A startling contrast presently exists in the world between the extraordinary educational and cultural success of a woman of minority origin in Israel and the denial of education for females by a brutal, fanatical Islamist group in Nigeria.
Israel can be unquestionably proud of Dr. Rania Okby, a specialist in maternal fetal medicine, who is the first female Bedouin doctor in the world and a role model for Bedouin women in Israel.
On the other hand, Nigerians, and those who regard themselves as peaceful Muslims, must be embarrassed by or ashamed of the actions of Boko Haram. This is the Islamic terrorist group that specializes in non-medical matters: bombings, murders, assassinations, and, on April 14, 2014, the abduction of more than 275 mostly Christian teenage girls from their secondary school in Chibok in northeast Nigeria. This in order to prevent them from being educated in a secular manner and to sell them into sexual slavery.
The Bedouin community in Israel, numbering about 250,000, is the least developed group in the country. Its members have been handicapped by their lifestyle, which among other things has meant the following: lack of a strong educational system, forced marriages of underage girls, consanguineous marriages, high average birthrate of six per Bedouin woman, restrictions on women working outside the home, and high unemployment. Part of the community lives in unauthorized villages without electricity or proper medical care. In those villages, life expectancy is lower than elsewhere in Israel.
Positive social and cultural change does not happen overnight, and it is rewarding when it does occur. Programs at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) in Beersheba in the Negev are helping to change Bedouin lives. In 1997 the Arnow Center for Bedouin Studies and Development was founded. At that point there were no Bedouin women studying at BGU. Today, more than 60% of the 2,678 Bedouin students at BGU are women.
From the Bedouin community, in its interaction with modern Israeli society, emerged Rania Okby with a remarkable success story. Okby was raised by a single mother who had divorced her husband when he, following Muslim law, wanted to exercise his right to take a second wife. Okby did well in high school, spending extra time to learn English, and enrolled at the age of 16 in the medical school at BGU – the first Bedouin girl to study medicine. As a student, she moved between the Israeli western milieu at the university, during the hours between 8 am and 4 pm, and the traditional society and world of her Bedouin community after 4 pm. She graduated in 2004, having been fully funded by BGU’s outreach program, and after that has been a post-grad both in Israel and in other countries.
As well as being a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology, with at least two important articles concerning the cycle of pregnancy to birth, she has influenced Bedouin society as an informal psychologist, sociologist, counselor, and social worker, especially on marital issues among the Bedouins. At present, 12 out of every 1,000 Bedouin children die within their first year, and most women are married by the age of 18.
Dr. Okby’s objective is to educate the women of the community and thus change this situation. She has explained that these women are afraid to use contraception since their husbands want more children. In a broader context, she has been concerned with “honor killings” by Muslim men and has helped to protect young women from their families.
With her concern for the education of women, Dr. Okby is a symbol of the future – not only in regard to people of the Bedouin community, but also through the significance of her role for women elsewhere.