Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog has unveiled a new government program to tackle polygamy in Israel’s Bedouin sector. The pilot project in a Negev settlement will provide assistance for polygamous families and focus on raising awareness on the profound implications and community dysfunction caused by polygamy.
“Our organization has officially stated that polygamy has no place in a modern society,” explained Safa Schada, Executive Director of NIF grantee Ma’an – The Forum of Negev Bedouin Women’s Organizations. “We welcome the government initiative, but I think a lot more resources and determination must be put into fighting polygamy if we are to solve the problem.”
The Bedouin Women’s Rights Center in Beer Sheva is the flagship project for Ma’an, an umbrella organization for 12 grass-roots Bedouin activist groups. The Center represents Bedouin wives in civil courts and Sharia religious courts in claims against their husbands. “Over 90 percent of the nearly 100 cases we handled in 2007,” explained Schada, “involved the problems resulting from polygamy.”
Bedouin society is Israel’s poorest socio-economic sector and most Israeli Bedouin husbands struggle to support one wife, let alone two or three. As a result out-of-favor wives often receive no financial support from their husbands, explained Schada.
Bedouin women address an empowerment rally organized by NIF grantee Lagiya: Association for the Improvement of the Status of Women.
Kamla Abu Zeila, a moviemaker and social activist based in Rahat, Israel’s largest Bedouin town with a population of over 50,000, used her NIF Yaffa London-Yaari Scholarship Award in 2006 to make a documentary about polygamy called “Please Give Me a Son.”
“Polygamy poisons an entire society,” explains Abu Zeila. “The rivalry between wives and their children is ridden with jealous intrigues and the men suffer too.”
Research by Prof. Elian al-Karinawi, Head of the Social Work Department at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, clearly demonstrates the negative effects of polygamy. He found that children in polygamous families suffer more psychological problems than the offspring of monogamous families and have higher rates of criminal activity and dropping out of school.
Prof. Al-Karinawi estimates that 25 percent of Israeli Bedouin men have more than one wife but both Abu Zeila and Schada feel that the figure is closer to 40-50 percent.
Schada agrees that at this stage the Israeli government should focus on educational efforts and programs seeking to persuade Bedouin men that polygamy is not in their own interests. “But ultimately law enforcement must be used,” she insists, “as has been successfully done in some progressive Islamic countries.”