Women at Serabit
a) Women’s Daily Routine:
The day starts early for Bedouin women. They wake up at 5 or 6am at the latest and start tending to their households.Young and old work together, with the seniority of the older women clear in the way they direct the younger ones.
Cattle are let out of a make-shift barn to feed along with the available poultry, dishes are washed, houses swept and tea is always on the stove, available for any passing guest. It is interesting to note that cattle seem to follow the voices and directions of the women.
One of the most important early morning activities is the early baking. The Bedouins bake a special kind of bread, commonly known as farasheih. Made of flour, water and a pinch of salt, the lightweight malleable hole-filled bread is quite tasty and is eaten with almost every meal of the day.
“I sat with Um Latifa while [she was] baking. She put a handful of flour, then added a pinch of salt and little water. Her hands move quickly and efficiently kneading the dough, splitting it into several pieces and then flattening it with a rolling pin. She then puts the thin dough on a large heated dome-shaped steel pot. It bakes in a few seconds.”
“While Um Latifa bakes, she talks about different things; her husband, her daughters and the latest soaps on TV. She then offers to let me help her.
As I knead the dough I realize that the baking procedure is not as easy as it seems. The dough needs to be kneaded quickly and left only for a few seconds on the steel dome or else it will be ruined as I try to follow her instructions.”
B) Receiving Guests
It is a custom of the Bedouins that guests are always welcome, but being on their own in their house, the women receive male guests on a wide porch outside, but attached to the house. It is a society taboo for a woman to invite a male guest into the house without the presence of her husband or son. Women also do not sit with strangers especially men. They may accommodate tourists and have photos taken with them, but under the supervision of their husbands. It is important to note that they are always covered from head to toe.
The porch is quite large and open for anyone to see. It is furnished with haseer, which is carpet made of a tough plastic fiber to accommodate the tough weather of Sinai.
As I sat on the porch with them, an elderly male relative dropped by for tea and a chat. The young women sitting on the same porch, but away from him breastfed their young while covering themselves. They seem to consider it their duty to feed their children when they need.
c) Marriage and Divorce
The marital condition seems to have witnessed a drastic change throughout the last 30 years. Um Saleem, the oldest woman in the family whose face seems to be entrenched in time, talks about this, “Things have changed now. They marry for love. In my time, we did not see each other until the wedding day. I married Abu Saleem without knowing him. We did not talk to each other for a while. Then time passed, we had children together and al-hamdul’Illah life was good.” She talks of her daughter-in-law and how she married her son for love, “Ah! Yes, they loved each other,” she said while giggling under the severe protestation of her daughter-in-law. The women seem to grow younger as they reminisce about their marriages and husbands.
Divorce has also become relatively easier in these parts, “young people marry for love nowadays,” explains Um Ismail, “so if the woman tells her husband she no longer wants him, he divorces her.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all men do that. She speaks of her daughter’s unfortunate marriage and how her ex-husband, after her new marriage, tried to take the children from her out of jealousy.
It has been noticed that the habit of taking more than one wife is declining in the younger generations. The married sons of Sheikh Barakat, whom we have met, have one wife each. There are several reasons, mainly economic, that do not allow a man to support more than one wife. Another reason is the young women’s intolerance of sharing a husband, unlike the older women.
It is important to note that the first wife has a very special status in a household. She is the matron of the family and other wives have to follow her lead. She usually possesses more power over the husband and other wives can go to her for advice and favors.
When asked about the problems of polygamy, Um Ahmed said, “of course it causes problems and fights and women demand divorce. But if the man is good, things go smoothly.”
She recalls the time her husband told her he wants to take on another wife, “he told me before he married her, so I was fine with it and even attended the wedding.” An interesting fact is that she lives next door to the second wife and they seem to have a relationship of their own that needs further investigation.
The Bedouin women of Serabit el-Khadim are skilled craftswomen. While working on traditional Sinai designs, they incorporate their own ideas into them.
They are more skillful with weaving than with beads and use nylon and wool.
Along with the beads, which they use for bracelets, key chains and necklaces, they use the turquoise for rings and various other ornaments.