue for widows,” says Elsana. Holding up one of the old-style dresses, she points out how the insignia of the sheikh,  in accordance with tradition, was incorporated into the center of the design. “But now we do things differently,” Elsana  adds, as she takes out a dress that she herself designed.  “Here the tribal insignia has been moved to the edge and we, the women, are in the center,” she says with a mischievous smile.

Like the embroidery cooperative, the Al Sanabel catering enterprise, located in the Hura township just east of Lakiya, leverages an ability that Bedouin women already have – cooking skills.

“We realized back in 2006 that there was a business opportunity when the government made funding available for the purchase of daily hot lunches for schoolchildren, “ says Dr. Mohammed Alnabari, who co-founded the business. “Many of the meals being supplied by regular Israeli caterers were ending up in garbage cans because the Bedouin children weren’t used to the taste of the food,”  he adds, explaining the competitive advantage offered by the Al Sanabel staff who could prepare foods more suitable for Bedouin schoolchildren.

In order to scale up  production to an industrial scale, training for workers was provided at Kibbutz Kramim and Nahal Oz  and food production facilities equipped with modern storage  rooms and food processing equipment, were installed in the Hura industrial area.

Alnabari, 44,  has in his own lifetime experienced many of the dramatic transitions undergone by Bedouin society.  “As a child I went to school by riding  a donkey over a distance of seven kilometers,” he recalls. He later studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem where he earned  a  Ph.D degree in organic chemistry and  headed the R&D department of a large Israeli biotechnology company, before returning to his native Hura where he has become the head of the local regional council.

Alnabari points out that Al Sanabel itself expects to expand its range of business activities in the near future. “We don’t want to become too dependent on a single customer, because if the government  stops funding school lunches we will be stuck. So we are in the process of getting kosher certification and hope to become a food contractor for industrial plants in the Negev.”

The cooperative business model is also being applied in several new  programs that are being initiated elsewhere in the Negev, says  Kher Albaz, referring to a bakery café slated to open in Rahat and a sheep farming cooperative that has been formed  in the village of Abu Krinat near Dimona .

“The sheep coop enables  herdsmen  to buy feed for their animals collectively at lower prices as well as share a marketing platform for selling meat,” says Albaz, noting that as grazing land becomes increasingly scarce for the Bedouins there is a need to improve methods for raising livestock. The  project also entails instruction on innovative ways to breed sheep and manage herds.

Not all of the new Bedouin business initiatives are for cooperatives. AJEEC-NISPED courses in entrepreneurial development have trained individuals to run businesses as wedding  photographers,  video operators and DJs. Other  programs in marketing, branding and advertising  have accelerated successful enterprises like Desert Daughters, a natural healing and cosmetics products business run by  Mariam Abu Requieq in Tel Sheva and a jewelry business operated by Mahmud Abu Ganem in Rahat.

Albaz notes that Al Sanabel is regularly visited by delegations from countries in the developing world interested in emulating the coop business model. He points out that an essential element of the model is that it is accompanied by social and educational programs. “Those programs are what ensure that the model programs influence the rest of the community.”

That type of influence is summarized by Kamla Alhawagra, a worker at the Al Sanabel who has completed an advanced chef’s course as part of her training and obtained a driver’s license.

“When I was 17 I found a job but the tribal council wouldn’t let me take it because it meant working outside the home. But years later after my husband became ill and I  joined the coop everyone in the community learned to respect me. “

Alhawagra, who used the very first salary she earned at Al Sanabel to buy a computer for her eight children, is hopeful that the example she is setting will lead to her children to become the first members of her family to attend university.

“It’s important for my children to see that they have a strong mother, someone who knows how to be independent,” she concludes.


May 27, 2014