Voices from beneath the veil of Bedouin tradition

Sarah El-Rashidi, Sunday 28 Oct 2012

Silenced by tradition, often misunderstood and marginalised, Bedouin women express their concerns and aspirations in post-revolutionary Egypt

Bedoin woman from the tribe of Aweida in northern Sinai makes bread (Photo: Reuters)

Silenced by tribal norms and customs, Sinai’s velvety dunes harbour the mystery and secrets of the peninsula’s Bedouin female population. Beneath the black silhouette dictated by Bedouin social codes, Bedouin women often internalise their feelings and opinions, frequently inconsistent with warped media portrayal, given their limited outlet for expression.

"Us Bedouin women do not have freedom of expression, decisions are made by men. This is accentuated in the border areas, more than Arish," asserts Bedouin women’s rights activist Hanan Moqaibid

Particular codes of honour, which encompass pre-Islamic customs, form the structure of Bedouin ethics, which includes honour, hospitality and courage.

"Ird" is the honour code for women. A woman is born with Ird but sexual promiscuity may endanger it. Once lost, Ird cannot be recovered.

Bedouin legislative systems are founded on these honour codes. Bedouin courts often do not permit women to act as a defendant or witness, male elders from the community tend to relay verdicts, explains Moqaibid.

Today honour codes are often disregarded in arbitration processes since Sharia (Islamic) and civil law have become more widely practiced. Nevertheless, socially Bedouin women still remain tied to such codes.

Women in the arid terrain are frequently deprived of their rights in terms of schooling, marriage, work and freedom of expression. Many are denied university education as they are married off at an early age and the nation's affordable universities are too far away.

The extortionate fees of the local private university in Arish are a deterrent for most.

Moreover, women tend to have little choice in terms of marriage and are expected to adhere to the patriarch’s decision in this regard.

"I wanted to marry a Bedouin girl but her family refused, simply because I am not of Bedouin decent. She is now in her mid-thirties and still unmarried, while I am engaged to a local city girl from Arish," explains Mohamed Sabry, a local Arish journalist, illustrating the Bedouin’s immoveable attitude to marital issues.

Arranged marriages amongst relatives are commonplace, especially within the more conservative tribes, like the Dawaghra, Moqaibid says. The practice of having multiple wives is widespread and in most cases the women have little choice in the matter.

"There is a Bedouin saying that dictates, if you are only married to one woman you are still single," Mustafa El-Menei from the Sawairka tribe tells Ahram Online.

The first wife is usually a relative but there is more freedom of choice with the second wife, El-Menei adds.

Typically, the first wife searches for the second wife according to Reham, a local teacher from Arish who has worked extensively with Bedouin women. Although this is not always the case as the man ultimately has the final say.

"I am not happy with my first wife, so I am planning to marry another woman who is divorced with a child. I love her. I will spend my time equally between the two," says Hussein, a Bedouin entrepreneur and taxi driver, clearly smitten with his new muse. Some Bedouin elders deem marriage to a divorced mother as a modern unorthodox phenomenon.

Encouragingly, according to most Bedouin women, they are now granted the right to divorce, a clear mark of development.

However limits on social freedoms continue to restrict movement: women normally require a family chaperone if they wish to leave the confines of their homes.

In addition, modesty is paramount at all times and interaction with men outside their close family is avoided where possible. Subsequently, women's attire is an important element of Bedouin tradition; many wear the niqab (face veil) and all wear the abaya (veil and black cloak).

"As a Bedouin I expect my wife to wear the abaya as well as the veil. She may work but I believe dress code is very important and defines the woman," says Hussein who, unlike many of his male counterparts, permits his wife to work outside the home.

In terms of access to essential services Bedouin women, as well as men, are generally deprived, since many Bedouins are not identified as Egyptian citizens by the state.

In addition, their homes are often located in the wilderness, far away from local services. Bedouin women’s rights activist Moqaibid helps women and girls to attain identity cards as a prerequisite for registering with an NGO is proving your Egyptian nationality.

"Many women and their children are deprived of vital injections against disease," she adds.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), an issue across Egypt, is another major concern for Bedouin women. FGM is still commonly practiced despite various campaigns

"FGM is widespread in Sinai villages and cities, it was 90 per cent but thanks to NGOs and awareness campaigns it has been reduced," assures the Bedouin rights activist.

Occupational activities for Bedouin women often revolve around rearing sheep and goats to provide income. Sewing costumes used to be a popular trade but due to economic hardship it has declined.

Despite such financial difficulties, Sinai’s lucrative black market remains a male-dominated environment, women do not discuss or advise men in such areas, local teacher Reham affirms.

Many Bedouin women clearly appreciate and value their traditions and customs and seek to preserve them. They heavily criticise the state for threatening their way of life.  

"The Egyptian government has destroyed our customs," elderly Bedouin woman Sheikha Salima tells Ahram Online

"Bedouin women are continually portrayed as powerless unhappy black shadows prisoners of a patriarchal tribal system. This is not true. We have our own traditions that respect women in its own way", she adds.

Moqaibid agrees: "the problems facing Bedouin women are concerns that confront the majority of Egyptian women given the conservative nature of the society and widespread poverty."

Following last year's January 25 Revolution more Bedouin women have started to demand their right to freedom of expression, access to higher education and equality in jobs. The need to build an affordable university in the peninsula to allow women access higher education is top of the agenda.

"Bedouin women have all the necessary credentials and skills to be leaders. We want our rights to be protected in the new constitution," Moqaibid affirms.

In order for such goals to be accomplished, activists like Moqaibid emphasise the implicit need to support civil society groups serving Bedouin women. Such backing will help raise the female quota represented in the Sinai governorate and assist associations in developing small and medium sized projects designed to help the Bedouin female community.   

Nevertheless, some women, such as political activist Mona Barhoom, are against isolating Bedouin women as separate entities in society. They want to prevent negative gender-centric studies presenting Bedouin women as unhappy captives, which is not an accurate depiction.

As Sana, the youthful and heavily pregnant second wife of elderly Sheikh Abed Salma, chirply affirms from her desert abode in Shabana, "I am happy with my life."


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