JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Attired in traditional dress, Bedouin women gather in a desert mosque in Israel. They find their seats in a room near the prayer hall and then, speaking confidently in Hebrew, take calls from customers seeking help with phone problems.
The mosque also doubles as a call center and is a joint venture between Israel's largest telecoms group Bezeq Israel Telecom and Rayan, an organization working to promote employment among the Bedouin community.
It is an indicator of the slow changes taking place in staunchly traditional Bedouin society in the Middle East, as women begin to venture to work outside the home. For years, most Bedouin women who do work have been limited to child care and teaching, close to home and out of contact with strangers.
The impetus comes also from government, seeking to combat high poverty and low education levels in the Bedouin community.
"Most Bedouin women would like to work in order to contribute income to their household alongside their husbands, but because there are no workplaces in the villages and they won't venture outside, many can't find a job," said Rayan director Mahmud Alamour.
Bezeq originally considered placing the call center in an industrial area in Hura, one of seven Bedouin townships in Israel's Negev desert. But Rayan officials knew this would make it difficult to persuade community leaders to allow women to work there, and so sought their views.
"We knew the families would not agree, so the head of the local council and Rayan came up with the idea of the mosque," said Naifa al-Nabari, Rayan's women's vocational coordinator.
Bezeq now employs 75 Bedouin women in the call center and plans to expand the scheme, the success of which has prompted more women to apply for places.
Of Israel's population of 7.8 million, its workforce totals 3.3 million people, about half of them women. Of those some 70 percent are Jewish and about 20 percent Israeli Muslims, according to official figures. Of the Muslim women working, only 15 percent are Bedouin.
The drive to help Bedouin women find employment is part of a broader plan to raise the standard of living in Israel's under-developed south, particularly the Negev desert which is dotted with heavy industry plants and military bases. Many of Israel's 170,000 Bedouin - once nomads who pitched their large tents in the arid wilderness - now live here in towns and villages.
Helping these families to increase their income would ease pressure on Israel's social welfare system, strained also by payouts to poor Jewish ultra-Orthodox families with many children, where men are often full-time seminary students and women are the breadwinners.
Poverty and unemployment levels are higher among the Arabs than in the Jewish community and education standards are also generally lower. Among Bedouin, which make up about a tenth of Israel's Arab community, the trend is even worse.
"The worrying statistic that 81 percent of Bedouin women of working age are unemployed is set to change (through the opening of employment centers)...which will undoubtedly be a significant instrument to advance Bedouin employment in the Negev," the Trade and Industry Ministry said in a report.
Itamar Harel, vice president of Bezeq's private marketing division, said the company benefited from employing Bedouin women because they were likely to stay for a long time, given the good pay and conditions at a place of work close to home, reducing the cost of re-training and staff turnover.
"We think there is potential to retain these employees for an extended period...and this will reduce our costs on training new employees at a higher frequency," Harel explained.
Rayan, which is sponsored by the Israeli government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a humanitarian NGO, is now talking to other companies, aiming to persuade them to follow Bezeq's lead. Alamour is confident that further deals will be secured for investment in the community.
"We have had many contacts with other companies to open workplaces in Hura or other locations...I am sure that in the end there will be many other work places similar to Bezeq's in Hura," he said.
"We are very happy to welcome anybody who is willing to invest in the area but are open to any suggestions for workplaces, such as software development or assembly lines."
In neighboring Jordan, which has a large Bedouin community, women say approaches to work have been shifting for a while.
Bedouin shop owner Sheikha Khalaf al-Shobasi, in the village of Zamlat al-Amir Ghazi, said attitudes within the community toward the idea of women working had changed in the last decade. She used a $3,000 government grant to open a store for confectionary and household items.
"Bedouin women have for long been unfairly treated but it's much better now and men have become far more accepting of their wish to get a job," Shobasi said. "A Bedouin woman who does not work is a less desirable bride but if she has a job she will find it much more easy to get married."
Abdul Wahed Al-Rasheed, a tribal elder in charge of several Jordanian projects to empower women, said social taboos about female employment were being shattered in Jordan's Bedouin heartland.
He said male elders were now more accepting "as long as they are assured that the place of work is safe and preserves women's dignity and social traditions."
Naifa al-Nabari, Rayan's women's vocational coordinator, said there were plenty of educated women in Hura and other towns in Israel's desert south but that until now almost all had become teachers. Working in customer service is a new departure.
"We have many educated girls in the village, most of them are teachers and it was hard to convince them to consider a job other than in education. But now that they have seen the environment is secure, parents are bringing their daughters to offer them for work," Nabari said.
"Girls are making a special effort to learn Hebrew so that they can come to work with us. Now women are earning a wage, it gives them a stronger position in the home and in the community," she said.
Dalal Abu Kaf, 21, one of an initial group of recruits who is now a team leader at the call center, said the opportunity to work had opened new horizons for her and the women she oversees. She said she hoped to fund her medical studies through her job.
"I started from zero but I have risen to be a manager. I think my example can inspire other Bedouin women to go out and work," she said. "This is a big opportunity for all Arab women, especially Bedouin, and it makes us proud."
(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Editing by Sophie Walker)