Making a difference: the Bedouin women taking part in the training program hope to open the first businesses in Qasr as-Sirr.

The new Bedouin village of Qasr as-Sirr still only has a population of about 9,000 people, and it doesn’t even have a grocery story yet, but 18 Bedouin women are determined to make a difference.

So explains Kiram Baloum, director of the Women’s Empowerment Unit at the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development (CJAED). Baloum has worked tirelessly for more than a decade to empower Israeli Arab women, who historically are among the most disadvantaged of Israel’s populations.

Baloum’s vision for these women is one of advanced education and career opportunities – a vision dramatically at odds with the reality until now, with many women lacking even a high school education. Thousands of Bedouins are living in unrecognized villages throughout Israel, lacking even the basics of water and electricity.

Therefore CJAED, in conjunction with Sidreh (an organization of empowerment and advocacy run by and for Bedouin women), has organized an advanced education and training program for Bedouin women between the ages of 25 and 35, where they will earn their Bagrut (Israeli high school matriculation) diploma and simultaneously train in the business skills of their choice.

Laying the foundations for business

Course subjects include computer skills, industrial management, and business administration. The goal is that these women will open the first businesses in the village of Qasr as-Sirr, laying the foundations the village needs to thrive as an economically viable community.

Over the course of the program, the number of women has increased from 12 to 18, and most are married with children. Though they are few in number, Baloum is confident that their iron determination can make all the difference to Qas as-Sirr.

“This group [of women] is very strong and believes in itself,” says Baloum. “These people see themselves as trailblazers for the women who will come after them.” They are so committed, Baloum continues, that one of the women – a mother with children – walks for 45 minutes every morning to attend her 8:45am class.

Located in the Negev Desert near Dimona, Qasr as-Sirr represents an effort to consolidate the Bedouin population that was formerly scattered throughout the Negev into one cohesive village. One advantage of this consolidation is that the government can more easily provide electricity and water to one location rather than to various points in the desert.

Once recognition of the village and basic infrastructure are in place, explains Daniel Kennemer, head of resource development at CJAED, “there is a basis for economic development.”

From schoolbooks to fitness and food

Since the village is barely established, even the most basic businesses are in demand right now. Baloum gives several examples of the businesses that the women plan to set up, which include a bookstore for children’s schoolbooks, a fitness center, a computer store, and a small eatery next to the children’s school.

One of the women plans to open a wedding services salon. Baloum comments: “Weddings are an industry, and women need different services such as cosmetics and other things… These women are married and have kids, they know how to help with that.”

But at this point in the village’s development, says Baloum, even a simple grocery store is a viable business venture.

The training program is having an impact on the cultural sphere of Bedouin life as well as the economic one, creating what Kennemer calls “a quiet social revolution.” Until now, it was not customary for Bedouin women to have careers, and it’s been necessary for the women in training to work closely with the cooperation of their husbands, in order to ensure harmony in their marriages every step of the way.

This process hit a potential snag when a lecturer in business development was a man. The program leaders told the women to speak to their husbands about allowing them to attend the lecture – pointing out that when the women enter the business world, they will be interacting with men on a regular basis. The husbands agreed, even though one of the preconditions of the program had originally been that all the lecturers would be female. To Kennemer, this signifies that a gradual change in the husbands’ attitudes is underway.

“Husbands are agreeing to not oppose a certain amount of liberalization in the status of women,” says Kennemer.

Baloum concludes: “What’s interesting in this story is that these women are so committed, have such a hard economic situation, and they set an example for other women in the same situation. They want more and more courses, they’re thirsty for knowledge. They have all the characteristics of leadership.”