The group of women looked as if they were part of any women’s organization, with the marked difference that the sense of sisterhood seemed to be much stronger. It was hard to believe that before this year, most of them had been strangers to one another. Aged from early 20s to 50 plus, they had all been victims of sexual abuse. Some had been abused many times over, and in at least three or four cases since early childhood.
They came from all over the country and from different backgrounds and they were in Jerusalem on Monday to meet with Nechama Rivlin, the wife of the president of the state.
They were part of a project undertaken by the women’s magazine LaIsha. The project began with four of them who had been interviewed in the past by journalist Sharon Rofeh Ofir. Using social media and other means, she brought a much larger group together to talk about what had happened to them, why they had remained silent for so long, and how relieved they felt to be able to share their experiences and emotions with other women who had been through something similar.
In introducing the project, which began in January, and the women involved to Rivlin, LaIsha executive editor Miriam Nofah Mozes said: “I belong to a generation in which most women were victims of sexual harassment. It was the norm at the time.”
Speaking later to The Jerusalem Post
, she added that no one of her generation would have thought to complain. Male aggression was simply an accepted fact and women didn’t stand up for their rights.
Issuing a call to both male and female victims of sexual abuse, Rivlin said: “No one has a right to touch you without your permission.” She also insisted that the attitude to women as sex objects must change.
The overall project included 56 women, said LaIsha Editor in Chief Karina Shtotland, but only 22 agreed to be photographed on the magazine’s striking International Women’s Day cover.
The women briefly told their stories to Rivlin, who lauded them for their courage and their determination to go on with their lives. Some of them broke down as they spoke, still unable to deal with the pain.
One of the worst tales was told by Roni Aloni-Sadovnik, 48, a lawyer who is married and the mother of two, and who today represents victims of sexual assault. From the ages of three to 12, she was assaulted by a male relative.
Ruth Shikshi, 27, who has a master’s degree in criminology, comes from a haredi background and is keen to work with youth at risk. As a teenager, she felt a sense of emptiness and worthlessness. She overate and she didn’t think that life was worth living. She did not get past this as she grew older. In her despair, at age 21, she went to see a rabbi who headed a self-awareness institution.
She told him that she was in crisis and after he began to treat her, she also told him that she had been sexually abused as a child. After two years of treatment he embraced her physically. As a haredi young woman, she was dependent on him, and so she returned, and was treated by for an additional year and a half during which time he fondled her, but it was only when he told her that she should have sexual relations for her sake not for his that she realized that she had to get away from him.
Most of the other women had been raped, some of them in childhood, one, a kibbutznik, at the age of 18 months and onwards, some in their teens, and one also had the misfortune after having been raped to marry an abusive husband.
Patricia Dor, 49, a divorced mother of seven, said it took her 38 years to talk about the agony she had lived with for so long. “What he did to me was murder of the soul,” she said.
Daphna Argaman, 51, a divorcée and mother of three, was sexually abused by her father from ages 12 to 14. For a long time she felt guilty and had no self-esteem, she said.
“But I’ve forgiven myself. I’m not guilty and I’m not ashamed.” Argaman lectures on the importance of speaking out and takes her daughter with her on the lecture circuit.
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, journalist Carmit Sapir Weitz wrote a moving story about her visit to one of the two shelters belonging to Bat Melech, Israel’s only havens for religious, especially ultra-Orthodox, women and their children who have suffered domestic abuse. They are much slower to break up the family home, and often suffer in silence for years before making the decision to quit and to seek help, and many of them are insufficiently educated to get a job that will enable them to support themselves and their children.
At Bat Melech they get training, legal aid and everything else they need.
Sapir Weitz interviewed G., a 32-year-old woman who has two dates of birth – the one listed on her ID card and the other the day that she decided to take her fate into her own hands. She had been physically abused and had lived in terror for years. “I’ve begun to understand that I have a right to freedom and that I am entitled to be happy,” she said, explaining that she has once again become the person she used to be before she was married, and she has promised herself and her children a warm, loving home.
G. met her husband, a computer expert, through an arranged marriage. People said favorable things about him and everything looked promising.
But then a few weeks after their marriage, she was hanging a painting on the wall of their apartment, and it was slightly crooked. He went berserk, began shouting at her and calling her derogatory names. He punished her by not allowing her to speak to her mother on the phone and by not eating the meal she had prepared. The physical abuse came after the birth of their first son. They were at a family celebration in a hotel over the Sabbath.
He decided that after the meal they were not going to sit in the lobby with her family. She tried to tell him that he didn’t have to but that she wanted to go down with the baby. He lost his temper, pushed her against the wall and punched her. That was just the beginning of a long string of violent abuse. She was almost a broken vessel when she arrived at Bat Melech, but with kindness and understanding, she was able to become a whole person again.
Among the organizations supporting Bat Melech is the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which realizing the vulnerability of the women who seek out Bat Melech, wants to strengthen them and give them the tools with which to start new lives.