On Monday, March 25 Case Western Reserve University hosted a presentation by Amal Abu Alkom, an advocate for women’s education in Israel. She was accompanied by Gabe Axler who translated Alkom’s words from Hebrew to English.
The talk began with Axler giving attendees a quick overview of the plan and a brief background about himself. Axler is originally from Chicago but moved to Be’er Sheva, Israel where he was working with an entrepreneurial group. It is there that he met Alkom and began his role as translator. He has been working with Alkom now for three or four years, helping to bridge the gap between non-Israelis and Hebrew speakers. Alkom speaks Hebrew and Arabic, while Axler speaks Hebrew and English.
After his introduction, Axler gave attendees an overview of the location and community that Alkom comes from. Israel is a majority Jewish country. About 75 percent of the population is Jewish and about 20 percent of the population is Arab. According to Axler, the Arabic Bedouin community in Israel makes up about three percent of the total Israeli population. He said the Bedouin community is “the periphery of the periphery” when defining where it stands in the country. He noted that it is also the fastest growing community in Israel with around eight children per family.
The Bedouin people in Israel live in the Negev region, are Sunni Muslim and are traditionally nomadic. They have many traditions that have been passed down through generations and are spread throughout the Middle East. This is in stark contrast to the highly modern Israeli cities north of the Negev.
Axler described the classification of Israeli cities as 10 “clusters” based off of wealth and the fact that all the Bedouin villages are classified under cluster one, which is the least wealthy.
The Israeli Bedouin community has faced a rapid transition in recent years, which has shown itself in the shifting of societal roles as young people gain access to information through technology and previous generations do not need to pass down traditional information as much.
Many geographically remote or distant villages are unrecognized and thus do not get government funding and resource allocation to modernize. The Bedouin population in particular has many villages that are not recognized.
The educational landscape in the region is also below that of most of modern Israel. The dropout rate of 36 percent is three times the national average. Only about 30 percent of schools offer competitive matriculation exams.
Alkom began her presentation by speaking about her story and early life. She grew up in a small village called Wadi Na’am in the Negev. Alkom grew up living in a tent and had to walk to a well to get water. She could only do homework during the day because they didn’t have electrical lighting. The village had a population of 37,000 but only one doctor.
Alkom smiled as she remembered the memory of when she was a young girl and spent her lunchtime sitting outside the village doctor’s office and eating. In fourth grade, she began to dream of becoming a doctor herself. She got an old lab coat and made a makeshift stethoscope and became known as the girl that would “become a doctor.”
Alkom held onto this hope until the end of eighth grade. Upon finishing primary school, she realized that girls didn’t get to attend secondary school. The boys would have to travel a significant distance in order to attain further education. Her hopes of becoming a doctor were shattered.
Alkom, however, did not give up. Even though she was only 13 or 14 years old, she approached the lowest echelons of her community’s tribal leaders and went up the ranks, appealing for a chance to further her education.
Upon reaching the top of the leadership, she was told that she could not continue her education. In response she threatened to throw herself down a well. The leaders are said to have asked which well, so that they could recover the body.
Abu-Alkom spent the next 10 years as a member of her community and without education. She said that she would cry herself to sleep on many nights. However, her life would soon take a turn for the better.
She met and befriended a Jewish woman in her area. When Alkom’s new friend heard about Alkom’s desire for further education and her life story, she offered to help. Alkom likened this miraculous renewal of hope to having a terminal illness and suddenly having a doctor offer a cure.
Alkom gathered other women who also wanted more education and went to Be’er Sheva (Beersheba), the largest city in the Negev, for classes. She would face challenges of having no financial support and balancing caring for her family while attending school. Other women from her group would go on to become nurses, earn doctorates and achieve other accomplishments.
Alkom made the choice to switch her focus to social work instead of medicine. She saw social work as equivalent to being a doctor for large-scale problems and sought to open up more educational opportunities in her area.
Alkom opened the non-profit Bedouin Women for Themselves in Segev Shalom to help expand the educational sector and was recognized by a larger Israeli organization that recognized grassroots movements and organizations. She would start doing social business as a way to create self-generating income to help spread her personal and community’s story and the many struggles and successes she faced in advancing her education.
Bedouin Women for Themselves began with just two women and now has 48 women and 60 girls working for it. They run programs and do projects to help the modernizing society grow together and open up more educational opportunities. Alkom brought traditional dresses with her from Israel that were made by Bedouin women in her organization. The proceeds from selling the dresses go to the organization’s education-based projects.
Axler described the dressmaking and sale as a way for the women to “remember their roots” and show that they can advance into modernity without losing their traditions. Alkom described how the group begins new projects by gathering, closing their eyes and self-reflecting to visualize the project.
Alkom mentioned how she shocks herself because she has demonstrated that “a woman from the Negev can speak and think freely and become educated,” a sentiment not held by everyone in that region. She has shown that she is able to make changes and that others can too.
She spoke about the challenges of the change as well. Alkom had to work to begin changing the traditional system of a male-dominated society deeply rooted in tradition.
Alkom hopes that future generations of Bedouin women won’t have to face the same challenges and roadblocks she did. She believes that Bedouin women are smart and have many skills but face challenges like language barriers and a very traditional society. Alkom believes these challenges can be overcome, even if they are difficult.
CWRU is working with Alkom to study the effects of having tablets as part of English courses on Bedouin teenagers’ desire to learn and continue their education. CWRU students can visit Israel as well.
Alkom has noticed the effects of her organization’s efforts: there are more Bedouin women in advanced schools, earning degrees and getting all sorts of jobs.