‘Honor killings’ – Culture as excuse for murdering Arab women

‘There is nothing related to honor in killing. It’s femicide’ – Dr. Nabila Espanioly

A DEMONSTRATOR holds a banner demanding legal protection for women, in Ramallah on September 4. (photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
A DEMONSTRATOR holds a banner demanding legal protection for women, in Ramallah on September 4.
Israa Ghrayeb, a makeup artist from the Beit Sahur village near Bethlehem, last month lost her life at the age of 21. The tragedy was compounded by her death having allegedly been brought on by her own brother, who tortured and beat her.
Ghrayeb was first attacked at her family home, where she fell from the second floor while trying to escape. Taken to the hospital due to severe spinal injuries, she was once again confronted by family members a few days later, who appeared at the hospital, allegedly ordered the staff out of the room, and beat her again. Videos from the alleged attack surfaced on social media, in which she screamed and begged for help. According to social media reports, Ghrayeb was released from the hospital and brought home, where she died a few days later.
Her unpardonable crime? “Dishonoring” her family by posting a video on social media with a man to whom she was soon to be engaged.
 Reports on social media from Ghrayeb’s friends claim that she died after having received a fatal blow to the head. The family, meanwhile, denies the accusations, at first claiming that she died of a heart attack, later saying she was mentally ill.
The family’s claims, however, did not ring true for thousands of Palestinian women who left their homes to protest on the streets of Ramallah days after the murder, demanding justice and an end of so-called honor killings. Ghrayeb’s honor killing hit too close to home for thousands of women around the Arab world. News of her death set off the hashtag #WeAreAllIsraa, with voices such as Miss Iraq Sarah Idan and US Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib expressing their concern for the Middle Eastern women who are exposed daily to violence and killed as a result of supposedly bringing shame on their families.
Palestinian Attorney-General Akram al-Khativ announced last week – after two weeks without any reaction from officials – that the authorities have charged three of Israa’s relatives, but “honor killing” was ruled out as a motive.
Not tradition, but murder
At least 18 Palestinian women have been killed in “crimes of honor” this year alone, the General Union of Palestinian Women reported.
“The murder of Israa is like any other case of women who are killed around the world because they are women and because they chose to live their lives according to their choices – paying, consequently, a very high price for that,” MK Aida Touma-Sliman, a feminist activist within Arab society and head of Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, told the Magazine.
“This is not a matter of cultural background,” she added. “This is murder.”
Arab tradition grants “ownership” over the woman to her relative and it’s seen as the responsibility of close male blood relatives to punish women in order to regain the family’s honor, Touma-Sliman wrote in a study titled “Culture, national minority and the state: Working against the ‘crime of family honour’ within the Palestinian community in Israel” (published in 2005 in the book Honour: Crimes, paradigms and violence against women).
The reasons given to claim back the “honor” of the family, according to the study, varied from accusations of the victim having relations with men other than the husband, to the loss of virginity, to staying out late and smoking and frequently leaving the house. According to Touma-Sliman, given the development of new values in Arab-Palestinian society concerning women’s rights that weaken the patriarchal system, such as gaining more mobility and decision-making freedom, adverse reactions from men were provoked in many circumstances. The boundaries of what was seen as women expressing their sexuality and, consequently, the urge to protect the family’s honor were expanded and blurred.
“Palestinian society in Israel moved from the traditional leadership representing it before the state, to a more organized political leadership, developing the minority agenda and struggling for the collective rights of the group,” Touma-Sliman wrote. “In the context of such a political reality and a minority struggle seeking unity of the community at any price, women’s issues – including ‘crimes of honor’ as violence against women –  were marginalized and ignored for the sake of the general cause.
“Any effort to challenge ‘honor crimes’ was perceived as an effort to shatter the delicate balance between the different political and social groups inside the community,” she added.
ISRAA GHRAYEB’S visage, currently circulating on social media. Her crime? Posting a video on social media with a man to whom she was soon to be engaged. (Credit: TWITTER)ISRAA GHRAYEB’S visage, currently circulating on social media. Her crime? Posting a video on social media with a man to whom she was soon to be engaged. (Credit: TWITTER)
Arab-Israeli women
In a 2018 report released by the Women’s International Zionist Organization, 200,000 women suffer from domestic violence in Israel, which can be translated to roughly half a million children witnessing violence in their homes. Twenty-five women were killed last year by a partner, a family member or someone they knew. The staggering estimates and the record-high number of murders sent thousands of protestors to demonstrate across the country last December, demanding public and governmental support in the fight to combat violence against women.
The reality for Israeli-Arab women is even more brutal. Almost half of the number of women killed last year were Arabs. Arab women in Israel also make up 40% of those seeking shelter against domestic violence, given that there are only two shelters that work exclusively for them, providing the necessary cultural and linguistic support.
To make matters worse, in murder cases against Arab women, only 20% of the perpetrators are held accountable. Half of those murdered last year were already known to the police by social services.
“This is one of the activities we do: we demand from the authorities – law enforcement authorities – to protect women who are seeking shelter,” Dr. Nabila Espanioly, director of the Nazareth-based organization Al-Tufula, which focuses on empowering Palestinian women in Israel, told the Magazine.
The reasons for ignoring requests from Arab women or not pursuing and/or persecuting those responsible for their murders include disbelief regarding the victim’s accounts, lack of personnel equipped to deal with such cases, cultural discrimination and the assumption that such crimes are part and justified by their “tradition.”
“Murdering women is not a tradition,” Espanioly said.
Espanioly recounted incidents years ago in which women would be killed without any reporting to the authorities, and the cause of death would be listed as “natural death.”
“Everyone in the village and her surroundings knew that she was killed by her husband, by her brothers, but no one would speak about it and no case would be opened against the killer,” she said. “Today we hear more about women being killed,” she claims.
Nonetheless, governmental bodies, authorities and even the public have adopted the lexicon of backward and oppressive acts, labeled as cultural norms, as a shield from the responsibility of protecting human beings whose lives were in danger and to allow murderers to walk away, calling the crime part of their “culture.”
“There is nothing related to honor in killing,” she said vehemently. “It’s femicide.”
Organized efforts to combat violence against women in Arab society in Israel and in the West Bank date back the 1980s and ’90s, when it was already clear to a number of feminist pioneers in Arab cities such as Nazareth that they could not rely on the state – that very much discriminated against them – to solve the issue. They would have to do it themselves. A number of organizations flourished then, including Al-Tufula, which was established in 1989 by a group of Palestinian women citizens of Israel in order to develop support systems to empower Arab women in the country. Ever since, the center has refined their work to target two major groups which they “believe are some of the most important in making social change” – children and women.
Born to a Catholic family in Nazareth, Espanioly has campaigned in the last four decades for the promotion of equal rights for Palestinian women in Israel. She has worked alongside Jews and Christian and Muslim Palestinians towards the empowerment of Palestinian women living in Israel, coordinating campaigns across the country. Today, as the director of Al-Tufula, she leads several projects geared towards building skills, encouraging growth and changing stereotypes of Arab women.
One of the projects, called “Women Empowerment in the Unrecognized Villages,” focuses on training Israeli-Arab women on essential topics such as health and nutrition, as well as encouraging women and girls to work for educational, social and economic change in their village and community.
Women Against Violence (WAV) was another such organization, also founded in Nazareth a few years after the implementation of Al-Tufula. A group of Arab women decided in 1992 to break the silence surrounding the issue of abuse against women, one of the taboos within the Palestinian community in Israel. The group was responsible for establishing the first shelters and centers for abused women in the Arab world, creating along with the shelters a halfway house for women who had left their abusive husbands. Among the founders and pioneers was MK Touma-Sliman, who has been the organization’s CEO since its foundation as well as the first female member of the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel and the co-founder of the International Women’s Commission for a Just Palestinian-Israeli Peace. In 2015, Touma-Suleiman was elected to the Knesset through the Joint List, heading the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality after being unanimously elected to the position.
WAV has created coalitions and networks with a number of organizations in the region, such as Salma, a network of nine Arab women’s NGOs from the Middle East and North Africa region that works to mobilize, equip and support women’s NGO efforts on the issue of gender-based violence; and “The Coalition for Sexuality and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies,” an international solidarity network of organizations that includes members from Algeria to Bangladesh, working to promote sexual and reproductive rights as human rights in Muslim societies.
“Palestinian women in particular are suffering from both a patriarchal system and a racist system, which is not defending them or allocating enough of a budget and policies to protect them from violence,” Touma-Sliman told the Magazine. “We are not receiving, as a Palestinian women in Israel, the services that should be given to any woman who is in danger.”
“We, as a feminist organization, have taken responsibility for ourselves and for all we can do,” Espanioly said. “There is, however, so much we can do alone. We need support from the state.”
MK AIDA TOUMA-SULEIMAN: ‘This is not a matter of cultural background. This is murder.’ (Credit: JOINT LIST)MK AIDA TOUMA-SULEIMAN: ‘This is not a matter of cultural background. This is murder.’ (Credit: JOINT LIST)
Changing the discourse
“Arab women are killed because of honor, Jewish women are killed because of passion, women in other societies are killed under the category of domestic violence,” noted Espanioly. “All of them are terms that try to legitimize the fact that women are being murdered for being women.”
One of the first aspects in the struggle to combat violence against women is to recognize whenever we fall into the trap of legitimizing acts of violence through our speech, within the educational system, and in our general approach of the issue. Espanioly reinforces that a change in discourse can be a crucial push toward a very much needed cultural shift.
“We need to deal with the crime as a crime, without giving any legitimization in our wording and attitude,” she added.
Re-educating ourselves when approaching the subject, steering away from patriarchal, oppressive and discriminatory terms to justify murder, such as “honor crimes,” are some of the pivotal steps in reforming societies and systems where violating women is not only accepted, but legitimized.
“Changing the discourse in schools is another priority of our organization,” said Espanioly, who leads a project that researches prevalence of sexism in textbooks in Arabic-speaking schools. Moreover, it intends to restructure the approach to gender and women beginning in kindergartens and schools, to infuse, from an early age, concepts of gender-equality and empowerment to boys and girls alike.
Ghrayeb’s horrific murder sent a shockwave of protests across the Middle East, where women across the region, on social media and on the streets, are sending a clear and strong message that murdering women will not be brushed under the carpet anymore.
This is, among other factors, the result of decades of work by women who, despite being discriminated in their home countries, societies and families, stood up against injustice, founded organizations, fought their way into parties and gave voice and support to thousands of oppressed, abused and undermined women.
“Women’s voices are finally being heard,” Espanioly asserted. “Even after they are killed.”
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