Dozens of Bedouin women from southern Israel join the work force after an Israeli phone company opens a service center inside a local mosque, where women feel they can work without any inhibition.
The country’s largest telecom group, Bezeq Israel Telecom, in a joint venture with the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, launched the center inside the mosque in an attempt to combat unemployment among Arab Bedouin women.
“Bedouin women would like to work, most of them, and they want to be a part of the work market and to contribute to the economy of the house alongside their husbands. But because there are no work places in the villages and they are not able to work outside the villages, this is preventing many of them from being a part of the work force,” Mahmoud Alamour, director of Rayan Center, said.
Because of their traditional, patriarchal lifestyle, persuading husbands and fathers to allow wives and daughters to go to work was not easy and the best way to allay fears was overcome by housing the call center at the mosque.
”The girls felt safe when we told them that they will work under a mosque. They were so happy because a girl feels she is in a safe place, like in her house and her village. Now we have two shifts, morning and evening and the girls work until 23:00, and we could only get this because we operate from the mosque,” said Naifa al-Nabari, vocational coordinator for Rayan Center.
Al-Nabari added that there were plenty of well educated women in Hura and other towns in the area but that until now almost all had become teachers. Working in customer service was a new departure.
The most difficult part of the project was recruiting the first 10 girls for a pilot, says al-Nabari. After their success, parents started bringing their daughters and offering them for work, including the daughter of the local Imam, Nabari said.
“As a Bedouin woman I am so proud of myself because as a Bedouin girl I started from zero. This is my first career, I never had another job, it took me not too long in order to be a manager in a company like Bezeq,” said Dalal Abu-kaf, team manager at telephone service center.
“I think I have no problem with this project and if I sometimes need to go out of work in a specific time, like when a child is sick, Bezeq helps me –- they allow us to go and tend to our children,” said Manal Abu-keren, a Bezeq employee.
Itamar Harel, vice president of Bezeq’s private marketing division, said the company recruited workers throughout Israeli society and was happy to take on the Bedouin women in the belief also that investing in their training was economically sound.
“Normally, customer service positions are temporary, most workers come and go in a relatively short period. We looked for a place in which employees will want to hold this position for a longer time, and then we can both benefit from more efficient employees and provide those who are really interested with a long-term job and income,” Harel said.
“We looked in various directions, at one point we decided to employ in the periphery, to employ populations whose participance in the work market is low. And this is how we got to employing in Hura.”
Speaking confidently in Hebrew and attired in traditional Arab garb, Bedouin women helped customers solve phone line faults from a call center housed in a mosque in a desert town in southern Israel.
Only some 20 percent of Israel’s Muslim women participate in the job market, according to official figures, and among Israel’s Bedouin, that number is even lower, at around 15 percent, Rayan told Reuters.
In a 2010 report, Israel’s Trade and Industry Ministry described the paucity of Bedouin women in the workforce as “worrying” but said that due to Rayan, that is jointly funded by the government and the Joint Distribution Committee, an Israeli-based NGO, as well as other groups, it forecast figures would improve.
Many of Israel’s 170,000 Bedouin, once nomads who pitched their large tents in the arid wilderness, have adopted an urban lifestyle and now live in towns and villages across the Negev desert region with full access to modern amenities.
Bedouin are about a tenth of Israel’s Arabs who number some 1.3 million, 20 percent of the country’s 7.8 million population. But poverty and unemployment is higher among them than in the Jewish majority and education standards are generally lower.
Although Arabic is the native language among Israel’s Bedouin, the command of Hebrew among the call center employees improved dramatically since they began work and it is a vital requirement for the job, as most callers are Hebrew speakers.
About 20 percent of Israel’s Muslim women and 15 percent of Israel’s Bedouins are part of the work force, according to employment agency Rayan.
The call center at the mosque was seen as a viable solution to overcoming the traditional and patriarchal lifestyle.
Naifa al-Nabari, Rayan’s women’s vocational coordinator, said the hardest part in the recruitment process was conducting a successful pilot for the first 10 women.
After evident success, families were encouraged to allow their daughters to work at the center. She said the women felt safe knowing they worked under the Muslim place of worship.
The women improved their Hebrew skills since they began working at the center despite Arabic being the native language among Israel’s Bedouin.
Dalal abu Kaf, 21, said the job expanded her horizons and she hoped to fund her medical studies. As a young Bedouin woman, she said she is proud that to become a team manager in the company at her first job.
Bezeq plans to expand its project, which has caught the attention of large companies, some of which are considering similar ventures. This could signal a boost in job creation for Israeli Bedouin women who seek to improve their economic conditions.
Bedouins comprise a tenth of Israel’s Arab population of about 1.3 million, which is 20 percent of the country’s 7.8 million population.
Poverty and unemployment is higher among the Bedouins than among the Jewish communities.
Many Bedouins have in the recent years embraced the urban life and moved on to live in towns and villages across the Negev desert.