Huda al-Sakh never imagined the constraints of Bedouin Israeli society would allow her to become her own boss, but now she runs a fast food joint employing her husband as kitchen skivvy.
With a light headscarf covering her forehead, Huda stands behind a stainless steel counter in a rickety shed, filling pita bread with sizzling falafel in Israel’s desert town of Segev Shalom.
Her husband Imad works beside her.
Two years ago, the mother of six never believed she would have the money or the social acceptance to run her own business.
But one small loan from a community project allowed the 46-year-old to beat the poverty trap and start to remodel ancient Bedouin traditions by opening a shop in this sandy, run-down town in southern Israel.
“The tent and tea are still part of our lives but we are moving forward,” Imad conceded.
“You learn things in life and that is good. The wife has to help make ends meet. She can no longer stay buried at home and has to work and leave the house just like men,” he said.
The 160,000 Bedouins who live mostly in the Negev desert are probably the most under-privileged sector in Israeli society, enduring pervasive poverty, unemployment, bleak housing and miserable health conditions.
In recent decades, their society has undergone major transformation — albeit often forced by the government — in which many have abandoned the traditional semi-nomadic way of life for towns like Segev Shalom.
The changes have shaken the foundations of a patriarchal and religious Muslim society, forcing men and women to adapt.
But change is gradual. The business may be hers, but Huda defers to Imad, saying she is reluctant to speak to reporters.
Based on principles of microfinance and group-lending programs applied around the world, the Sawa program offers traditionally cloistered Bedouin women a rare chance to turn their hand to small-time capitalism.
Sawa, the Arabic word for together, is operated by Israel’s Koret fund in partnership with the Olive Stone trust and additional contributors.
Today it involves more than 900 Bedouin women from seven communities across the Negev desert.
“We choose the poorest of the poorest women in the Bedouin communities,” said Nuzha al-Huzael, manager of the project.
Guided and supported by a social worker, five women decide together what business each one can start with a loan of up to 5,000 shekels (US$1,400).
Most women set up grocery stores, sell traditional jewelry and fabrics, or produce homemade dairy products to sell in Bedouin and Jewish towns.
Each group member acts as a guarantor for the repayment of the others’ loans by installments, usually over a year. More than 80 percent of investments have been successful so far, Huzael said.
Farawna Nasra decided two years ago to launch a pillow-making business in the northern Negev town of Rahat. With her husband and most of her 12 children living off social welfare, the 50-year-old says she had little choice.
Today her pillows and mattresses attract customers from across the country, from blushing Bedouin brides with dowries to Israeli Jews furnishing flats.
“I always sewed pillows at home as a child. This is an old Bedouin tradition and, praise God, things are going well,” Nasra said, sitting in her little bare-brick store among the many piles of crimson pillows and polyester sheets.
Her dark, weathered hands stuff the pillows and thread them closed with a large needle. With a few more deft flourishes, she sews the colorful pillow case and tosses the finished product onto a pile behind her.
“I took a loan from Sawa and bought raw materials from factories in Beersheba,” she said, referring to the nearby Israeli city. “Today I even employ other women who sew at home.”
Although most Bedouin women maintain their traditional role as homemakers, bare necessity forces a growing number to seek jobs that supplement or even replace their husband’s income.
Some enterprises have failed because of social constraints. Some villages have turned away Sawa representatives, but Huzael said Bedouin society as a whole is accepting the project.
“We feared that the project would be criticized because people can think that we are trying to get the women out of the home and away from tradition,” she said.
“But there are many men who are very happy with the program simply because the family’s income is increasing. Today we feel support and even active support, from men.”
The focus is women for the simple reason that Bedouin women are easier to work with than men, Huzael said.
“We might include men in the project in the future, but similar programs across the world have been more successful among women.”
SOLIDARITY: A group of European lawmakers condemned China’s aggressive moves, while the foreign minister of Lithuania said Taiwan ‘cannot become a second Ukraine’ A German parliamentary delegation would visit Taiwan in the first week of October, German lawmaker Holger Becker on Monday told visiting Democratic Progressive Party legislators Fan Yun (范雲) and Lin I-chin (林宜瑾) at the Bundestag in Berlin. Asked by Fan whether he is worried about possible reprisals from Beijing, such as banning him and his family from entering China, Becker said he is more interested in visiting Taiwan, as “now is the time for democracies to stand together.” Fan and Lin also met with German officials to exchange views on digital education and governance. Investing in digital infrastructure and protecting equal rights to
As China waged extensive military exercises off Taiwan, a group of US defense experts in Washington was focused on their own simulation of an eventual — but for now entirely hypothetical — US-China war over the nation. The unofficial what-if game is being conducted on the fifth floor of an office building not far from the White House, and it posits a US military response to a Chinese invasion in 2026. Even though the participants bring a US perspective, they are finding that a US-Taiwan victory, if there is one, could come at a huge cost. “The results are showing that under
‘SIMULATED ATTACKS’: Ten warships each from China and Taiwan were maneuvering at close quarters in the Taiwan Strait, with some Chinese vessels crossing the median line Taiwan yesterday reiterated that it would not succumb to pressure from Beijing after China carried out its most provocative military drills in decades in retaliation for US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan last week. “We will never bow to pressure. We uphold freedom and democracy, and believe Taiwanese disapprove [of] China’s bullying actions with force and saber rattling at our door,” Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) said yesterday. China had “arrogantly” disrupted regional peace and stability, he said, calling on Beijing to not flex its military muscles. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has also called on the international community to “support
DRILLS CONTINUE: China’s creation of a restricted zone across the median line of the Taiwan Strait challenges a 70-year-old fact, a ministry of defense official said The nation’s military fully complies with international rules and guidelines when responding to Chinese military drills, the Ministry of National Defense said yesterday, vowing to continue defending Taiwan in accordance with international law. China on Thursday launched four days of military drills around Taiwan proper in response to US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei. The drills were expected to end on Sunday, but neither Beijing nor Taipei confirmed their conclusion, although the Ministry of Transportation and Communications said it had seen some evidence suggesting at least a partial drawdown. However, China yesterday said the drills would continue, saying “the