Feminist Activism in a Settler-Colonial Context: The Case of Bedouin Palestinian Women

"Holes" by Victor Bezrukov licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

By Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder

The struggle for feminist justice is not detached from the surrounding power structures. Referring to Palestinian women in Israel, the feminist discourse surrounding their experiences of oppression and agency is not detached from their status as women and as an indigenous minority in a settler-colonial context. Before examining Palestinian women's feminist struggle mainly in the Naqab\Negev context, I will review first Palestinian women's marginality in Israel as a precondition to understand their feminist struggle.

Producing marginality in a settler colonial context:

Palestinian-Bedouin women’s marginality is constructed within the broader political history of the Bedouins, which is framed within the boundaries of racialised citizenship in the settler-Zionist colonial state. Israel practices various forms of exclusion (national, religious and belligerent) against the Palestinians by creating segregation in definition, space and time, thereby retaining Jewish majority control. One such control consists of framing the definition of the Bedouin within a modernist discourse that categorises them under an exclusive nomadic framework and ignores their national (Palestinian), religious (Muslim), and political (Arab-indigenous minority) identity (see Yiftachel, 2009). Another control mechanism was the imposition of a military rule between 1948 until 1967 on the Palestinian-Bedouins who were concentrated in the Siyagh (closed area), enabling control of this population and the lands they vacated. The 1950 Absentee Property Law declared the area outside the Siyagh a closed military zone, preventing Arab-Bedouins from working the land, grazing their flocks, blocking access to education, and limiting employment opportunities (Abu-Bader and Gottlieb, 2009).

Land control was also accomplished by the forced displacement of the Arab-Bedouin in 1966 to permanent towns, justified by the discourse of modernisation. Although deemed ‘modern’ by Israel, they lacked infrastructure, industrial zones and other sources of employment and suffered from poor opportunities and resource allocation. Ongoing segregation created more racialised boundaries along the axes of time and space, as in the case of the unrecognised Arab-Bedouin villages. The residents of those villages constitute those Arab-Bedouins (about 90,000) who refused to be displaced and who remained on their lands in villages considered ‘unrecognised’ and consequently illegal (1965 Planning and Construction Law). These localities are not identified on any formal map of Israel and they lack basic services including plumbing, electricity, roads, health clinics and high schools, and are doomed to ongoing home demolitions. The illiteracy rate among women over 30 in unrecognised villages reaches 80 per cent, rendering it impossible to find jobs in the private sector or as professional workers in industry and construction.

As a result, the cultural capital of the Arab-Bedouin minority in Israel has been gendered and racialised by not having been accorded an equal opportunity to develop in the same manner as the Jewish majority. This process resulted in Bedouin's overrepresentation in unskilled occupations in industry and services (66%) and very high unemployment (80%) and poverty (80%) rates (Abu-Bader and Gottlieb, 2009).

This reality creates a colonial space that traps Bedouin women as uneducated workers and activists and creates a neglected, poor and highly unemployed zone.

Palestinian women's intersectional marginality:

Palestinian women’s marginality is interrelated with their position as women in the national collective that produces mechanisms that preserve their intersectional marginality. In both national (ethnic or colonial) and kinship modes of collective thinking, women are perceived as markers of the boundaries of the (national or family) collective, differentiating ‘us’ from ‘them’. They are considered key figures in ethno-colonial and collective reproduction because of the discipline to which they are subjected, based on the symbolic representation of their bodies and sexuality (Yuval-Davis, 1997). A wide range of postcolonial studies of Arab-Muslim societies points to the use of women’s representation and bodies as a tool for colonial intervention, particularly through the rhetoric of ‘the politics of rescue,’ supported by the discourse of ‘universal women’s rights’ (Abu-Lughod, 2013; Yegenoglu, 1998). Muslim women thus serve as a tool that renders cultural differences permanent and preserves hegemonic/colonial control in land and space.

In the Israeli case as well, the gendered body constitutes an important element in the political organization of the nation through practices that bind the female body to the collective body (Gooldin and Kemp, 2008: 263). Within this settler-colonial context, Israel's institutions, ethos and policies intensify kinship-based control on women through tribal-institutional alliances that define and regulate woman’s sexuality and bodies. The settler entity thus strengthens kin and tribal hegemony to regulate and supervise the physical and social boundaries within which women are permitted to move and act. The strengthening of patriarchal power seeks to create a patriarchal or traditional wall so that women will be unable to penetrate and destabilize colonial space. In this manner, they would be disciplined by patriarchal control, preventing any show of resistance to the colonialists (Morgensen, 2012).

Since Bedouin-Palestinian women face intersectional power structures mediated through their settler-colonial context, most feminist Bedouin women's organizations facilitate their struggle for rights by bargaining within the "traditional" framework. I.e., their strategies mostly focus on the existing social structures found within Palestinian-Bedouin community and cultural resources.

Agency originating in Palestinian community and cultural resources:

Like most of their sisters in MENA countries, Palestinian-Bedouin women in Israel negotiate with cultural resources. Their strategy, however, originates in a different reality, as Palestinian women in Israel live in a settler-colonial context that perceives them as part of the hostile enemy and as illegitimate citizens who experience ongoing racism and discrimination as part of the wider occupation of Palestinians living both within and outside of Israel\occupied Palestine. This racism is manifested by the "colonial logic of elimination" that aims to "eliminate" the indigenous land,  institutions, language, space, memory and history (Varacini, 2010) - a process named de-indigenization that aims to control space and lan. The settler-colonial logic is practiced through visible and invisible legal, social, spatial and other mechanisms of controlling and manipulating indigenous society, culture, kin-relations and gender practices.

One way of producing colonial sovereignty and control is by creating social, economic and spatial gaps between Jewish and Palestinian institutions and societies that produce gender inferiority and patriarchal dependency.  

This is manifested in the state's lack of provision of the much-needed professional institutions that provide services for the community. Besides the basic clinics, educational, and welfare-centers, which are mostly staffed by Jewish workers who do not provide the cultural or the linguistic understanding of the community, Bedouin towns also lack community and family centers comparable to those provided in the Jewish towns. These institutions mostly provide an "Israeli-Western” point-of-view that do not match the community's values or turn a blind eye toward cases of women's murder, polygamy, and domestic violence, thus intensifying patriarchy.

Consequently, the agency of Palestinian women in Israel is not structured by a conflict between cultural discourses (East and West) as the case among minorities in the West, but by the conflict between settler and indigenous existence that leads to ongoing mistrust.

The mistrust between the Bedouin community, specifically Bedouin women, and Israeli institutions has not been created in a vacuum. It is a consequence of settler violence directed at the women's larger community. The ongoing home demolitions in Bedouin unrecognized villages, the uprooting of women and children from their homes, and the brutality women face in everyday life as Arab-Muslims, do not leave space for trust. [1]

Due to this, any Israeli governmental "solutions" suggested to Bedouin women will always converge with the settler's interest rather than the women's rights. This is because to the settler,

the figure of the indigenous female body functions as a metonym for unending increase, expansion and malleability that enables the settler to imagine land, property and sexuality as spatial concepts denoting expansion and settlement. Indigenous female bodies are seen as reproducers of surplus (extra) populations that get in the way of expansion and the accumulation of capital (King, 2013: 23).

For example, the latest suggestion by the Israeli Minister of Law, Mrs. Ayelet Shaked, to reduce instances of polygamy was legitimized by the discourse of "women's rights," that covers the settler's will to control Palestinian's demography and expand Jewish control and sovereignty through women's bodies. The uprooting of 30,000 Bedouin from their lands was justified by the discourse of "women's modernization."

This is why in cases of domestic violence, we witness two paths taken by Bedouin women; They mostly prefer not to inform the police or social services due to mistrust of these institutions, and instead try to resolve the conflict within acceptable family channels. Even in cases of spousal conflict, divorce, and sexual violence, women avoid appealing to Israeli social services, preferring to resolve conflicts through the nuclear or extended family. The solution is often found by the couple’s parents assuming mutual responsibility that the man will not hurt his wife or ensuring that the woman will behave properly. Appeal to an external body is perceived as involving not only an alien cultural factor but also an entity in conflict with the settler entity, thus rendering such appeal tantamount to treason (AlKrenawi and Taboo 2002; Abu-Bakr 2003).

On the other hand, when they do apply to the police and social services, these institutions try to apply cultural resources but in a patriarchal, harmful way. In many cases, women are placed temporarily in a local Sheik's (traditional respected man in the community) house far away from the violent spouse without any professional treatment or punishment to the husband. In most cases, these women eventually return to the "cycle of violence" without any professional support.

As a result, women activists mostly work within the confine of their communities; however, they still lack the resources that ought to be provided by the state. Given the political history of marginalization, Bedouin women's activism must start from the basics.

Bedouin women's activism:

Within the Bedouin context, we are witnessing two main types of feminist activism: reviving tradition and legal aid and advocacy.

Reviving tradition: This form of activism involves the revival of feminine traditions that are ostensibly superfluous nowadays in the recognized villages where services such as electricity, water, and shopping are available. Bedouin women have traditionally lived in the desert and their productivity derived from performing the elementary tasks of daily life, such as agricultural harvesting, collecting wood for fire, drawing water from wells, milking goats, preparing food and collectively being responsible for domestic duties and for the upbringing of children. These roles positioned them in the heart of decision-making. With the imposed displacement in urban peripheral towns, these women lost many of their productive roles and could find no alternatives due to lack of employment services for men and women alike. Thus, they became unemployed in their own traditional domestic sphere.

Currently educated daughters and granddaughters are reviving these traditional roles through local NGOs. Two leading organizations that promote these issues are SIDREH and the Association for Promoting Women’s Status, both of which are located in and function out of the Bedouin village of Laqia. Professional educated women run these organizations aiming to close the gap created by Israeli settler's policies. One method involves providing literacy training for the older generation and reviving traditional Bedouin cottage industries such as rug weaving. These practices challenge (in both overt and implicit ways) the historical, political and social structures of oppression. These projects often include hundreds of women from a single village, who assume the roles of coordinators, comptrollers, production managers and marketing managers. These women create rugs, handbags and traditional jewelry, marketing them through Internet sites and direct sales at various events. In return, they receive some monetary compensation, however this does not provide a complete solution to the issue of unemployment in these communities.

Through such means, these pioneering women both revive tradition and once again assume productive roles through the additional income they bring to their families. Thus, the women’s individual empowerment serves to empower their families. The participating women do not deny their traditions, but embrace them to improve their status and pave their way forward. Despite the neglect of the Israeli government in providing employment opportunities for women in the villages, these women create their own (limited) alternatives by reinventing their traditions, thereby creating a new and innovative form of feminism. Although the women work in the domestic sphere, the result of their labor - their products - reach the public sphere and they are given credit through international marketing. This model of feminism avoids the overt public sphere, thus evading a blatant clash with the traditional expectations of Bedouin women. Instead, their actions encourage a continuity of feminine tradition and simultaneously challenge the status of Bedouin men.

Working within the security of their own homes allows mainly semi-educated women to play active and productive roles in their communities, which have been banished by Israeli policies. The women emphasize the roles that will guarantee their most respected status; therefore, their cultural feminine identity serves as a crucial part of Bedouin women’s activism.

Legal advocacy and aid: The settler-colonial situation in Israel has rendered Bedouin women the victims of displacement and marginalization, thus the objects of the highest racial, tribal, religious and gender discrimination in all aspects of life (see Abu-Rabia-Queder, 2016). An example of their intersectional subordination is manifested in the high percentage of women (80%) who are victims of violence, with numerous incidents of murder, along with high polygamy rates (30%-40%) even among highly educated persons (Abu-Rabia, 2011; Abu-Shareb, 2012). The state created a neglected zone, which lacks the services needed to protect women and a space in which government institutions do not become involved, thereby intensifying the patriarchal structure and women’s distress.

Lacking therapeutic or psychological centers to treat women's abuse, some feminist organizations in recent years have begun offering hot-lines (mobile lines) in Arabic staffed by Arab-speaking professionals. These organizations speak covertly and also publically, through public and professional seminars, conferences, demonstrations and reports to raise awareness among both local communities and international human rights institutions. Although lacking telephone lines, these activists rely on cell phones that are rarely online due to lack of full electronic resources, thus limiting the success of their important initiative (interview with an activist). One such example of this activity is reflected in Itach-Maaki- lawyers for social justice (an Arab - Jewish organization) that provides legal advocacy for women in cases of polygamy and other forms of violence.[2] This advocacy is not funded by the state, but relies mostly on national and international philanthropy.

Bedouin women's feminist struggle faces intersectional obstacles, both by the institutionalized discrimination against Bedouin–Palestinians as a minority group, and by intensifying patriarchal pressure against women. Thus, Bedouin activists maneuver in a liminal space between patriarchal and settler power structures that create more blocked walls to cross and more gaps to close.  


Dr. Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder is a Senior Lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Her studies focus on the sociology of gender, education and work among minorities in Israel, focusing on Palestinian women. Recently she has been investigating the racialized experiences of Jewish-Ethiopian women in the Israeli academia. Her co-edited book "Naqab Bedouin and Colonialism: New perspectives" was published at Routledge Press, and her book on class identity formation among middle-class Palestinian women has been recently published.[3] 

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[1] https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/indepth/2017/1/18/why-is-israel-demolishing-bedouin-homes-in-umm-al-hiran

[2] The Naqab/Negev branch located in the city of Beer-Sheva staffed by Palestinian-Bedouin attorneys.

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Naqab-Bedouin-Colonialism-Perspectives-Arab-Israeli/dp/0415638453