From the field to the clinic

Amal Elsana Alh’jooj has lead an extraordinary life. She grew up in a Bedouin village in the Negev Desert. In the traditional Bedouin community, boys are favored over girls so according to her parents – as Amal reminisces – the arrival of a baby girl amounted to a near tragedy. Her mother and father were hoping that after four daughters, Amal would bring honor to the family by being born a boy. After this “failure,” her mother expected her husband to leave her, but instead he called the baby “Amal,” which is “hope,” in Arabic. He did this as a sign that one day things would be different. And indeed, different they were. After Amal, her mother went on to give birth to five boys. 

In her own words, Amal grew up with a frustrating sense of inequality, rampant in her traditional culture. No one knew what to do with her. There were already enough girls to help out in the kitchen, so at five-years old, she was sent out to the environs to shepherd the flocks alone. After grazing the flock she would walk three kilometers to school then rush back to tend the flocks.  But in these year of loneliness, her saving grace was her grandmother who showed her how shepherding goats is a practical lesson in taking responsibility. The desert is tough. You need to be tough. Whatever you do in life, you need to be tough. 

Amal was empowered! At age 14, she was already tutoring other Bedouin girls of her tribe, those same literacy skills. At 17 she had already set up the first ever organization that championed for equality for Bedouin women. 

She never looked back. After fighting for the right to study, she began her degree at Ben Gurion University in the Beersheba and twenty years later, had earned a doctorate from McGill University in Canada! 

Fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, French and English, the now “doctor” Amal returned to Israel and set up a centre in the Negev for the economic empowerment of Bedouin women. It is  project that seeks not to harm the tribal fabric of life and many traditional customs. Convinced that if 50% of any society is unemployed and not regarded as valuable, the society cannot be healthy, Amal has made the project her flagship. Among her innovative ideas she espouses via the organization, is the training of single mothers to run small businesses such as restaurants, manufacturing jewelry and fashion design. Her most unconventional and original initiative to date is offering a DJ course! One of her most important projects is the mobile book library for Bedouin children in desert communities because Amal knows that literacy is the key to empowerment. 

Honest to the core and having gained great respect from all Israeli communities, she also works toward Arab-Jewish equality, beginning  with bringing to the attention of the Israeli authorities, the ghastly culture of Honor Killings. 

Reluctant to intervene with Bedouin affairs, the Israeli authorities, tend to neglect this crime, putting it down to an immutable trait and fact in Bedouin culture . Amal wants them to see it for what it is: a horrendous crime that can be stopped. Unabashedly she says that if Honor Killings happened in Jewish society, there would be no excuses and the perpetrators would pay for their crimes. 

It’s been a long road for Amal. She has encountered opposition from all sides for challenging people’s comfort zones, but her hard work has paid off, not only in the fruition of her work, but in the recognition of it. In 2005 she was one of 1000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and has deservedly been listed as Woman of the Year by two very influential Israeli  magazines.