Swimming against the tide
Blaming the victim
The Occupied Palestinian Territories have been in a state of permanent instability as a result of the protracted Israeli occupation for more than 60 years. One-dimensional media portrayals of Palestinians as either hero, victim or villain, insult and deny the reality for millions just trying to get on with life. That said, lives in the West Bank and Gaza have been characterised by violence for decades. While discussion of political violence flows freely throughout the public and media, entrenched social stigma around domestic and sexual violence means issues often remain behind closed doors.
Causes of the phenomenon of violence against Palestinian women are varied and complex. Poverty and occupation, combined with the customs and traditions of a patriarchal culture that controls society and marginalises females can be a toxic combination.
The view that women are of a lesser status and ability than men permeates society and deprives them of basic human rights. Laws and regulations linked to male-dominated culture facilitate the violation of women’s rights in the home, workplace and public space. With their access to decision making positions restricted, overthrowing existing structures and legislation is set to be a long and complex process.
In Palestinian society, when you mention the police it means violence and law
Poverty and unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza contribute to the high rate of violence in general, but against women in particular. Add to this a desperate political situation, and you have a lethal cocktail of violence, generally perpetrated by men existing under the daily humiliation and oppression of military occupation.
A 2011 survey by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics revealed that 37 per cent of Palestinian women were exposed to violence by their husbands. Saeda N. Al-Atrash, Director of the Mehwar Centre, one of three women’s shelters in the West Bank was adamant that numbers of abused women are impossible to measure.
‘Frankly speaking, you cannot have precise numbers of abused women,’ she said. ‘On average, we accept 40 women a year but, of course numbers of victims are much higher. We only shelter highly-threatened cases, but women don’t have to be beaten to be victims of violence. Many cases are psychological, their health is destroyed or women are neglected. Many things aren’t talked about because of stigma, particularly sexual violence and incest.’
Lifting the veil
Lawyer Jalal Khader recently returned from Paris after receiving an award for his NGO’s work in lifting the veil on taboos within Palestinian society.
Established in 1998 to support victims of domestic and sexual violence, SAWA, meaning ‘together’ in Arabic, is now a leading Palestinian organization working to combat abuse against women and children. Swimming against the tide of conservative culture, Development Manager Khader enjoys finding solutions for problems that are taboo. He boasts of using technologies that private companies utilise to make money, to reach the poor, marginalized and victims of violence.
SAWA’s psycho-social mobile clinic targets isolated areas of the West Bank to tackle topics like sex education, sexual violence, drugs and child labour. Community lectures lift the lid on unmentionable subjects such as like paedophilia, incest, and prostitution. Face-to-face counselling for abuse victims is free-of-charge and SAWA pioneered Palestine’s first men-only programme to discuss gender-based violence.
The organization has created a common language with the Palestinian police after training them to work sensitively with family violence. Plain-clothed officers are now provided by the Family Protection Unit (FPU) to listen and advise. Khader said they need more training but it’s a good start.
‘In Palestinian society, when you mention the police it means violence and law,’ he said. ‘So seeing officers working closely with women and children and trying to understand social context is very important.’
Often accused of adapting to Western culture, Khader is adamant this is not true.
‘I disagree – we are not Eastern or Western, but professional and scientific,’ he said. When hosting conferences on taboos like paedophilia, incest or prostitution, he is always apprehensive about public reaction but said people want more.
‘They say that we are the only ones teaching this stuff,’ he smiled.
Blaming the victim
The jewel in SAWA’s crown is a free, three-digit national helpline for women and children. Accessible from Gaza, the West Bank and Israel; 60 per cent of callers are women and 72 per cent under 21. Helpline adverts on the back of bus tickets carry the important messages: ‘You are not alone’ or ‘If someone hurts you – call 121.’
‘Last year, we answered the phone 1,200,000 times,’ Khader said.
It’s very common to blame the victim here
Approximately 60 per cent of calls come from Gaza, a number that spiked to 75 per cent during Israel’s 2014 ‘Operation Protective Edge’ assault on the densely populated territory. Palestinians in Gaza have lived through three wars in six years, leaving Khader unsurprised by the amount of calls.
‘Where does it exist in the world that two million people cannot leave and if they do they can’t come back? It’s inhuman!’ he exclaimed.
Reasons for the helpline’s demand vary. Some have no one else to talk to, for others the pull factor is the promise of confidentiality. Despite a rise in violence against women in Palestine, women and girls often choose silence. Afraid of reactions by the community or family, they may blame themselves or in communities that often support the aggressor, they may be blamed.
‘It’s very common to blame the victim here,’ Khader sighed.
Barriers preventing people expressing themselves seem endless. Some pay a heavy price for speaking up, including those arrested by the Israeli authorities for Facebook posts. According to Khader, the helpline gives people space to express and think for themselves outside authoritarian structures.
‘Everything here is don’t do this, don’t do that,’ he said.
After completing a rigorous 110-hour training program, SAWA volunteers often undergo a deep personal transformation.
‘Some even change their way of dressing. Family and friends don’t recognise them,’ Khader laughed. However, not everyone is comfortable with the new narratives and some don’t continue.
‘We work on challenging false perceptions and for some it is not easy. You have to teach them to accept others the way they are, it’s how you make changes. If we avoid problems, how can we change?’ he added.
‘The most important thing is that we don’t give solutions to people. We must empower them to take responsibility for themselves. When they solve things themselves, they won’t need to call us next time.’
Thanks to the liberating technology of smartphones, SAWA’s Facebook page gained 146,000 followers in two years. A crucial tool in reaching those under siege and across the Arab world, rarely discussed or forbidden topics like suicide are highlighted. Some posts exceed 2 million views.
Prevention not protection
An escalation in violence since October has resulted in 30 Israelis dead and over 150 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces. In the resulting security crackdown in the West Bank, tensions are unmistakable. Aware they can be shot at any time by hyper-vigilant Israeli soldiers, Palestinians are afraid to travel, and parents are terrified to let children leave the house. Incidents of domestic violence generally peak during times of increased conflict and Saeda Al-Atrash is concerned that less women are asking for help.
Never has the political outlook been so bleak for Palestinians, yet many like Al-Atrash and Khader will persist in pushing for women’s rights and gender equality. Clear that the solution to gender-based violence must start from within, Al-Atrash was frank:
‘If we want change we must work with students,’ she said. ‘The core issue is not to protect but to prevent ─ from the beginning. We must protect as well, but when you change mentalities you prevent violence. We need to teach the rights of human beings from childhood, from the start. At the moment we don’t.’