Tibb 'Arabi: Naqab Bedouin Women's Healing Practices beyond the Religious/Secular Divide

By Sophie Richter-Devroe
Submitted to Session P4413 (Religion and Secularism in Palestine and Israel, 2016 Annual Meeting
Israel; Palestine;
Gender/Women's Studies; Middle East/Near East Studies; Minorities;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
The Naqab Bedouin are an indigenous community of ca. 200.000 Arab Muslim Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship. Today, after various waves of displacement and expulsion, they predominantly reside in the Northern Naqab region of Southern Israel; ca. half live in state-planned townships, and the other half in villages that remain unrecognised by the Israeli state.

In the official state narrative forced urbanisation is commonly framed as ‘modernisation’. The state’s modernisation discourse clings to a classic secular/religious binary: while displaying strong secular undertones, religiosity is permitted as long as it remains within an orthodox institutional framework. Each Bedouin township is characterised by the quartet of (at least partially) state-funded institutions: secular schools, municipalities and hospitals, and Islamic mosques. These institutions, although staffed by Bedouin professionals some of whom struggle to negotiate spaces for alternative narratives and forms of agency in complex ways, overall implement the state’s agenda aimed at disciplining Bedouin residents into docile ‘modern’ citizens of the state.

Based on ethnographic fieldwork in three Bedouin townships (Rahat, Laqiya and Shqeeb as-Slaam) from 2014-2016 and ca. 80 interviews with Naqab Bedouin women from the Nakba generation, my paper focuses on how these older Bedouin women challenge, circumvent and/or resist (often silently) Israeli state control over their lives. Women from this generation tend to avoid and have little contact with state institutions, and instead maintain and performatively enact their own religious, social and political spaces.

In particular women’s everyday religious practices in the field of local medicine and healing (tibb ‘arabi) run parallel and sometimes even counter to both the Israeli secular biomedical healthcare system, and the orthodox Islam as preached in Israel’s mosques. Women’s healing practices such as wet cupping (hijama), treatments against the evil eye (al-hassad) or against children’s fear (khoof) are widespread. Largely practiced by older women, they are sought after and consulted by Bedouin from all generations. As such, they constitute important performances of religious subjectivities that cannot be captured by the binary of ‘secular’ vs. ‘religious', or ‘modern’ vs. ‘traditional’. By continuing, adapting and reshaping their local religious medical practices, women from this generation have maintained their own alternative spaces of social and political power. Going beyond the modernist divide of (orthodox) Islam vs. secularism, they have not been turned into, and become legible as, ‘good modern citizens’ of the Israeli state.