Helping kids accused of witchcraft in the Niger Delta

The Niger Delta may be Nigeria’s main oil patch but according to the UN Development Programme, the Delta’s 30 million residents suffer from ‘high unemployment… abject poverty, filth, squalor and endemic conflict’.

In the midst of this deprivation, Stepping Stones Nigeria (SSN) has been helping disadvantaged kids since 2005, focusing mainly on protecting children accused of – wait for it – witchcraft.

Gary Foxcroft, the organization’s programme director, makes a direct link between witchcraft charges and the social and environmental devastation wrought by the oil business in this traditional farming and fishing region.

‘Millions of barrels of oil have been pumped out of the Delta over the past 50 years,’ he says. ‘And in that time there have been numerous spills on the land and in the sea.’ As a result, the crayfish, mollusks and shrimps that people rely on for food have been saturated with poisons. When people eat the seafood many die from unidentifiable diseases that are then attributed to witchcraft.

Misfortune, illness and death are all factors which lead to children in the region being labelled as witches – usually, according to Foxcroft, by those closest to them. Sometimes it’s a parent, sometimes a local pastor who raises the ‘witch’ charge. ‘Somebody may have lost their job, or maybe a parent has died,’ says Foxcroft. As poverty worsens ‘there’s social decay and a social vacuum in which these accusations thrive.’

Sometimes a child may be called a witch because of autism or epilepsy. They are immediately shunned by neighbours who are fearful that they may contaminate the wider community. The children then end up on the streets where they’re vulnerable to trafficking, sexual exploitation and even murder.

SSN has achieved a lot in its short history. In collaboration with the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), Foxcroft’s group has built school classrooms and a boys’ dormitory block in Akwa Ibom state. They’ve also constructed a shelter for 200 street kids which offers both health services and small plots of land for the children to farm. SSN also liaises with the Nigerian government – at both local and national level – in an attempt to highlight both the plight of Nigeria’s child witches and the high rates of child trafficking.

But Foxcroft and Stepping Stones Nigeria haven’t had it easy. A recent article in a Nigerian news magazine accused the organization of orchestrating a scam – one of many challenges they’ve had to contend with in a region that suffers from endemic government corruption and rapacious foreign corporations.

Foxcroft gives the accusation short shrift, but he is keenly aware of the need to tread carefully in a part of the world which he has taken to his heart.

‘Our plans are to keep focusing on that witchcraft belief system; to work to change and ultimately minimize it, if not to eradicate the abuse of children that takes place because of it. Whether by our television work, radio work, children’s books, banners or billboards, our aim is to get into the minds of people to question that belief.’

Moving on from hate

‘There are two streams of asylum seekers in Australia: the “boat people”, who are the major source of anxiety in the [Rupert] Murdoch press, and those who arrive by plane on tourist visas, business visas and student visas, and who then apply for asylum once inside the country. The “boat people” represent about a quarter to a third of those who come by orthodox means, and, at the moment, are arriving at about 2,000 to 2,500 per year. It’s interesting because the “boat people” are today the focus of attention, anxiety and hostility. In the last few days, the arrival of these people has even been described as a “flood”. I can’t think of any European country that would think that 2,500 people per year was a “flood”. They are typically from Afghanistan, Tamils from Sri Lanka and people from Iraq. Of those who arrive by plane – by orthodox means, and who arrive at a rate of 8,000 to 10,000 per annum – they’re predominantly from mainland China.

Under the previous government, members of the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) – the non-judicial layer of review of asylum claims – were under a lot of pressure from the government to see things the government’s way and they made some terrible, appalling decisions

‘Under Australian law it’s not a criminal offence to arrive in the country without papers and ask for asylum. But, the tag “illegals” has been applied to the “boat people” repeatedly and with great political effect. Because what we do here is to immediately detain them on arrival and, at least under the previous government, we would hold them for as long as it took to process them, and in some cases that turned out to be many years. As of now, and things have changed a lot since the previous government, they are taken typically to Christmas Island, which is part of Australia but thousands of kilometres off the coast, and much closer to Jakarta than it is to [mainland] Australia. There, and because they are so-called offshore entry people, they don’t have an automatic right to apply for asylum, but the Minister for Immigration typically allows them to apply – or at least assesses them to see if they are refugees. That assessment is done first by officers of the department and then that is subject to independent review and ultimately it’s capable of being reviewed by the federal court. If they are accepted as refugees, then they are given protection visas and brought onto the mainland. If they are rejected, then they are returned to wherever they come from. The overwhelming majority are being accepted at the moment and most of them are processed within about 90 days of their arrival.

‘But the common challenge at the moment for lawyers concerns getting access to the “boat people” because Christmas Island is a long way away and is very hard to get to. If you act pro-bono for people as I and many others do – I’m primarily a commercial barrister – it means taking a week off work just to see a few of them and it will cost you many thousands of dollars. There are a small group of migration agents who are also lawyers who get funded by the government to go there and help people, but in a practical sense it’s quite difficult. So, not all asylum seekers have access to lawyers, but what they do get access to is migration agents, who may or may not be lawyers, but are trained in migration matters. How effective that assistance is varies from case to case – one does hear bad stories of people who don’t get effective help at the right time. But, generalizing, they do get access to some sort of assistance.

‘Under the previous government, members of the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) – the non-judicial layer of review of asylum claims – were under a lot of pressure from the government to see things the government’s way and they made some terrible, appalling decisions. And the scope for judicial review of the RRT was very limited because you had to show jurisdictional error – it wasn’t sufficient just to show that they had got the facts [of a case] wrong. But, under the present government, I think most people accept the department’s attitude has become a bit more realistic and the RRT and other reviewing authorities are much more sympathetic to asylum claims.

‘The political set-up in Australia is more congenial to the rights of asylum seekers than it used to be, but the opposition parties are now attacking the government saying, “you’re taking a soft line on refugees”. They don’t think of it as offering protection to refugees, but as protecting our borders from refugees’

‘So, the political set-up in Australia is more congenial to the rights of asylum seekers than it used to be, but the opposition parties are now attacking the government, saying “you’re taking a soft line on refugees,” or “border protection” as they call it, and therefore “floods” of “boat people” are arriving. They don’t think of it as offering protection to refugees, but as protecting our borders from refugees. They assume that because we are now processing people fairly, they will therefore up sticks from Afghanistan and high tail it across here as quick as they can, all of which I think are questionable propositions. There is a lot scaremongering at the moment, which has been cranking up over the last six to eight months and it’s completely misinformed. I think there’s a good deal of anti-Islamic sentiment underlying this – it’s hardly ever articulated but I suspect that it’s there.

‘From a community sense, and since 2005, public attitudes have begun to shift and have ceased to become quite as uniformly hard-line against refugees as they had been. And I think that shift won’t help the opposition, who want to make a big issue out of asylum seekers. I’ve been fairly vocal in Australia for quite a few years about our treatment of asylum seekers and if ever I wrote an opinion piece or was on the radio or TV defending asylum seekers there would be a sudden surge in hate mail that I would receive. Recently, I’ve been asked to write a couple of op-eds and the comments I’ve received have been overwhelmingly favourable. It’s only anecdotal, but I think the community became aware that what was happening before was dreadful, and that it was happening to real, genuine, frightened human beings.’

Julian Burnside is a barrister based in Melbourne, Australia. A tireless defender of human rights, he was elected as a Living National Treasure in 2004. In 2009 he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia.

Maryam Bibi

Maryam Bibi talked with Alasdair Soussi


A chief executive of a women’s charity is not usually what springs to mind when one considers dangerous professions. But when that profession is based in one of the most violent and volatile cities in the world, the dangers are all too real. Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s restive North West Frontier Province (NWFP), has hovered on the brink of war for 30 years. It’s been home to Maryam Bibi and her organization, Khwendo Kor (KK), since 1993. For Bibi, the threat of death is a daily occurrence in this socially conservative city which borders the militant Khyber region and is only an hour’s drive away from war-torn Afghanistan.

‘It is very dangerous here and our work is badly affected,’ says Bibi, speaking from her home in Peshawar. ‘Our offices have been attacked, our staff have been kidnapped, but 90 per cent of the people here want development and demand our work; only 5 to 10 per cent are miscreants.’

By work, Bibi means her long-standing commitment to empower women through education, better healthcare and job creation. Khwendo Kor – meaning Sister’s Home in the local language, Pashto – has been active in the NWFP for the past 17 years, and was established ‘so women themselves could take the initiative’ in Pakistan’s rural and notoriously hostile tribal communities.

‘I established this organization to highlight women’s issues, so we could take ownership of our own identity’

‘I come from Waziristan and I know the situation of women there. I was lucky to get exposure to education – and the credit for that goes to my father, who was courageous enough to educate his daughters – but even being educated I understood how difficult it was to think for yourself as a tribal woman. I wasn’t trying to do anything outside of my religion; I simply wanted to work. I didn’t want to have to be dependent on others just because my husband was not well. When he died I wanted to do things for myself. When I found I was not allowed, culturally, I was shocked. Then, when I came to know other women, I was further shocked – I saw how they were much poorer, not educated. It was then that I decided that I would do something for women. I established this organization to highlight women’s issues, so we could take ownership of our own identity.’

Reaching out to more remote areas of Pakistan has been challenging, but the organization has established a strong reputation for tailoring projects to the specific needs of a given community.

‘We always work in partnership and in collaboration with the communities,’ says Bibi. She stresses that it’s critical to get the men and village leaders on board. ‘We select an area where, for instance, there is no girls’ education or girls’ school. Or where the government school is dysfunctional, preventing girls from attending. We then assess whether the people are ready to take an active role in change, and not just act as recipients. But creating schools is not just for education: it is also a tool for mobilizing the community and mobilizing women, because women in the villages don’t have forums like men who have mosques and other meeting places.’

As well as community-based education for women and girls (KK has helped train some 250 women teachers), the organization’s other main concerns – social organization, primary healthcare, women’s micro-enterprise , human and institutional development and advocacy – have all yielded positive results in Pakistan’s remote areas. For instance, KK has trained nearly 1,000 traditional birth attendants and given some 130,000 people increased access to health facilities through the creation of 114 medical camps. Such has been KK’s success that staff numbers have swelled from 4 in 1993 to more than 340 today. Offices have sprung up across the North West Frontier and the organization can even boast a British branch, the UK Friends of Khwendo Kor (FROK) in York.

But violent attacks and kidnappings, carried out by Islamist extremist groups who bitterly oppose women’s rights, have plagued KK (and its educational efforts in particular) since its inception, and have forced Bibi to stop working late in the office.

‘There are those in the remote areas that have a different agenda,’ she explains. ‘They want to create problems, but our approach is very rooted in the people in the villages… and having local people working with you is very helpful.’

In 2005, Bibi was one of ‘1,000 Women’ collectively nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Though she and her colleagues were ultimately unsuccessful, her own nomination was victory enough and vindicated what has been a long and often turbulent campaign for women’s rights in Pakistan’s rural communities.

‘When you want to do something positive and you want to bring change, and you get opposition, you don’t understand it. So many times we’ve questioned ourselves. But when you’re nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, you suddenly realize that you’ve not done anything wrong! It gave us confidence and encouragement and I personally felt very good about it. Despite the setbacks and the problems we have survived.’

Hossam Bahgat

Hossam Bahgat talked with Alasdair Soussi

Hossam Bahgat talked with Alasdair Soussi.


He is not yet 30, but already Hossam Bahgat has carved out a reputation as one of Egypt’s most prominent and effective human rights campaigners. As the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Bahgat has been a major driving force behind Egypt’s civil liberties movement: no easy feat in a country, which, according to Amnesty International, causes ‘long-standing concerns on systematic torture, deaths of prisoners in custody, unfair trials, arrests of prisoners of conscience for their political and religious beliefs or for their sexual orientation, wide use of administrative detention and long-term detention without trial and use of the death penalty’.

‘Things have been getting worse,’ says Bahgat, speaking from his Cairo home. ‘But we have had victories that keep us going, such as getting people out of jail and sending abusers to prison, and that is reason enough to be doing this kind of work.’

Bahgat founded the EIPR in 2002, doing so after a career in journalism sparked an interest in Egypt’s many human rights concerns. But it was the high-profile case involving the arrest of 52 suspected gay men on a boat restaurant on the Nile in May 2001 that proved the real tipping-point for Bahgat. Not only was he dismayed at the lack of support afforded to the accused in what became known nationwide as the Queen Boat trial, but he was swiftly dismissed from his position at the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) – one of the country’s oldest and most respected civil liberties movements – after writing an article criticizing both the inaction of Egypt’s human rights groups on the affair and the security service’s gratuitous targeting of the country’s gay community. It was a set of circumstances which spurred Bahgat into action.

‘After this trial, and the reaction to the publication of my article, it became apparent that what was needed was an organization that worked on personal autonomy, bodily integrity and privacy,’ says Bahgat, whose organization became the first in Egypt to consider discrimination on the grounds of sexuality among its issues of concern. ‘Back then, these issues had been ignored or overlooked in favour of the more traditional political liberties, such as free elections, the right to establish opposition parties, freedom of the press and so on.’

Indeed, according to Bahgat, the Queen Boat trial was indicative of a systemic failure to protect the rights of the individual in Egyptian society, which also extended to matters involving religious conversion, marital rape and incest, issues then deemed too controversial for Egypt’s human rights community, but now discussed, in many Egyptian circles, as a matter of course.

‘The human rights community is now much more responsive to such issues, mostly due to the proliferation of private newspapers and satellite channels discussing political and social affairs; and, of course, the thousands of bloggers discussing issues of religion, sexuality and politics, who are pushing the limits and breaking taboos everyday.’

The EIPR offers a range of support under its remit of protecting private and bodily rights. Services include the monitoring and documentation of abuses, such as sexual harassment, policy and legal analysis, advocacy and campaigning, and intervening on select cases for the purposes of establishing a new legal precedent and highlighting areas of injustice. They are activities, which, especially in its early days, put the EIPR in the firing line.

‘When we first started, we were attacked in the press, who portrayed us as implementers of a Western agenda, a conspiracy against [Egyptian] values and religion. And when the current law on NGOs was passed in 2002, a number of organizations attempted to get registered and ours was among a handful of groups who were rejected because of the nature of the work we do.’

Though these attacks from the press have waned considerably over the years, their inability to register as an NGO has forced the EIPR, funded by the likes of the Ford Foundation and Irish Aid, to function officially as a law firm. It is a situation that speaks volumes about Egypt as a nation-state, explains Bahgat:

‘In Egypt, many aspects, including civil society regulation, are handled by the security agencies. Egypt, under [President Hosni] Mubarak, has really become a police state where the Ministry of Interior is incredibly powerful and regulates almost all aspects of public life.’

While much of the work of the EIPR remains a constant day-to-day struggle, it is not without its rewards. The group’s unwavering support of Egypt’s persecuted Baha’i population, for example, contributed hugely to the Egyptian Government’s recent decision finally to recognize the right of adherents of ‘non-recognized’ religions – a category in which followers of the Baha’i faith fall – to obtain necessary identification documents and access to basic services. And, when some Baha’is were violently attacked in the country’s south several months ago by neighbouring villagers, large sections of the country, who would once have displayed outright contempt or indifference to the minority group’s plight, condemned the violence.

‘The attacks on the Baha’is – the torching of their houses – made front page news here. Most of the columnists who discussed the matter were in support of the Baha’is and most human rights organizations joined our action on this case. That might not have been possible six or seven years ago.’

In Bahgat’s own words, ‘a lot of water has passed under the bridge’ since his dismissal from the EOHR eight years ago. But that experience, not to mention others in his role as director of the EIPR, has formed a man of great conviction who makes no excuse for siding with the most vulnerable in Egyptian society.

‘As human rights activists, our duty is not always to work on the popular issues, but also to work on issues that might not be popular for the majority. And that, in fact, is where we are most needed.’

Tunisian Association Against AIDS

In a small, unassuming building in a quiet suburb of Tunis, a group of young men busily discuss the day ahead. Some, standing by the open, sun-filled doorway, gesture animatedly, their arms flailing, their bodies shaking with laughter. Others sit hunched over steaming cups of coffee, chattering intently, their hushed voices barely audible above the din nearby. It is a relaxed atmosphere, one punctuated by the interchanging sounds of French and Arabic, a distinct cultural symbol of Tunisia’s rich and vibrant history.

Such gatherings are commonplace at the Association Tunisienne de Lutte Contre le Sida (the Tunisian Association Against AIDS). The centre, supported by a range of international associations and NGOs, has been at the forefront of the campaign to increase HIV awareness in Tunisia.

‘We have a system here where we meet every Sunday and talk about our plans for the week ahead,’ says 18-year-old high-school student Adel*, a peer educator at the centre. ‘We have many projects at the Association, such as those dealing with drugs and safe sex, most of which relate to increasing HIV awareness. This also means targeting specific communities, so we’ve focused on sex workers – both male and female – and the gay community.’

Such initiatives have meant that, as well as seeking to educate Tunisia’s young people through the more traditional routes of school visits and leaflet drops at cafés and universities, the centre has been forced to adopt some highly unusual, imaginative strategies in their quest to gather and distribute crucial information on the virus which, according to UNAIDS, affects some 8,700 people in a population of over 10 million.

‘We’ve taken our drive to educate to parks where we know men meet up for sex,’ says Adel, who also points to the potential threat posed by Hepatitis C, a disease with similar modes of transmission to HIV. ‘We’ve been there at 11pm, for example, with the intention of gathering information about their activities (and sexual behaviour). But can you imagine trying to question these men while they’re there to engage in sex? It’s not the easiest thing to do!’

Adel, himself gay, knows more than most about Tunisian attitudes towards homosexuality, a practice still illegal in the country and punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.

‘It’s not easy discussing things (like homosexuality),’ says Adel, who, apart from confiding in those at the centre, is forced to hide his own sexuality, for fear of being subjected to homophobia. ‘The big problem, of course, is that we still have a lot of prejudice (in Tunisia) when it comes to homosexuality – if you mention it to anyone they’ll keep telling you that it’s haram (forbidden), but this is despite the fact that it goes on a lot here.’

While homosexuality is still regarded as a taboo subject in Tunisia, public reaction to matters involving HIV or AIDS has not always been favourable.

‘I know of one colleague from this centre who got spat at by a woman after he tried to talk to her about HIV awareness,’ says Tarek, another peer educator at the centre. ‘Another time, we were handing out leaflets at a discotheque and when we gave it to one woman she reacted (with horror) and didn’t want to know.’

Apart from acting as a catalyst for profound social change, the centre also serves as a refuge for those living with the virus. Anis is one such person. Diagnosed with haemophilia in early childhood, Anis contracted HIV through a blood transfusion in 1983, some two years before blood screening was introduced in Tunisia. He credits the NGO, where he now works as a volunteer, with pulling him back from the brink of suicide.

‘I was told about the centre when I met another person who was HIV-positive at hospital,’ says Anis, who plunged into a drink-fuelled depression following the discovery of his HIV status five years ago. ‘He encouraged me to go, but I wasn’t very keen. After I discovered I had the virus, I broke up with my fiancée and I was made to resign from work, so I felt that there was no point in doing anything. But I eventually went, and it was the best thing I ever did. They made me feel normal there, more normal than I had felt in such a long time.’

Though optimistic about the future, Adel knows there is still some way to go if his hopes for a more accepting and informed Tunisian society are to be realized.

‘I have seen many good things happen, such as persuading my friends to use condoms – something which has been so successful that they have almost become addicted to protection,’ he says, a hint of laughter in his voice. ‘If we had more money, however, then we could invest in so much – in advertising campaigns, concerts and other similar activities. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved so far, but there is still much more to do.’

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals concerned.

Interview with Sharla Musabih as she builds the City of Hope

Dubai leaves little to the imagination. Oozing class and prosperity, this Gulf city is an undisputed Arab capital of cool. The largest city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it is a haven for both tourist and expatriates alike. For this is a city that has sprung out of the desert – an oasis for the world’s beautiful people where dreams are fulfilled and fortunes are made.

But beneath the hanging steel of high-rise office blocks and world-class hotels a far less glamorous campaign is being waged. Led by Sharla Musabih, an American married to a UAE national, this fight has focused on an altogether darker and more hidden aspect of UAE society: domestic abuse.

The City of Hope – an organization founded in 2001 by Sharla and two other women, Lena Mustapha and Margaret Greeney – has served as a refuge for hundreds of abused women and children. Its establishment, says Sharla, was in direct response to a growing need that has been neglected during the UAE’s stunning infrastructural and cultural transformation.

Only around 800,000 of UAE’s 4.2 million population are nationals: the rest are migrant workers and their families drawn from all over the globe. ‘The development of the UAE is really amazing. But what I saw happening (at the beginning) was the development of a lot of social problems, which, as a result of the sudden influx of over 100 different nationalities, were being overlooked.’

The police and other social agencies, says Sharla, found it hard to cope with the sudden rush of an incoming multinational population. Their systems – designed with the customs of the UAE in mind – began to crack. ‘The local population instantly lost their heritage and identity and it was very hard for them to deal with everything that came with the bigger population and the rise and use of bigger and better technology.’

‘My friends and I discovered that domestic violence was stepping up and so I started taking women into my home,’ recalls Sharla, who has lived in the UAE for some 22 years. Now with three operational shelters across Dubai, the City of Hope – a concern funded in part through corporate sponsorship – is filled with numerous women and children of various nationalities, many of whom could recount shocking tales covering the full spectrum of abuse. ‘We have rape victims. We have rape victims who are pregnant. And sometimes after the pregnancy, we have had to do DNA tests to prove the identity of the child’s father.’

Unlike in much of Europe and North America there are few shelters for battered women in the Middle East, so escaping an abusive relationship can be difficult. Add to that the cultural and religious customs that exist in the Arab world, and abused women from Western cultures who are married to Arab men can often feel very isolated. ‘I often think about where we would be if I hadn’t had this shelter… the women simply wouldn’t have had a place to go,’ Sharla reflects as she recounts the story of a German woman brought to the UAE by her violent Syrian husband who was left stranded in a hotel. ‘She now lives in the shelter with her three children, and has done so for a long time.’

The sensitivity of her work has led to public accusations – most of which originate from abusive husbands of women who were helped by the shelter – that she is ‘an Israeli spy, planted by the US Government’. When she first introduced the idea of a women’s shelter to the UAE Government, she was met by a mixture of interest and unease. ‘I visited the Under Secretary of Labour and Social Affairs and she told me that they didn’t have a law under which to license this kind of organization. Nobody had ever applied for this kind of thing before, but she told me to carry on until some kind of agreement about its status could be agreed. That was five years ago, and I’m still waiting.’

According to figures released by the human rights section of the Dubai Police, some 45 cases of family problems were reported in the city last year, only four of which were cases of violence against women. At the time of the report’s publication, Sharla dismissed the statistics as a gross underestimate, blaming the police system for mishandling domestic abuse situations. Abuse victims are often sent back home ‘after the police ask the husband to sign a statement promising not to harm his wife again’.

Despite this, her relationship with the Dubai Police is good – she was officially honoured by them late last year.

‘Gaining official status from the UAE Government [should] protect me and allow me to work in safety. And building more shelters would allow us to cope with the results of an ever-increasing multinational population. This country must never be allowed to live in denial [of the needs] of a [foreign] population which they have invited.’

Sharla Musabih talked with Alasdair Soussi

Interview with Israel's Refuseniks

From top: Adam Maor, Haggai Matar, Matan Kaminer.

Haggai Matar, Adam Maor, Matan Kaminer. These names may not be familiar to the world at large, but in Israel they are part of a well-known group of five young men who banded together to take a stand against the country’s compulsory military service. Theirs were not rash decisions based on fear, nor inherent ones based on a strictly religious or pacifist doctrine. Rather, their actions were based on a simple desire to see an end to both human suffering and a military occupation that was destroying souls as well as taking lives.

Like over 1,300 other so-called Refuseniks in Israel, the five conscientious objectors – all in their early twenties – were fully aware of the legal implications of their actions. Each served some two years in prison. As Matar explains, this was a small price to pay for an ideal that they all felt compelled to uphold:

‘There’s a long answer and short answer for why I did what I did. The short answer is that there was no other way. I felt then – as I do now – that I had to be involved in what was happening here. I saw what was going on and I felt I had to act. And this, of course, leads me on to the detailed and longer reason for my refusing. As a person who went to the Occupied Territories many times, I saw many terrible things. Mounds of earth on the main entrance to a village, which stopped Palestinians getting in or out with cars. House demolitions; water deposits that the (Israeli) army had destroyed – taking away the only water source for a population in the desert! And then there was the time when a Palestinian village was invaded by illegal Jewish settlers who destroyed the water and electricity supplies, causing the villagers to run away, go into exile, and leave the village empty. These, as well as the accumulating effects of militarization on Israeli society, were the main reasons for refusing: these, and the need to make people hear and understand these things.’

Despite the contentious nature of their decision, all five men received support from their families though, as Matar admits, it was harder for some than it was for others. ‘My family supported me from the outset. But some of us had parents who were not politically involved and did not understand why their children were refusing. But with time all our families became very much involved. You could say we “dragged” our parents into politics.’

Indeed, their families’ unavoidable involvement in the political arena was, says Maor, integral to their cause. ‘My parents took part in founding the “refusenik parents’ forum” which was unbelievably active and useful for our struggle. Most of my friends supported me as well: even those who did not agree appreciated my standing up for what I believed in.’

Although it has become more accepted in Israeli society to refuse military service in the Occupied Territories or to refuse to serve in the army altogether, there is still a feeling amongst some Israelis that such decisions are tantamount to treason. As Matar explains, this view has no basis in reality: ‘I would say “a traitor to what?” If they consider me a traitor to the racist Israeli state that commits war crimes against the occupied Palestinians and one that oppresses its own people as well then, yes, I am a traitor to these causes. But to the Israeli people – no, I am not. I work for Israeli society to work for a viable peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Is that what a traitor looks like?’

‘I do not recognise the state [of Israel] as a moral authority,’ adds Kaminer. ‘I did what I did because I have the best interests of the Israeli [people] at heart – not the abstract concept of “Israel”. I also did it in the best interest of the Palestinians, too.’

Untainted by their years in jail and unapologetic about their decision to challenge an entrenched part of Israeli society, the men now see the peace process as a race against time.

‘As time goes by, more and more settlements are being built, the [West Bank] wall is taking Palestinian land and Palestinian life is getting worse,’ says Maor. ‘The Israeli Government has always left a potential peace process hanging in the air and has always felt it necessary to make life harder for Palestinians on the ground. The longer we wait, and the longer Palestinian independence is put off, we are losing much more than we are gaining. We must keep the pressure on.’

The Refuseniks talked with Alasdair Soussi

Interview with Rana Husseini

When Rana Husseini joined the staff of The Jordan Times as a young female reporter in 1993, ‘honour’ killings were a dirty secret. No-one spoke of the cruelty that surrounded such deaths. No one wrote about the Jordanian women whose lives were brutally and wantonly cut short. Newly assigned to the paper’s crime beat, Rana’s reporting was soon confronted by a society dominated by masculine principles. ‘An incident [in 1994] involving a 16-year-old girl shocked me the most. It was the beginning of my career when I covered the death of this girl at the hands of her 31-year-old brother. She had been raped by her other 21-year-old brother who had put sleeping pills in her tea before carrying out the rape and threatening to kill her if she told her family. But she became pregnant so she had to tell. Then he tried to kill her. She survived, but underwent an abortion. Later on, she was married off to a man 50 years older than her, but that only lasted six months. On the day he divorced her she was killed by her brother to cleanse the family name.’

‘When I went to talk to her uncles who plotted the murder, I asked them why they helped to kill her if she had been raped... why they punished her. And they said she seduced her brother to sleep with him. Then I asked them why she would want to do that when there were other men on the street. [In response] they began criticizing me for the way I was dressed [Husseini favours Western-style jeans and T-shirts over more traditional Arab women’s wear] and for studying in the US, and other things of this sort.’

‘Honour’ crimes claim at least 25 lives each year and amount to a third of all violent deaths in Jordan. It was only after The Jordan Times published the full details of the dead girl’s story that Rana realized the strength of opposition to the public disclosure of such crimes: ‘One of the criticisms I received was from an intellectual Jordanian woman who worked in a high position and had studied abroad. She called the newspaper and started screaming at my editor, saying that they should stop me from writing because I was tarnishing the image of Jordan.’

This made Rana furious and propelled her to find out the truth behind these killings. She turned her attention to the judicial system. ‘I discovered these killers were getting away with very lenient sentences. Then I also discovered that women who survived these attacks were being put in prison [at the women’s correctional facility in Amman] for their own protection. I was outraged.’

In the years that followed, Husseini took the lead on many public awareness campaigns to change people’s attitudes and to reform the law: work that earned her the Human Rights Watch Award in 2000. ‘As a result of several activities in 1999 and 2000 we received 15,000 signatures demanding the cancellation of laws that discriminate against women. So the Government introduced changes to Article 340 [of the Jordanian penal code]. But this law stipulates that a man benefits from a reduction in penalty if, after witnessing his wife in an adulterous affair, he kills one or both of them. It has only been used once. In fact since I began my career I have never seen a judge use it. It was Article 98 – which allows for a reduced sentence if a man kills in a fit of fury – that we wanted the Government to take action on. This is the Article that is used in all “honour” crime cases. Because of it, killers are still only getting sentences of between three months and two years.’

Although Article 98 remains on the statute books, the campaigns mounted by Rana and her colleagues boast other positive results. The Government’s introduction of the Family Protection Project in 2000 has increased public awareness about domestic violence and started the process of changing male attitudes towards women and children. Rana is now optimistic about seeing a significant decrease in ‘honour’ killings – which analysts say have their roots in local custom, not Islam – within the next 20 years.

‘It’s not like the old days. Many men now look for women [to marry] who work rather than women who are sitting at home. So things are changing. When it comes to “honour” crimes there is a lot more public awareness than there was 10 years ago. Of course in every society when you want to change something you’ll face resistance. Sometimes I get accused of being used by the West – of being a Western agent. But I’m sorry, I don’t need anyone in the West to tell me that killing a woman is wrong.’

Rana Husseini talked to Alasdair Soussi

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