For this special occasion, Sultana abu-Dabis is resplendent in an intricately embroidered royal-blue dress. Her head is carefully covered in a white scarf. Together with 25 other Bedouin women from Israel's southern desert region, she is celebrating her graduation from a yearlong course that qualifies her to open a small child-care center in her home.
Abu-Dabis listens intently as the mayor, the comptroller, and the program coordinator from her city of Rahat congratulate the women. "Who thought so many men would have so many good things to say about women?" she whispers.
Five years ago, not even one such course was available. Today, at least five Bedouin grassroots feminist groups are cooperating with Israeli progressive and feminist organizations, sponsoring nearly a dozen empowerment courses for Israel's Bedouin women.
"There has been an amazing growth of opportunities," notes Amal al-San-al-Hjoog, a Bedouin feminist and coordinator of the Project on Social Rights for the Bedouin. "Our needs are so great."
Israel's approximately 100,000 Bedouin are the nation's poorest and most marginalized minority. Official government policy requires them to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, and about half the population has moved into towns. The remainder live in encampments scattered across the desert. Unrecognized by the Israeli authorities, these desert settlements have no official status and receive no government services. Residents live without electricity, telephones, water, educational facilities, proper sewage systems, or adequate health services.
The policy of urban relocation and increased exposure to Westernized Israeli society have plunged much of the Bedouin community into crisis. Some have found their way to stability, but others, say al-San-al-Hjoog, have lost their flocks, land, income, freedom, and dignity.
The transition has been particularly traumatic for women. Traditionally, women kept the family tent, educated the children, harvested the crops, and produced household goods. But these are irrelevant jobs in the city, and few Bedouin women have the skills necessary for the modern labor market. Women, once productive partners in the Bedouin economy, are now thought of as burdens to their families.
Polygamy, although illegal under Israeli law, is on the rise. Since an unmarried Bedouin daughter brings shame and expense to her family, even well-educated women frequently acquiesce to becoming a second wife.
Some things have remained constant. Every year, several cases of murder of Bedouin women for reasons of "family honor" make the headlines. Some have been killed by their families after having escaped to battered-women's shelters. Some simply disappear, presumably murdered. Social service workers believe that unreported physical violence against Bedouin women is rampart.
And a recent study by researchers at Ben Gurion showed that not only is female genital mutilation still common but also that most of the women interviewed intended to perform genital mutilation on their daughters.
Some Bedouin women, like al-San-al-Hjoog and abu-Dabis, have escaped the worst of this oppression and lead more emancipated lives. Several dozen Bedouin women have graduated from college in the past few years; several are currently in nursing school; and at least one is in medical school. Many more are now graduating from high school.
Still, nearly 70% of Bedouin youth do not complete high school, and many Bedouin girls never get an elementary school education.
"We are oppressed on three levels," says al-San-al-Hjoog. "First, as a Bedouin minority within Israeli society; second, as women within our own patriarchal society; and third, we have internalized so much of that oppression that we women often oppress ourselves."
But gradually, Bedouin women are gaining the skills to shake off these layers of oppression. The programs that are helping them are funded largely by U.S. and European philanthropic foundations, with some help from the Israeli government. According to al-San-al-Hjoog, at least 200 Bedouin women have participated over the past three years.
Although they vary in scope, the programs are designed to promote women's equality and to encourage social change. All emphasize practical feminism and teach women to contend with the authorities, to access the social and health benefits to which they are entitled, and to realize that they have the right not to be abused, beaten, or raped.
The participants are taught leadership skills, and many programs provide a stipend, enabling the women to regain some of their status as productive members of their society.
All of the efforts must proceed cautiously, however, because a women who strays too far from traditional dictates may be viewed as violating family honor--a situation that puts her life in jeopardy.
"Before I participated in the course," says abu-Dabis, "I never thought that I, a woman, could do much by myself. But my whole life has changed. First, I learned to read and write, and now I have a profession. Who knows what I will be able to do next?"