Bedouin scholar blazes new trails

The first female Bedouin in Israel to earn a doctorate, Abu-Rabia-Queder is now exploring Bedouin culture and Arab feminism. Photo courtesy of Ben Gurion University of the Negev. “I grew up like an insider/outsider in three different cultures,” Sarab Abu-Rabia, …

The first female Bedouin in Israel to earn a doctorate, Abu-Rabia-Queder is now exploring Bedouin culture and Arab feminism.

Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder

Photo courtesy of Ben Gurion University of the Negev.
“I grew up like an insider/outsider in three different cultures,” Sarab Abu-Rabia, the first female Bedouin in Israel to ear a doctorate.

Like mothers everywhere, Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder wants her children to grow up to be “decent, educated and independent – and healthy, of course.”

But as an educator and first female Bedouin Ph.D., Abu-Rabia-Queder does not take these goals lightly.

Born in 1976 to an unusual couple – her father was the first Bedouin physician in the Negev and her mother was from a northern Israeli Arab town – she grew up in the large and predominantly Jewish city of Beersheva rather than the homogenous Bedouin cities or unofficial villages where most of the Negev’s approximately 180,000 Bedouin Arabs reside.

“I see myself connected to local Bedouin culture, northern Arab culture and the surrounding Israeli culture,” she tells ISRAEL21c. “I grew up like an insider/outsider in each of the three cultures.”

This feeling was particularly acute during her years at Beersheva Comprehensive Aleph High School during the first Arab uprising (intifada). “A lot of my Jewish friends used to examine my loyalty every time there was a bombing or some other event. So it was not easy,” she recalls.

Teacher and author

Today, she lectures full time on Bedouin culture and Arab feminism at Ben-Gurion University’s Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, occupying the D.E. Koshland Jr. Family Career Development Chair in Desert Studies.

Her newest book, Palestinian Women in Israel: Life and Struggle from the Margins, co-edited with Naomi Weiner, is the topic of a conference today in the mixed Jewish-Arab Beit Berl College near Kfar Saba.

For her first book, the 2008 Mudrot Ve’ahuvot (Excluded and Loved: Educated Bedouin Women’s Life Stories), she interviewed 17 Negev Bedouin women who pioneered study at the post-secondary level. Her primary interest was how their higher education affected their later family and professional lives.

There was an intensely personal reason this topic resonated with Abu-Rabia-Queder, who had earlier explored it for her 2006 doctoral thesis at BGU. While studying for her master’s degree, she became determined to marry fellow student and civil-society activist Hassan Abu-Queder, a Bedouin from outside her tribe.

“This kind of match was forbidden, so we had to struggle and fight for our marriage,” she relates. She reasoned that other Bedouin women with exposure to the wider world were likely experiencing similar situations.

She and Abu-Queder, an accountant, have three young sons. Living in a Jewish neighborhood of Beersheva, the boys face many of the same prejudices and culture clashes that their mother did.

However, their educational path will be different: The older two attend a bilingual school run by the Hagar Association, where Jewish and Arab children learn side by side.

“I think if something would bring real peace and understanding to our region, it is this school,” she says. “They grow up knowing each other as human beings with day-to-day contact between them and their families, and with an understanding of each other’s narratives and history.”

Retaining ethnic identity

Abu-Rabia-Queder believes that instilling a strong sense of identity is key to her children’s upbringing in Beersheva, where there aren’t any Muslim museums, performance centers or even mosques or graveyards.

“Not losing identity is very important to us as parents, because this is what gives every person confidence in themselves,” she says.

When she got her master’s in 1995, she was one of just eight Bedouin women at BGU. Now there are hundreds, thanks in large part to the Robert H. Arnow Center for Bedouin Studies and Development that BGU established in 1998 to encourage and support young Bedouins seeking a higher education.

In contrast, the much smaller population of Bedouins in the Galilee, mainly in the Haifa area, integrated the educational values of the surrounding populations earlier.

“The Galil Bedouin live near or with other Arabs, so they have different models to learn from,” Abu-Rabia-Queder explains. “That’s why we find the Bedouin in other Arab countries or in the north are more open and less conservative than the Negev Bedouin.”

Her father had been educated up north, but he did not want his eldest daughter to go far from home for college. As a result, Abu-Rabia-Queder abandoned her goal of becoming a lawyer since BGU – the only local university — did not have a law school. However, she ended up delighted with teaching and put to good use the analytical skills gained from her high school concentration in biology and chemistry.

“As an undergraduate, I was also an elementary school teacher of Hebrew and English because there was a shortage of teachers, and by the time I had finished my first degree I had fallen in love with this field,” says Abu-Rabia-Queder, who won a 2009 Rich Foundation Award for the Advancement of Women in Academia.

About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.