Israel's plan to protect Bedouins from polygamy will backfire
On 15 January, 2017, the Israeli Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked announced the adoption of a joint plan with the office of the Attorney General to combat polygamy among the Arab Bedouin community in Israel.
Polygamy was criminalised in Israel in 1977, when the penal law made the practice punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine. However, the state rarely enforced the law against polygamous men.
In her plan, Shaked called for adopting decisive steps to enforce the penal law against offenders, and to impose economic sanctions against polygamous families in the form of denial of certain social benefits.
Statistics suggest that in Israel, polygamy is confined primarily to the Arab Bedouin community in the South, which forms part of the Palestinian minority in Israel.
Polygamy is neither practiced by the Jewish majority, nor by the Palestinian minority in general. It is estimated that at least 30 percent of the Bedouin households in the Negev dessert are polygamous.
The reasons for polygamy among the Arab Bedouin community in the Negev are complex. However, it is worth emphasising that state policies contribute in many ways to strengthening this harmful and discriminatory institution.
|Polygamy constitutes a clear indication of the inferior status of women in societies where it is practiced|
Rawia Abu Rabia, for example, claims that polygamy is an expression of a collective identity crisis resulting from forced transfer of the Bedouin community to "impoverished permanent communities, to a reality of tin shacks, home demolitions, poverty and hopelessness".
Under these circumstances, the need of community leaders to maintain their privileges and to exercise power entails controlling those who are most vulnerable within the group; mainly women.
For its part, the Israeli establishment has consistently supported patriarchal tribal leadership, because it lowers the costs of controlling the Bedouin community.
Polygamy constitutes a clear indication of the inferior status of women, in societies where it is practiced.
|Shaked's plan to combat polygamy was announced while bulldozers were flattening the unrecognised Bedouin village of Um El-Hiran in the Negev|
It violates their dignity and basic human rights, including the right to equality, and the right to mental health. In addition, research suggests that polygamous marriages inflict serious harm on children born into such families.
Al-Krinawi argues that Bedouin children from polygamous families in the Negev suffer from higher rates of mental health problems and social difficulties; they have poorer school achievement and poorer relationships with their fathers compared to children living in monogamous families.
Shaked's plan to combat polygamy was announced while bulldozers were flattening the unrecognised Bedouin village of Um El-Hiran in the Negev, leaving its 1,000 residents at risk of losing their homes.
Demolishing Um El-Hiran forms part of a broader plan to dispossess and forcibly displace at least 80,000 Arab Bedouin citizens of Israel from around 36 "unrecognised" villages to a concentrated area in northern Naqab.
It is not surprising then that Shaked's plan was received with dismay and criticism, even among Palestinian feminist groups, who have been working for years to combat Polygamy.
|Palestinian feminists claim that Shaked's attempt to play the role of the protector of Bedouin women is simply dishonest and absurd|
Palestinian feminists claim that Shaked's attempt to play the role of the protector of Bedouin women is simply dishonest and absurd.
They remind her that if she truly cared about the rights and well-being of Bedouin women, she would not be orchestrating the demolition of their homes the same week she announced her plan.
More generally, she would not be denying them access to healthcare and education in their unrecognised villages or access to labour opportunities close to home.
The only threat that Israel attaches to polygamy is demographic.
There is no doubt that Shaked's reprehensible human rights record should call for her policies to be carefully scrutinised, though one might still approve of her plan if it looked likely help victims of polygamy.
|Read more: Legal misogyny in Palestine must end|
But instead it harms the very women she claims to protect - stating that prosecution of polygamous men should be supplemented with economic and other sanctions.
This includes cutting off social benefits afforded generally to non-polygamous families, and deporting women who have no legal status in Israel. To put it simply, the only guaranteed result of Shaked's plan, is leaving victims of polygamy significantly worse off.
By temporarily losing their convicted husbands, women trapped in polygamous marriages will become more vulnerable in their patriarchal society. Their already diminished social mobility will become subject to further limitations. Such outcomes could be remedied if the state were to provide victims with culturally sensitive support frameworks.
Instead, Shaked's plan will make these women even more dependent on internal patriarchal institutions by exacerbating their economic marginalisation. The victims of polygamy will be hung out to dry without the economic support of their husbands, and without any social benefits provided by the state.
For those living in an unrecognised village, their situation will only worsen due to the lack of any state infrastructure that might help them get a job and move on with their lives.
|The plan states that the prosecution of polygamous men should be supplemented with economic and other sanctions|
It is hard to justify any penal or administrative sanction that pretends to remedy a human rights violation, when such sanction leaves victims much worse off.
It is true that in some cases the criminal process could be traumatising for victims of gender-based crimes. However, in many countries, criminal justice systems have become more responsive to victims' needs through adopting legal reforms and other measures.
Such difficulties are intrinsic to the criminal justice system; however, most of the difficulties arising from prosecuting polygamy in accordance with Shaked's plan are state induced policies that target victims of polygamy - not merely a byproduct of the criminal justice system.
|The only guaranteed result of Shaked's plan, is leaving victims of polygamy significantly worse off|
In addition, many states guarantee prosecutorial discretion for prosecutors that allows them to decline to prosecute when it does not serve public interest. Leaving the victim of a crime much worse off is hardly reconcilable with public interest.
Even the deterrence factor cannot salvage Shaked's plan. One might justify sacrificing the well-being of present victims of polygamy to serve the greater good of society by deterring future cases of polygamy, but this argument is clearly flawed.
For starters, using victims of crimes as mere instruments for social change is immoral. Secondly, polygamy in Israel does not threaten the social fabric of Jewish communities nor of the Palestinian minority in general; it is confined to a very limited social context. General deterrence outside this context does not constitute a pressing social need.
Shaked's deterrence scheme - which targets the Bedouin community in the south - will continue to reproduce more suffering for victims and their families.
This does not mean that the criminal law should not be enforced against Bedouin or other men when the victims of polygamy are the ones seeking justice, or when prosecutions serves the public interest. However, prosecutions remain ineffective when not supplemented by a comprehensive plan to address the root reasons for polygamy.
Shaked's plan fails on all counts: It fails to provide justice for victims, it exacerbates the suffering of victims, it fails to serve the public interest, and it perpetuates the root reasons for this harmful institution.
Dr. Sonia Boulos obtained her JSD in international human rights law from the University of Notre Dame, USA. She works as assistant professor of international relations and law at the University of Antonio de Nebrija in Madrid.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff