A Female Role Model of Humanity in Israel

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.

The inspiring story of Dr. Okby is a dramatic contrast to the Nigerian Boko Haram.  The group is known for attacks on police stations and government buildings in 2009; its attacks on churches, bars, and military barracks in 2010; its bombing of U.N. headquarters in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, in 2011; its assault in Kano, when they killed 185 in January 2012; its storming in Bama of official buildings, during which the terrorists killed 55 in May 2013; its car park bombing in Abuja in April 2014, killing 70.  Now it has taken to abducting young schoolgirls on at least two occasions.

Founded in 2002 by a militant, Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram aims to create an Islamic state in Nigeria and impose sharia law, and to do it in ruthless fashion: “Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors.”  Since 2009, when its founder died, more than 2,000 of those “transgressors” have been murdered.  To gain support, Boko Haram has taken advantage of the divisions and tensions in Nigeria, the most populous African country (160 million people).  Nigeria has strong sectarian violence  and ethnic, religious, economic, and political divisions among a population that is highly unequal, with an oil-rich mostly Christian south and a much poorer mostly Muslim north.

Already in May 2013 the group had kidnapped women and children from schools in north-east Nigeria, kept them hostage, and announced that it would treat them as “slaves.”  On April 14, 2014, the terrorists kidnapped more than 275 girls and justified the action as “Islamic.”  Even the extreme al-Qaeda, perhaps conscious of bad publicity, appears benign by comparison with this murderous group.  In a less than completely forthright manner, al-Qaeda has condemned “this crime and other crimes committed by the likes of these extremist organizations.”

What is significant is the reason for the abduction of the schoolgirls.  The real name of the organization is translated as "Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad."  Its nickname is Boko Haram, which is usually translated as “Western education is a sin.”  Though schoolboys have also been targets of the group’s jihad against Western secular education, its real offensive, as in the case of similar behavior from the Taliban, is largely directed against females.  The group is living up to its nickname by preventing the mostly Christian schoolgirls from being educated and thus becoming teachers, lawyers, or doctors in the manner of Dr. Okby in Israel.  These Islamic extremists are displaying in ruthless fashion the hallmark of their intended patriarchal and masculine-oriented society in which women are subordinate and can be treated as “sexual slaves.”

The actress Angelina Jolie, commenting on the abduction, thought it was part of the culture of immunity, in which people believe they can get away with crimes, and so crimes are committed.  It was disappointing that a group of 20 academics, self-described “scholars with a special interest in Nigeria and broad expertise in African politics,” wrote on May 21, 2012 to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging her not to designate Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). This view was also held by Johnnie Carson, the then-assistant secretary for African affairs, who argued that to designate it as such would raise its profile, give it credibility, and help recruitment.  Only on November 13, 2013 did John Kerry designate Boko Haram an FTO.  One hopes that the differences in the U.S. administration on the issue are now over and that this Islamist group, and others like it, can be understood for what it is.  To help this understanding, everyone has the example, in Rania Okby, of how women should be treated and what is likely to be the consequent female contribution to humanity.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.