The Joy and Burden of Being First

By Noga Shavit
Minneapolis Community Shlicha

Dr. Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder is the first female Bedouin PhD recipient in Israel. She was always the first in her class. Her father, Dr. Yunes Abu Rabia was the first Bedouin Physician in Israel. Still, when I ask what she perceives as her greatest challenge she answers without hesitation: to raise my kids to be open-minded, liberal and confident and proud of their culture and heritage. 

 At 33-years-old, Abu-Radia-Queder is a mother of three young children (ages 6, 4, and a newborn, all boys), a full-time lecturer at the Department of Man in Desert at Ben-Gurion University, and a published author who recently published, Excluded and Loved: Educated Bedouin Women's Life Stories. To say she has her hands full is an understatement.

Her personal story is inspiring; the voice she became to other groundbreaking Bedouin women is fascinating.  These “tragic heroes”, as she calls them, are women who consciously decided to stay within the social structure of their tribe by marrying within it, to be able to pursue higher education and professional careers. Doing so, they allow more women to do the same and become more than wives and stay-at-home moms. The personal sacrifice can be very painful, as Abu-Rabia-Queder quotes one woman who told her that she had to “kill her feelings and give up the man she loved,” to gain her father’s trust.

While Abu-Rabia-Queder herself was defiant to the tribe rules and insisted on marrying outside of her tribe, a struggle which was extremely hard, the choices other Bedouin women make are described by her as “heroic.” “They act out of responsibility to their fellow women. This is true feminism. They give up something so they can gain something else, which helps not just themselves but others. By maintaining an ‘honored behavior’ they secure options for the next generation of Bedouin women.”

“Bedouins in Israel are an indigenous minority within the Arab-Muslim minority, and a very deprived one,” she says. Because her father wanted his daughters to thrive academically, she and her sisters studied in Jewish schools, a complicated experience that helped build her self esteem and confidence, but also made her more aware of her own national identity. She now lives in Be’er Sheva, a southern Jewish city populated by some 8,000 Arab families, lacking any Arab schools. For that reason and based on her own history, she was among the founders of a new privately funded bi-lingual school, currently serving 75 Arab and Jewish kids, ages 4 through 6. “My sons learn firsthand about the others while nurturing their language, culture and religion,” she proudly describes this unique educational environment. “I only wish more children in Israel had this opportunity.”

In her book, which is being translated to English, she describes a process in the Bedouin society which is very similar to what the Jewish ultra-orthodox sector is experiencing, with more and more women seeking higher education and “secular,” prestigious professions. “The Bedouin society respected the value of education and was never opposed to what might be perceived as ‘secular’ knowledge,” Abu-Rabia-Queder explains. “The fear was from whatever came with gaining higher education.” For that reason, Bedouin female students hardly ever enjoy student life to its fullest: they have to return home before dark, they can’t get too involved with the other students and some must be accompanied by a male family member.

Abu-Rabia-Queder is full of praise for Ben Gurion University for creating special opportunities and providing assistance, on many different levels, to encourage Bedouin women to obtain university degrees. When I ask her about the future, she tells me that she is pessimistic and optimistic at the same time (an observation not uncommon by many Israelis when asked the same question). “On the national level I’m very worried. I look around and things are mostly deteriorating. But when I think about the community I live in, about the fine people I work with, my partners in the bi-lingual school, my students and many others who share my concerns and hopes, then I feel encouraged. There is so much good out there, things just have to get better,” she says.



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