The Deserts of the Levant: A Backdrop for Gender Inequality

By Camilla Caraccio

International Women's Initiative News Writer

(Photo Credit)

The Levant region is home to some of the most dramatic deserts in the world, with a harsh climate mitigated only by the beauty of the landscape and the unparalleled hospitality of its people – the Bedouins, or “dwellers of the deserts.” But hidden amid the escarpments and majestic cliffs, sexism has hampered social wife for local women. In these communities, a woman's existence is often confined to private spaces and a limited range of social activities. Although their status may vary from place to place, women are generally expected to comply with the “collective interest” that, along with deeply embedded values of pride and patriarchy, is a pillar of tribal life.

Marriage is traditionally interpreted as a contract between a woman’s guardian and the groom, formalizing a husband’s control over his wife. Similarly, another trait of the traditional Bedouin family is a sharp division of labor drawn between men and women. Men and women have distinct roles dictated by gender: the man leads the family and provides the sole source of household income, and the woman fulfills domestic duties as a mother and caregiver. These heavy responsibilities make it difficult for Bedouin women to distance themselves from the domestic sphere in order to pursue their education and other individual interests.

Illiteracy is one of the primary obstacles to women's advancement. While boys are encouraged to attend school at least at the elementary level, girls rarely receive equal encouragement or opportunities; the illiteracy rate of Bedouin women is as high as 85%, and women comprise the majority of unemployed Bedouins. Primarily for this reason, females make up the majority of unemployed desert dwellers at around the 30%. Women are also only rarely afforded employment opportunities outside their homes, and most of these opportunities are limited to informal labor and are poorly paid, thus failing to guarantee long-term economic independence. Many Bedouin women also find themselves excluded from direct access to dispute resolution processes. Exploring this problem, a report released by the Amman-based WANA Institute identifies geographical constraints, lack of trust in state institutions, patriarchal values and financial barriers as the main reasons for women’s isolation from dispute resolution processes and public life more broadly.

Lastly, according to the Bedouin legal system, virtually every aspect of life is regulated by customary law, which is heavily influenced by patriarchal norms. Generally, Bedouin communities see the female as a symbolic vessel of male honor, so women are expected to avoid any scandal that may cause the family to fall into disgrace or sully the tribal name. Preserving the dignity of the family is paramount, and those breaking the “silent rule” may meet disapproval and be penalized.

The arrival of Israeli settlers has also negatively affected the already precarious position of women in Bedouin communities. Large waves of house demolition in the Jordan Valley have seriously compromised their general well-being, contributing to the incidence of rape and violence committed by military forces themselves, according to some recent studies.

What measures have been taken to address these gender inequalities in Bedouin communities? NGOs and other civil society actors have undertaken initiatives to challenge some of these practices in rural areas more broadly, although their degree of success is unclear. Stories from the victims of the unfair tribal system have also drawn attention the marginalized status of Bedouin women and the countless benefits to both women and their communities at large that would come from their financial empowerment and greater integration into public life.

In an interview several years ago, Queen Rania al Abdullah of Jordan pointed to deeply entrenched attitudes and time-honored traditions as the main obstacles holding back Bedouin communities from achieving greater gender equality and social advancement for women. Resistance from more conservative members of Bedouin communities has long been fed by fears that revisiting the principles underpinning tribal life and creating conditions for progress would mean giving way to liberal Western values. In order to counter these fears, Bedouin communities need support, information and resources to gradually envision a future where folklore and civilization go hand-in-hand, with women's participation seen as key source of progress. These initiatives should seek to preserve the positive aspects of Bedouin traditions while also encouraging respect for women’s rights as a moral, legal and economic imperative.