There is a lot of activity in the room next to the large Bedouin tent. One woman is cutting, another is sorting through threads, a third is at the computer and another is walking around carrying a tray of small cups of sweet tea with hyssop.
Women come and go carrying squares of black cloth, laughing, and caressing the heads of children running around. Today is payday at the women’s collective “Desert Embroidery” that operates in the Bedouin village of Laqiya in the Negev, and there is excitement is in the air.
Naama Al-Sana, who founded the Association for Improvement of the Status of Women: Laqiya which operates the project, supervises the buzz of activity. She is 41 years old and has a husband and 4 children waiting for her at home, yet she looks like a young girl. She has worked for many years to empower Bedouin women and improve their independence.
“If we do not help ourselves no one will help us”, she says, and despite the daily difficulties, she insists on implementing her doctrine. Al-Sana relates that this doctrine, which espouses women’s independence and education, is inherited from her father, who was not an educated man himself. “Whoever learns and succeeds will go far”, he would repeat in her ears and the ears of her six sisters. “Whoever fails - will tend sheep”.
She became aware of the complicated situation of Bedouin women, which began with their move to permanent housing, when she was a young girl nearing the end of high school. During that time, Al-Sana and her friends ran a camp for the village children during summer vacation.
“While we were running the camp, the mothers of the children would come and ask us to teach them to read and write. Sometimes they did not even know how to write their name”, she remembers. “We understood that we had to change things from the core; that we had to do something for the women in our community, to improve their level of education and allow them to leave the house and earn money by themselves”.
Bedouin traditional products
They learned to stand for themselves
“In the past the Bedouin woman was very busy”, described Al-Sana. “She would go to herd the sheep and would meet her friends when she would bring water from the well, she would cook and sew the tents and would spend a lot of time in nature. The move to houses made us lose many of our chores.
Among a considerable number of the families the husband was also unemployed, and since the women tend not to leave the house and also do not support themselves, their standard of living dropped”.
Since 1996, the Association for Improvement of the Status of Women: Laqiya that Al-Sana formed together with other women, has been working to change the situation.
Six years ago, with the support of different social grants, they established “Desert Embroidery”, a creative center that enables women from the village to support themselves from embroidery, the traditional handiwork that they are experts in from their youth.
“The women come to the center once every week or two, and receive cloth squares and embroidery thread”, details Al-Sana. “They do the embroidery work at home, during their free time, and they return the embroidered squares to us. Once a month they are paid according to the number of embroideries that they give us, and they receive anywhere from 600-1,800 shekels”.
Six women who work in the center turn the embroidered squares into pretty handbags, pouches, pillow covers, wall hangings, bookmarks, greeting cards, and other products, which are impeccably arranged on the shelves and waiting for customers.
“The work enables women to leave the house and meet other women, to participate in lectures that we give once a month and mostly to make money”, continues Al-Sana. “Sometimes this is the only money earned in the household, which gives them pride and power. In the beginning they were very docile, they obeyed instructions and asked for very little, but today I see a difference."
"The working women are more assertive, they request lectures on certain subjects and know what they want to hear. They are not willing to take every job; they do the financial calculations and learn how to stand up for themselves. Thirty of the women live in an unrecognized village. They walk kilometers in the mud, but they will not give up," she explains.
Enthusiasm? Yes. Budget? Not so much
The bustle in the center, the telephone that rings non-stop and the fact that it was difficult to find a large bag adorned with embroidery in shades of red, could testify to the business success of “Desert Embroidery”, but it is not so.
In the not-so-distant past, 165 women would come every week to receive embroidery assignments from the center; today they only come every other week. An additional 200 women are waiting for their turn to participate in the activities, but the center suffers from chronic budget deficit and cannot pay them.
According to Al-Sana, despite the large number of sales and rising interest in their embroidery products, they need an additional yearly budget of 100,000 shekels, in order to integrate more women into their work cycle and to expand their activities.
“If only the State of Israel would allocate some funds for us, and not just various grants that we have to apply for every year”, she says. “Everyone is impressed with our initiative and our important activities. But a budget? That is already another story”.
The budget, Al-Sana adds, is not only used to expand their business-community initiative. Aside from the center, they operate a series of community projects. The association teaches women from the village and from unrecognized Bedouin villages to read and write; they maintain a pre-school so that the mothers can go out to work; they lead a young leadership project for girls ages 13-16 and they operate a mobile library that travels between the villages, and loans out books in Arabic, Hebrew and English.
What is next? Al-Sana dreams of opening a tourist center, where they would sell the embroidery products and would represent the project “Desert Weaving”, which also operates in Laqiya and specializes in traditional weaving earning the woman in the village a living.
In the meantime, together with the other projects, she continues to fight for the project’s existence and apply, year after year, for grant support. Just like the unrecognized Bedouin villages near Laqiya, the State of Israel does not recognize “Desert Embroidery”.
“Desert Embroidery” merchandise is sold in the visitor’s center in Lakiya and in the gift shop at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. For more details call 08-6513208.