Bedouin Women

Bedouin tribes are scattered all over the Middle East. Their once nomadic lifestyle across the region is now being forced into permanent settlements (Bedouin tent).

Over the last decades climatic changes have led to aridization of traditional pasturage in the mountains of Sinai and have forced the Bedouins of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula to become settlers at the coast. Bedouin men found limited employment opportunities as informal labor in the growing touristic sector, such as driver or tourist guide. The women herded sheep and goats and used the animals’ products to make food, clothing and handicrafts, which they sold moderately successful to tourists. In 2011, BADAWEYA was developed by a local NGO, Hemaya, together with Bedouin women of a coastal village in South Sinai when reflecting on how to improve their situation. The idea of BADAWEYA rooted in the fact that although the women were struggling to sell simple crafts to tourists in the beach camps, their products had obvious potential. In helping them market and sell their goods, BADAWEYA hopes to introduce some of the benefits of the 21st century economy to a community that has so far known mostly its pitfalls.

Bedouin tribes are scattered all over the Middle East. Traditional routes of nomadic Bedouins were cut when modern Arab states were established after World War II. As a consequence members of the same tribe became residents of different nations, and their nomadic lifestyle across the region has increasingly curtailed. In many countries they are seen as second class citizen.

In Egypt, the former president Hosni Mubarak, who ruled for three decades until 2011, did little to encourage Bedouins’ participation in national political life. His politics of socio-economic development has in contrary aggravated the differences between the tribes and the government. The Bedouin settlements in Sinai have seen little investments into public infrastructure and services. Schools are poorly equipped and not well attended, medical care is of basic quality and only available in bigger cities, the supply with water and electricity is intermittent and there is no public garbage collection.

This has been in contrast to the extraordinary development in some parts of the Sinai. Since the 1970ties, the coastal strip of Southern Sinai has seen booming tourism, with resorts and five star hotels springing up out of the desert. The Bedouins, however, have not profited from it as much as one would expect. As in most countries of the Middle East, Bedouins have users’ privileges but no land rights. The Egyptian government sold the coastal areas to Egyptian and international investors.

Bedouin communities live in increasingly large towns on the edge of the new resorts, and appear to have the worse of both the old and new worlds. In the past, the challenges of the nomadic lifestyle in the desert had split the work between men and women in a way where both groups contributed equally to their family’s economic well-being. Traditional values limit the mobility of the women to the area which is inhabited by their family. While being nomads, large Bedouin families lived at great distance from one another and the women moved freely in the vast desert landscape.

However, the new sedentary lifestyle has changed traditional roles and power distribution in Bedouin society.


BADAWEYA was developed by a local NGO with Bedouin women to help sell their unique and beautiful handcrafts.

In the recently formed coastal settlements in the Sinai different big families live in close proximity. In the village where the BADAWEYA project is located, five different families live together. Compared with other tribes, the tribe they belong to is very traditional and cultural norms limit the women’s mobility to the area which is inhabited by their family. When two different families are linked through marriage, the women’s room to move expands. Depending on the family, young and unmarried women are restricted to stay at home or can move in defined paths between the houses of different relatives. Village life in combination with the traditional mobility rules has left the Bedouin women of BADAWEYA with almost no opportunities for pursuing a higher education or contributing to family income through finding employment or running a business. Older women have traditionally a higher status in society. They enjoy more freedom. Some of them drive cars.

Confronted with this situation, BADAWEYA has sought to make a small difference by going with the grain of Bedouin society, and an existing handicraft industry. Throughout the past 20 years, handicraft initiatives have evolved allover Egypt aiming at creating income for women who are confined indoors. The rich cultural heritage of Bedouins is shown in the unique and various handicraft designs and products, e.g. beadwork, embroidery, bags, etc. However, results of these initiatives are mixed. Many of the initiatives do not have enough sales to provide their employees with a long-term economic perspective. One reason is that initiatives have been rather charity than market driven and only in a few cases saw product and design innovation. Another factor is that previous initiatives restricted the majority of the female employees to the lower end of the value chain, i.e. as simple production workers with little development opportunities and low wages.

BADAWEYA’s idea was to create sources of income for the women by training them in sewing and product design, so that the products would be attractive to customers with respect to design, quality and price. This would also strengthen the value of traditional handicraft. At the same time the initiative aimed at improving the women’s overall situation. BADAWEYA’s approach was therefore twofold from the beginning: create employment opportunities and build up capacity in the community, leading to a sustainable development and the re-invigorating of the women’s position in society.

The local NGO Hemaya, which mainly works on environmental issues and community development projects, kicked off the BADAWEYA women’s handicraft initiative by renting a project house that became a meeting space where the collection and the exchange of ideas took place. BADAWEYA then started to organize trainings and social activities there. The project came to a hold with the Arab Spring, that saw the disposal of president Mubarak, and nurtured hope for a more progressive, representative government.

However, the main effect of the uprising in Egypt on Bedouin lives was a dramatic worsening of their economic situation, as tourists are refraining from choosing the Sinai as a holiday location. The negative media coverage of the unstable political and security situation in Egypt at large and armed conflicts between the Egyptian army and groups of radical Islamists or smugglers in the North of Sinai continues to scare national and international tourists.

In reaction to the political upheavals of since 2011, the flow of tourists has decreased from 14 Million in 2010 to 7 Million in 2011 and is almost deadlocked since June 2013. Especially the informal sector is affected. This situation has left the tribes in Sinai with no reliable source of income. In the village of the BADAWEYA initiative, the unemployment rate is currently approximately 95 percent. The community does not have the resources to adapt to the situation. Approximately 50 percent of the village’s inhabitants are illiterate (the rate is higher among women) and only few members of the community have a higher education. Most of them cannot find alternative employment on the Egyptian labor market. Potential markets for BADAWEYA products in the South Sinai (The townss of Dahab or Sharm El Sheikh used to be popular holiday destinations) do not provide a market at the moment.


U.S Embassy Tel Aviv
BADAWEYA’s idea was to create sources of income for these women by training them in sewing and product design, so that the products would be attractive to customers with respect to design, quality, and price.

With tourists staying away, Bedouin as well as local Egyptian handicraft producers battle for their economic existence. Both groups have found themselves unable to enter new markets. However, market studies show that there is a demand for well-crafted MENA handicraft products that combine traditional designs and forms with modern elements. Handicraft producers in Morocco are successfully selling this type of products to local and European markets. The demand is growing and only lately Tunisian handicraft shops came up with product lines. The market for innovative handmade products is also flourishing within Egypt. Despite the scarce economic situation in the country, new galleries are opening in Cairo. These cater to upper-class Egyptians, expatriates and (the few remaining) tourists.

In early 2013 the project was proposed to the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the largest German provider of international cooperation services and consequently received support by the GIZ. BADAWEYA evolved when market research and an analysis of previous handicraft initiatives, i.e. their challenges and success factors, influenced the planning of its actions and activities. Trainings were held with a focus on potential target markets and customers. The trainers developed together with the women new products catering to the taste of national and international customers. The women also established a system of peer teaching in literacy and BADAWEYA started teaching some of the women in how to run a small businesses. The idea is to help the women in establishing several small cooperatives that are run by themselves. This aims to ensure fair trade. BADAWEYA started to build up connections to networks of other handicraft producers, suppliers and retailers and to a variety of markets within Egypt. For the future, connections to markets abroad and online sales are planned. All this aims to create a basis for sustainable sources of income which are not only dependent on tourism. It also aims to equip the women so that they can flexibly react to changes on the market. The initiative aims to enable women to make a workers income, which is between $110 and $160 per month (an average family of 4-5 kids needs $150 to cover basic needs).

At the moment 80 women are actively participating. Another 400 women are interested to join. The men of the community have in general a positive attitude towards the project. They are currently participating as drivers and BADAWEYA is trying to further involve them.

In December, the new products of BADAWEYA were sold for the first time at markets in Cairo. The customer feedback will be used to further improve product development. There is hope, even among the usually cautious Bedouin, that their lot can improve.