'Nice girls don't get raped'

On International Women's Day, three Israeli women discuss common myths about sexual violence in their distinctly different communities.

March 8, 2010 10:31
All women are potential victims of sexual crimes.

rape victim illustrative 311. (photo credit: John L. White / South Florida Sun-Sentinel / MCT)

One in every three Israeli women has been raped or sexually assaulted, according to the latest statistics from the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel (ARCCI).

Released late last year, this data seems shocking considering that the country’s first center for victims of violent sexual crimes opened more than three decades ago and women around the globe have been fighting to improve their status annually on International Women’s Day for close to 100 years.

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But none of the three women interviewed for this article – Miriam Schler, executive director of the Sexual Assault Crisis Center in Tel Aviv, Debbie Gross, director of the Rape Crisis Center for Religious Women in Jerusalem, and Naila Awwad-Rashed, coordinator for Women Against Violence Organization (WAVO) in Nazareth – seems surprised by the figures.

All agree that it makes no difference where you live, which community you are part of, your age, body shape or social standing, all women are potential victims of violent sexual crimes.

According to the figures published by the nonprofit organization based on calls to its national help line, more than 2000 people claimed to have been victims of rape or attempted rape in 2008. Furthermore, some 379 said the attack was by more than one person, and 1404 said the perpetrator was someone in their family.

Schler, a former New Yorker who has been working with victims of violent sexual crimes for some 20 years, says that the numbers are not growing but that awareness about such acts are, which, in turn, leads to more women reporting.

“In the past we simply did not hear about such things, but the more people talk about this subject, the more women are empowered to come forward and report the crimes,” she says.

However, the situation is far from being solved, especially when myths and stereotypes about the nature of sexual assaults, the perpetrators and their victims exist in every community.

Schler points to the case last week of an 18-year-old girl raped by a gang of 13 teenage boys for a period of more than three years.

“The public debate is focusing on why the girl did not speak out about what was happening to her, but no one is asking why none of the boys stood up and said, ‘This is wrong,’” she says. “We have fostered a culture where men are encouraged to be tough and manly and women are viewed as objects there for the taking. We should be asking why none of the boys came forward or thought to ask the girl if this was what she really wanted.”

Sexual Assault Crisis Center, Tel Aviv

What is the biggest myth about rape?

It’s that rapes happen in a dark alley or that the attacker is a strange Arab man raping a Jewish woman, but at the center we see that 87 percent of calls come from women who know their attacker.

These rapists could come from within their peer group; it could be a youth movement counselor or driving instructor, a neighbor or someone in the family. The fact that women usually know their attacker is the main reason that so many rape cases go unreported.

Why else don’t women report rapes?

Reporting an attack usually means the woman has to pay a huge price. If it happens within the family, she might feel responsible for breaking up that family or might be scared that no one will believe her.

In addition, in many cases the woman feels there is no reason to complain because she will end up getting the blame for what has happened, depending on what she was wearing or how she was acting.

How can we change these attitudes?

Education is the best way but even today many schools do not allow us in to run our workshops and there is no obligation from the Education Ministry for these schools to do so. It is basically up to individual teachers and principals to take this issue under their wing.

This is a shame because we need to create more of dialogue among school children and we need to teach the boys to stop harassing girls and to see women as human beings, not objects. We also need to work on concept of consent and asking a woman whether she wants to.

Rape Crisis Center for Religious Women, Jerusalem

Why do religious women need their own rape crisis center?

Our center is actually for all women, but it specifically meets the needs for the religious community.

A woman who calls our help line is going through a difficult time, and it is important that the person she talks to understands her world. There are specific questions she might have, like if she was raped and finds herself pregnant, can she have an abortion?

In such situations, when religious women are faced with a dilemma, we can help her by going to her rabbi and asking him to make a decision. This way the woman can remain anonymous.

It is also important to understand the nuances in the religious community and the way a rape might affect a religious woman. For example, it’s possible that a religious woman has never seen a man naked and just that aspect is very traumatizing for her. Or it could be that she has no knowledge of sex at all.

In another sense, the whole episode could have a serious effect on her relationship with God and religion and someone who understands her background will not try to influence her in any way.

What are the myths about rape in the religious community?

Inside the religious community there is the myth that nice girls don’t get raped, but really rape can happen to all women of all ages and all body shapes, irrelevant of how they dress or behave.

The other problem is that among some women there is the belief that sexual abuse or rape is punishment from God for doing something wrong and therefore the victim blames herself for what is or has happened.

Have you faced opposition from the haredi community?

When we started, we went to rabbis from each religious sect and denomination across the country and asked for their blessing, approval and advice. The rabbis were very receptive and they even helped us set up the center. This in turn made women feel more confident about coming to us.

After operating here for 15 years, we have encountered little opposition because we work quietly and respectfully within the community.

Women Against Violence Organization, Nazareth

What are the main challenges in the Arab community?

There is just as much sexual assault in the Arab community as there is among the Jewish community, however the number of reports we receive is only a very small fraction of what happens out there in the real world. Arab women are scared to talk about issues relating to sex because we are a society that has strict taboos surrounding the subject and we grew up being told not to talk about sex.

Another main reason women do not report rape is to do with mistrust of the police, especially since the October 2000 clashes [that left 13 Israeli Arabs dead.] After that, many people here were afraid to go to the police and we can see that in the statistics.

What are the common myths regarding sexual violence in your community?

There was a time when people here did not believe that rape or sexual abuse happened in our community, but today there is much more awareness and many more people are willing to speak out about violence and discrimination against women. Our women are becoming much more vocal and we even have some in the Knesset.

Just last month we arranged a rally highlighting violence against women after two Arab women were murdered. More than 1000 people, men and women together, came to the event. It’s not perfect here but it is improving and we believe that we will attain our rights.

How can you create more awareness?

We are working hard to lobby for change for women in our community, and we have many projects such as a battered women’s shelter and a halfway house for women and girls in danger that help women to a better life.

In addition, we need to work together with the men in our community because they are part of this change in attitude and challenging stereotypes on the status of women.

Do you work with the younger generation?

In the past there were many schools that refused to allow us to come in and talk to the children about these issues, but today there are so many schools asking us to come - we just don’t have time to reach all of them.

When we go, we meet with both students and teachers and the main focus is on human rights and equality. We try to create a big picture so that the next generation will see that every human being has equal rights.

Why do you need a separate organization?

This is our society and we need our own voice. We have different needs from other women in this country, although there might be some activities we do together. We are the only ones who can know how to change our community.

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