Scared stiff

Violence against women in the Israeli-Arab sector comes out in the open.

arab girl 2 298 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
arab girl 2 298 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
22% of married Israeli Arab women have experienced some form of physical violence. But only four out of every 1,000 battered Israeli Arab women report their abuse to the police. "I ran to the bathroom and locked the door," said Aisha "And I remembered that my cell phone was in my pocket. I called my mother and told her to come quickly and call the police. I told her he was going to kill me." Aisha was hiding in the bathroom from her husband, Mahmud (not their real names), who had been beating her with the sharp heels of her shoes when she managed to escape and lock herself into the bathroom. When her parents arrived - with police - the entire house was in shambles, and Aisha's body was covered in deep cuts and bruises. Mahmud was put in jail for three months. It was the last time her husband of 18 days laid a hand on her. But her now-ex-husband is the least of her worries. Aisha, an extraordinarily beautiful 20-year-old Israeli Arab, is scared that her father is going to kill her. "It all started when I went to university," she explained. "I begged my father for months to let me go, and then finally one day he consented. Now he blames it on my mother, and beats her for it." Aisha began studying at university for a law degree when she was 18, and worked in the evenings to provide extra money for her family. She made many friends at school, and soon started dating an Israeli Arab student named Walid. "I was so in love with him," she said. "But I was scared. My mother called me every day to warn me that my father had come to school to spy on me. I was scared to death he would find out about us." And one day he did. "That night he beat me so badly that I couldn't move. I thought I might die," she said, recounting the injuries she sustained on her neck, arms, legs and back. "But the worst part of all was that he forbade me to go to university, even though I still had another year left for my degree. "For an entire month my father didn't let me leave the house, and whenever he saw me, even for a moment, he beat me," Aisha recalled. For that entire month, she said, "I stayed in my bedroom all the time, ate all my meals in my room and didn't leave it, except to go to the bathroom, because I was so scared of him." AISHA'S phone was taken away, and when her friends came to visit her, she was forbidden to see them. Walid came to the house on numerous occasions to speak to her father and to beg him to let them marry, but Aisha's father adamantly refused because Walid was divorced. Following that month, Aisha started taking drugs without her father's knowledge. Walid had set up a secret bank account for her, into which he placed money whenever she needed, and she used the money to buy ecstasy. "It was a very bad time," Aisha explained. "I was taking a few pills every day with one of my cousins just to get by, and my life was quickly deteriorating. I had absolutely nothing to live for. My cousin and I often spoke of committing suicide." One day, while speaking with her cousin, Aisha said she realized she had no desire to continue living. "You have to understand," she explained. "He took away my boyfriend, he took away my schooling, he took away my job. I was choking and there was no way out. "I went to the top of a six-story building in our neighborhood, but my cousin begged me not to jump. At some point a crowd gathered outside and everyone found out - including my father." Aisha's father dragged her home by the arm, admonishing her for embarrassing him and their family by her behavior. For the rest of the week her father confined himself in the house, too ashamed to face the community. When a few of her father's friends came to visit him, they questioned Aisha about her attempted suicide, and she told them everything, adding that she would do it again if nothing changed. They convinced Aisha's father to let her work for them, under their watchful eye, saying they wouldn't let her out of their sight for a moment. All the money she earned went directly to her mother for household expenses; Aisha's father didn't work, claiming he had constant, debilitating headaches. "The only time he got up to do anything was to beat me," said Aisha. "He doesn't love me and I don't love him. He always says if he didn't see me for years, he wouldn't miss me, and he wouldn't care." AFTER several months passed, a man came to Aisha's door, requesting her hand in marriage from her parents. Desperate to escape her father, she accepted before she even met him. "I would have done anything to get out of the house," she said. "But the very next day I realized it was a bad idea, and I told my parents I had changed my mind." When Aisha's father heard that, he lashed out at her worse than ever before, beating her until she agreed to consent to the marriage. He warned her that if she didn't marry the man, he would leave the house. In a moment of strength, Aisha told her father that if he touched her again, she would go to the police. He then threatened to kill her with his bare hands if she dared report to the authorities. Frightened and alone, Aisha was too scared to go to the police; six weeks later, she was married to Mahmud. "I couldn't bear the thought of him touching me," Aisha said. "I didn't love him, and whenever he tried to touch me I pretended I was sick or sleeping. But that only made him very angry." In response to her behavior, Aisha's husband refused to give her food the day after their wedding. When she called her mother to complain that she was hungry, he smashed a table over her head, badly injuring her neck. Their divorce was final this summer, but Mahmud has not made it easy for Aisha to move on. "He went to my place of work and threatened to burn it down if they continued to employ me, so I was fired. My father still won't let me go back to school, and I am shunned by my community because of my divorce." But now, secretly back with her boyfriend Walid, Aisha has even larger problems. After missing her period last month, she took a blood test and found out she was pregnant - with Walid's baby. "I don't know what to do - my father told me he knows I missed my last period, and I am due to get it again soon. If I don't get it, he said he will give me a pregnancy test and if I am pregnant, he will kill me." AISHA'S STORY is not an isolated case. Her best friend had boiling oil poured on her body when she disobeyed her father, and the disfiguring scars are still evident on her face and body. The phenomenon is not limited to Arabs. Some 18,000 Israeli women filed domestic abuse complaints in 2004, most of them Jewish; there is even a shelter for battered women from the Orthodox Jewish community. In 2003, 19 women in Israel were murdered by their male partners. But the problem is especially acute in the Arab sector. Professor Muhammad Haj-Yahia, an expert on domestic violence in Israeli Arab communities, called Aisha's case "extreme in its severity" but acknowledged that abuse against women in this society "is a problem that needs the allocation of a lot of resources - it is not a small, isolated problem." According to statistics compiled by Haj-Yahia and published in 2005, 48 percent of engaged Israeli Arab women indicated they experienced some form of psychological or verbal abuse, compared to 69.5% of married Israeli Arab women. Nine percent of engaged women indicated they had experienced some form of physical violence, compared to 21.8% of married women. Eleven percent of engaged women experienced sexual abuse and, according to Haj-Yahia, the rates for these numbers increase for Arabs in the West Bank, where Aisha lives, and the Gaza Strip. "Society must be mobilized to combat this problem," Haj-Yahia said. "We need a lot of shelters and a lot of social workers, but all this needs to be accompanied by campaigns to change society - because what good will a shelter do if the Arab women won't come?" Israeli Arab women are trapped, Haj-Yahia explains in an earlier study of the same subject. "Abused Arab women keep it to themselves," he said. "They are afraid they will be blamed, that revenge will be taken on them or that they will break up or embarrass the family." Out of every 1,000 battered Israeli Arab women, only four report to the police, according to Haj-Yahia, and that's only the most severely beaten, who suffer, on average, for seven to 10 years before coming forward. "We need to encourage women to defend themselves," Haj-Yahia explained. "And we need to debunk the myth in this society that wife abuse is justified, because there are very high percentages of Arab men who justify abuse. Arab husbands need to be punished - socially and legally - or they will continue beating." "I WISH I had the magic solution," said Haj-Yahia. "But it's a multi-faceted problem. This society needs to change." Haj-Yahia proposes starting with widespread community campaigns against domestic violence in education and the media - commercials, lectures and awareness on an intensive, daily basis. He believes that children in violent families must be equipped with alternatives to violence, saying that many Arab men are educated as children to view violence as a legitimate way of solving problems. In addition, he maintained changing the patriarchal nature of Arab society in general. "It's very important for Arabs to preserve a good reputation in the community," said Haj-Yahia, "and they do this by exerting control - over their wives, their sisters and their kids." In a 2000 study, Haj-Yahia explained that in Arab society, boys learn to be strong and dominant whereas girls learn to be weak and submissive. Now, he says, this must change. "We need to enhance the status of Arab women in the public sphere as well as the private sphere. Women need to internalize their status as equal to men." Furthermore, he says the attitudes of practitioners who work with domestic violence - social workers, doctors, teachers and police - also need to change to successfully battle this crisis; their training should include learning to adequately deal with battered women. Last but not least are the women themselves. "As long as these women don't expose their suffering to people who can help them, they will continue suffering," Haj-Yahia asserted. "These women are victims, and they need to know they will be supported, understood and protected if they come forward." Meanwhile, Aisha's fate, and that of her unborn child, remains uncertain. "I think I have to get an abortion," she told me. "I am forbidden from marrying Walid, and my father will kill me if he finds out. I have no other choice." Except, of course, running away. "I am trying to get a visa to America, where I have an aunt," she said. "But it's a difficult process, and I know I can't abandon my brothers or my mother." Fidgeting with her hands, Aisha contemplated her dubious destiny. "I don't know how to save myself," she said. "But first, I must decide what to do about my baby." Those seeking help can contact: Women Against Violence Crisis Center (04) 656-6813; SAWA Program, for Arabic-speaking women (02) 582-2211; Palestinian Center for Counseling (02) 656-2272; The Family Center, East Jerusalem (02) 581-5094/194.