"If I have relations with my husband once, can I get pregnant more than once?"
This was one of the many questions asked by participants in SHATIL's Family Planning course for Bedouin women – the first of its kind in the country. It seems that once Bedouin women have a safe place to talk about these usually taboo subjects, the floodgates open and they ask everything they wanted to know but were afraid to ask.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon in SHATIL's Be'ersheva office, 16 women listen intently as facilitator Niveen Rizkalla guides them through an exercise to discover their communication style. The participants are covered from head to toe while Rizkalla, an Arab Christian PhD candidate whose dissertation is on sexual intimacy among couples in Arab society, sports a low cut blouse and flowing hair. But the difference doesn't get in the way. The atmosphere is light, almost celebratory and the women are clearly enjoying themselves.
Rizkalla tosses some cards on the table, each showing a woman in a different role. Everyone is anxious to speak when asked why she chose her particular card. "There's no place in our daily lives where we can open up like this," says SHATIL's Bedouin Women's Project Coordinator Sara Elbdor, herself a Bedouin. Later, laughter punctuates the discussion as the women argue about the relative merits of inner and outer beauty.
While the course teaches about contraception, menstruation, pregnancy and birth, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual abuse and incest, it has a broader reach, covering issues like self image, interpersonal relations, assertiveness, personal, social and political identity, communication skills, marital myths and homosexuality.
In addition to giving information and increasing awareness, the course prepares participants to be group facilitators. Each graduate will run workshops for girls in high schools throughout the Negev on the material learned. The course also aims to create a change in Bedouin women's approach to the subject, both for themselves as women and as mothers who influence the next generation of boys as well as girls.
This course arose from a serious need. Bedouin families are extremely large; most women lack say in the number of children they bear; live under the threat of honor killings; and lack basic knowledge about matters of husband-wife relations, the process of conception and family planning.
In addition, there are incidences of rape, early pregnancy and a great lack of awareness of sexuality among Bedouin teenaged girls as a result of the taboo against speaking about such subjects.
"Even I, an educated woman, couldn't talk to my mother about pregnancy, birth, relations with my husband. I couldn't even consult with her about whether to get an epidural [painkilling injection during labor]," says Elbdor. "There's a sense of shame attached to these subjects." Says Wafa, a nursing student: "We are from a sector that doesn't speak. Here we talk about everything."
Rizkalla makes the course as experiential as possible with hands-on techniques such as demonstrating the use of a condom with the help of a closed umbrella and the mechanics of a tampon with the aid of a cup of tea. One method used was a collage and when one young participant saw a picture of a man grabbing a woman, she began to cry saying she feels trapped by her family and wants to run away.
Participants say they gain much from the course. "I understand a lot of things I wasn't aware of before," says one. Another adds: "I feel more independent, more confident in myself."
The participants clearly love and admire Rizkalla, who makes herself available during the break for private questions. "She is as sweet as the full moon and as effective and enjoyable," said one participant.