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Women Hidden from the Eye

On the Status of Widows in Arab-Bedouin Society in Israel

Excerpts from a lecture to the Convention on Widowhood in Mediterranean Societies, Van Leer Institute, Jerusalem, December 3, 2007

Khittam, a 47-year-old widow and mother of three daughters, has no civil status in Israel. She has lived for 20 years in one of the state-established Bedouin-Arab towns of the Negev. In 1998 she lost her husband, a Bedouin-Arab Israeli citizen. Because her daughters were born here and appear on the father's identity card, they too are Israeli citizens. After his death, an attempt was made through the Welfare Ministry to obtain residency status for Khittam. This was rejected on the ground that only her Israeli husband could apply for her. She and her daughters live on a survivors' allotment, which goes to the eldest, who was married off by the husband's family at age 17. The family also withdrew Khittam's daughters from school at age 12. She had no say in these decisions.

Khittam's story represents the lot of hundreds of women in Bedouin-Arab1 society. They arrived in Israel from the Occupied Territories or one of the Arab states, usually Jordan, after marrying a Bedouin-Arab. Sometimes the marriage was polygamous, as permitted by Islamic law. These women are able to gain legal status in Israel only if the husband applies for what is called "family unification." In cases of polygamy, the situation is more complex. Israel does not recognize polygamous marriages (although it does not bring the husband to trial). Second, third and fourth wives, therefore, cannot receive legal status.

The women who are the subject of this paper suffer threefold discrimination. First, they are Palestinians who lack civil status, which puts them in a vulnerable position within the Israeli legal system. Second, they live in Bedouin-Arab society, which has special features within the larger society of Palestinians in Israel. Third, they are widows—a condition, we shall see, that renders them especially vulnerable.

Within patriarchal Palestinian society, a female is seen as needing male accompaniment during every phase of her life: her father's in her youth and her husband's in maturity. During the years of marriage, she depends on her husband for a variety of needs—legal, financial and social. After his death she returns, as it were, to her earlier state, in which she must be accompanied by her father or brother. In Negev Bedouin-Arab society, however, the situation for a widow is graver. Here the extended family, which played a major part in the life of the married couple while the husband lived, is still considered the authoritative unit in many spheres of the widow's life.

Consider, for instance, her children. Israeli law sees the father and mother as the natural parents, but Bedouin-Arab society in the Negev does not. The children are viewed rather as part of the late husband's family. A great many decisions concerning their lives and hers are taken by the men of the family without her knowing about them, much less being asked for an opinion. Her husband was the sole link between her and his family. Once he is gone, she has no place in the latter. The in-laws are likely to see her as a superfluous burden. They may return her to her family and the country she came from, while keeping the children. They see this step as logical, because the bonds between the families are dissolved at the husband's death.

Normally certain government funds, such as the child allowance, go to the wife because she is responsible for maintaining the household and bringing up the children. When they lack civil status, however, Arab widows have extremely limited access to these resources. They can receive no National Insurance payments. On the other hand, if she attempts to return to her parents in the Territories or an Arab country, the border officials will see that she has long lived in Israel without permission, and she won't be allowed to return. Because her children do not appear on her identity card, she cannot take them with her across the border, for fear of being charged with kidnapping.

In her family of origin, the widow is considered a long-term financial burden, for her chances of remarrying are slight. This lowers her negotiating power. The economic situation in the Territories is so bad, moreover, that her parents may want her to leave the children in Israel, in the family of their father, both to give them a better future and to avoid having more mouths to feed.

After Jihan's husband, an Israeli citizen, initiated the procedure for her gaining legal status, she received the position of temporary resident, which gave her social rights. During the procedure, however, he died. His family decided to return her identity card to the Interior Ministry, although her application was well advanced. In effect, her late husband's family thus established where she would live for the rest of her life, for it is very hard, if not impossible, to remain in Israel with neither support (in the form of a husband or father) nor legal standing. She has no right to social allotments, she is not allowed to work, and she can be deported any day. What's more, the Interior Ministry demands that she leave the country from the moment she has no right to civil status. In this way the late husband's family determines whether or not Jihan will raise her own children.

Unlike a divorcée, a widow in Bedouin-Arab society bears no blame for ending the marriage. As a social entity, however, she is often more marginalized than a divorcée. Divorce frees the women from all bonds to her husband's family. This liberation (which usually separates her from her children) restores her, in social terms, to her family of origin, where she may or may not be wanted. In certain cases the way to remarriage may be open, although a new marriage is likely to be less advantageous because of her age and social position.

Compared to the divorcée, the Bedouin-Arab widow is in a kind of social limbo. She is not necessarily welcome in her original family, nor is she desired in that of her late husband. She has no hold on her children. She lacks social position and civil standing. Without any horizon for the future, she tends to remain on the margins of the husband's family, to reduce the scope of her life and to lose what little part she ever had in decisions concerning her children. In return she retains the formal status of mother and her existence is tolerated. This position makes possible a limited freedom. Her family and social obligations are small.

Family unification

A woman married to a resident or citizen of Israel can receive civil status after her husband applies for it, provided that the Ministry of the Interior approves. Until 1995, as a rule, the Ministry of the Interior tended to approve these applications within a short time, granting the woman a status identical with that of her husband. In 1995, however, the Ministry adopted a graduated five-year procedure for such "family unification." During this period the foreign wives receive a temporary status. If the husband dies within the five years, the Ministry views the connection as having ended. Until recently, this meant cancelation of the woman's temporary status, followed by an order for deportation. A few years ago, however, the Interior Ministry created a procedure to be used in case of divorce. The procedure established that under certain circumstances, a special committee would discuss the possibility of granting the divorcée civil standing for humanitarian reasons. The procedure was then applied to widows as well. In 2006, in the name of several widows, the Israel Religious Action Center (an arm of the Reform Movement) petitioned against extending the divorcée procedure to them, asking the State to consider the fact that they had no part in dissolving the marriage and to let them remain in Israel with their children. The petition is pending.

Legal status and gender

Even before the introduction of the graduated procedure in 1995, many foreign wives of Israeli Bedouin-Arab did not gain civil status. There were usually two reasons for this: the prohibition against polygamy and the woman's dependence on her husband to apply for "family unification."

Since polygamy was prohibited, the Interior Ministry adopted a policy of not granting civil status to wives beyond the first. This policy received full backing in the course of the years from various Israeli courts. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from the decision in the case of Abu Assa (1126/02) from the year 2002.

"It is the guiding policy of the Interior Ministry to refuse approval to applications for family unification in cases where the marriage is bigamous. The Interior Ministry believes that a positive answer to an application for family unification in cases where the husband has committed the crime of bigamy would amount not merely to indirect aid—after the fact—to the criminal act, but encouragement in carrying out the crime…

"The policy of the Interior Ministry is based on good and suitable considerations, and we do not find that the interests of the petitioners constitute a suitable exception to the general policy. If, however—as Attorney Carmon claims—refusal of the petition will cause grave harm to the wife, the petitioner can follow her to her own place, since she is after all his wife, and his concern for his wife and children is a concern of first priority that must indeed trouble him."

In this decision the court follows the Interior Ministry and punishes two wives (the "legal" and the second) for the deeds of the husband. If the husband "follows" his second wife, then the first wife, the legal one, will be left in Israel without protection or social support. If she goes with them, she will be forced to live in another country, far from her original family, and to raise her children in a foreign environment. On the other hand, if the family remains in Israel, the second wife will have no status or rights. In this manner a law is activated that appears indeed to defend the status of the wife in Israel, but in effect harms many Bedouin-Arab women in polygamous marriages.

Despite the harsh reports concerning widows without status, behind every appeal reaching organizations for social change in recent years stands a woman who, on the strength of her personal abilities, has sought to break her chains and achieve her rights, as in the following account.

Hama was born and raised in Jordan. At age 23 she was divorced and lived in the house of her mother, after the care of her two children was granted by a Muslim court to their father in southern Jordan. Hama's own father died, and her brothers pressured her to marry a Bedouin-Arab named Sami, a citizen of Israel. She married him, becoming his fourth wife. In 1998, pregnant with twins, she arrived in Israel. As the fourth wife she could receive no status or rights. Sami turned out to be physically abusive. Hama lived in a tin shack in a poor section of Rahat, a state-established town in the Negev. She suffered under his blows. When she asked his family for help, this only led to greater violence; Sami threatened he would kill her if she complained again. In 2005, however, he died suddenly. Hama found herself, at age 32, without status or possibilities of livelihood. In her distress she looked for a job. At first she worked for one of Sami's elder sons in exchange for room and board. But Hama needed to earn money, and so she went to work for one of Sami's friends. Then the family—that is, Sami's older children from his other marriages—determined to send her back to Jordan on the ground that she was "a troublemaker." Her children, they decided, would stay with them in Israel. One morning in the year 2006 the family took the children's documents from her and drove her to Jericho, where they put her on the bus to the Jordanian border. While on the bus, Hama phoned the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel. Never dreaming she would take action, the family failed to make sure she crossed to Jordan. With the help of PHR-IL, Hama went instead to a shelter in Israel, where she began a campaign for custody of her children and a status that would enable her to remain legally in the country. At present, through an agreement proposed by her late husband's family in Family Court, Hama has temporary custody of the children, on condition that she live near them. The issue of her status remains to be decided.

Children, law and society

In Israel, official status devolves from parent to child. A woman may have lived here many years, raising children who are Israelis, but she cannot apply on her own for civil status, and Israel abjures responsibility for arranging her status in case her husband dies. When the question of her rights and status comes up, the focus usually shifts to the rights of her Israeli children. Their welfare is the sole consideration. By leaving the woman without the economic ability to raise the children, take care of them and plan their future, the State perpetuates her absolute dependence on her late husband's family.

Israeli law sees the mother as the children's natural guardian, whereas according to the laws of Bedouin-Arab society they belong to the father's family. If and when the issue reaches the courts, there is a chance that the woman will be granted a status on humanitarian grounds. The norms of the Interior Ministry also distinguish between a childless woman and one (divorced or widowed) who has small children for whom she is the principal caretaker or with whom she maintains a close and continuous connection. When it comes to facts on the ground, however, the State sees the woman first as a mother and not as a person. Children's rights are stressed, indeed, but the rights of women are ignored.

In sum, despite the fact that they are mature in body, soul and mind, Bedouin-Arab widows who have no civil status are prevented from making decisions concerning their future and that of their children.

Responsibility for this state of affairs falls both on Bedouin-Arab society and on the State. For demographic and political reasons, however, the State ignores its share, just as it ignores what happens in Bedouin-Arab society as a whole, which is part of society in Israel.

If Israel would recognize the situation of these widows, and its responsibility toward them, granting them human and civil rights, it would give them the chance to improve their situation. Thus the state would also pave the way for social change in Bedouin-Arab society, as well as for a change in the status of woman in Israel.

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