“Bedouin usually get married young,” she said. “People ask me, ‘Why aren’t you married, don’t you have anybody?’ It does pressure me, but I plan to choose a partner who will allow me to keep studying.”
Abu Ammar covers her hair with a bright blue head scarf, or hijab. She said she wears it both as a religious statement and a Bedouin custom, which begins at age 12. The youngest of eight children, she was encouraged by her parents to study at the university but to continue living at home. She said that she does talk to fellow male students at the university but would not meet them outside of class.
“The Bedouin society is still very traditional,” she said. “I can be friends with men in the context of school but not more than that.”
Her friend Reem Al-Amrany, who is married and working on her master’s degree, said it has become not only acceptable, but an advantage for women to go to university. She is the oldest of seven children, and her mother is illiterate. Her parents have encouraged her education, as has her husband.
“Today, when a man wants to marry, he looks for a working woman because of the hard life and the economic situation,” she said. “He needs someone to help him make a living.”
Her husband graduated from high school but never went to the university. He works as an electrician, which gives her the luxury to continue her studies. What’s hardest for her, she said, is finding the work-life balance.
“My biggest challenge is the balance between studying, working, my home, my husband and my daughter,” Al-Amrany said, echoing the problem of many Western women.
At Ben-Gurion University, there are an estimated 350 female Bedouin students, as well as 150 men from that community. There are dozens of others in other institutions of higher education. Many of these students receive generous scholarships to the university.
These young women speak Arabic at home and in school and often need special tutoring before they can take classes in Hebrew. The university has worked hard to integrate Bedouin students, said university President Rivka Carmi.
“Ben-Gurion University is helping hundreds of Bedouin students realize their potential,” Carmi said. “The university is able to offer counseling, tutoring and scholarship support that has enabled hundreds of students to benefit from higher education.”
There are an estimated 250,000 Bedouin in Israel, most of them living in the area around Beersheva. Tens of thousands live in “unrecognized villages,” meaning their claims to land are not recognized by the Israeli government. They do not receive basic services, such as water. However, the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled they must be given education and medical care.
Most of them don’t have computers at home or even electricity for studying at night. At the same time, it is unacceptable for women to be out at night without a male family member, so most of the women continue to live at home during their studies.
Jamal Al-Kinawi’s job is to help integrate the Bedouin students into the university. When public transportation is not available, the university offers special buses to make sure the women get home before dark.
“There are economic challenges and social challenges,” he said. “We try to help them get accustomed to the Western academic climate, and we have other Bedouin students help them as well.”
For many of the Bedouin students, their time at the university is their first encounter with Jewish Israelis. Sarab Abu Rabia, a sociologist and the first Bedouin woman to receive a Ph.D., says it is not always an easy meeting.
“Because of the geographical separation between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and the separate education systems, the campus is their first encounter,” she said. “This encounter also creates gaps where the women can feel like they are immigrants in their own country.”
Bedouin villages are organized around tribes, and marriages are usually either within tribes or among different tribes. Abu Rabia said that not only do Bedouin students meet Israeli Jews at Ben-Gurion, they also interact with peers from other tribes.
“In villages most meetings are with close family or extended family,” she said. “Meeting people from other tribes also creates romantic relationships. This could threaten a taboo code that prevents marriages between different kinds of tribes such as upper-class and lower-class tribes.”
Her husband is from a different tribe, and she had to fight hard to get her parents to agree to the match. Today, she has three sons, and she said that when they grow up, they can marry whomever they want.