Some call it ‘honor’

One woman is risking all to break the conspiracy of silence surrounding so-called honor killings, and thus, hopefully, bring some honor back to Lod.

Samah Salaime Egbariya in Lod 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Samah Salaime Egbariya in Lod 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Samah Salaime Egbariya, the leading Arab women’s activist in Lod, the country’s most dangerous city for Arab women, is quietly giving advice to a beautiful ninthgrade girl wearing a hijab, or Muslim head scarf, and tight black slacks. It’s dark outside and they’re in a local high-school classroom where Egbariya’s after-school discussion group on “human skills” has just let out. At a glance, the girl looks like she’s trying to bridge two dissonant worlds. She also looks like a girl who could find herself in trouble in a place like Lod.
Egbariya had a girl like that in a youth group she led a couple of years ago in Ramle – 16, pretty, eager for freedom. Her family punished her, kept her home and Egbariya didn’t hear from her. A year or so later, she ran into the girl in town. “She told me her family had married her off to a much older man. It was a payoff to settle a family dispute. About a year after that she was murdered,” says Egbariya, 35, a social worker who now heads the local NGO Arab Women in the Center.
RELATED:Blaming the victim – and her children“These teenagers want so badly to be free. They see me as a role model,” she says after the girl leaves the classroom.
She shows me pictures from the march in Lod two weeks ago attended by some 1,000 local Arabs, including Islamic religious leaders, against the recent killings of women that have made the city infamous. The march focused the blame on Lod politicians and police for treating the problem with malign neglect, but it also faulted – in diplomatic terms – the violent, tyrannical strain of male chauvinism in many extended Muslim families, or hamulot.
“Most of the women at the rally were devout Muslims, and they were chanting, ‘Allahu akbar, God is great,’ and denouncing ‘traitors’ and ‘collaborators’ and the police. We, the secular feminists, a few dozen of us, were chanting against the killing of women, against the orphaning of children. It became almost a competition and the religious women didn’t like it, and I said we have to stop competing and come together, so we agreed to chant, ‘By God, stop killing Muslim women,’” she says.
Egbariya organized the pupils in the after-school class to hand out leaflets for the march, and many attended. She explains why the class is so topheavy with boys: “I lost about 10 girls in the last couple of weeks because their fathers said it was too dangerous for them to come home in the dark.”
Among the topics she discusses with the kids is honor killings – the murder of a woman by male blood relations – cousins, uncles, brothers, the father – for “dishonoring” the hamula by acting “immodestly,” thus giving rise to suspicions or false accusations that she is having extramarital sex.
Asked if the kids in class know that honor killing is wrong, she replies, “Of course they know,” noting that teenage girls are the most common victims. “They talk against it in class. But not all of them feel safe enough to talk against it outside.”
IN THE LAST MONTH, two Muslim women (as well as an Arab man) have been murdered in Lod, bringing the total this year to four. In Lod and adjacent Ramle – “many of the hamulot are spread out across both cities,” Egbariya notes – 20 Muslim women have been murdered in the last five years.
Police have generally written them off as honor killings, which incenses the Arab community – both because it’s not true and because it stigmatizes the family of the victim, especially the family’s unmarried girls.
Neither of the two Lod women shot to death in the last month, Abeer Abu Khatifan and Amal Khalili, were killed by blood relations, says Egbariya. With other activists in her NGO, funded by the Connecticut-based “social entrepreneurship” fund Echoing Green, she keeps in close touch with the families of victims, follows the police investigations and stays tuned to the local grapevine.
Abu Khatifan, 33, a mother of four, was shot by a masked man at her home. Afterward, her husband and other relatives grieved openly – not the typical public behavior of a family whose members have carried out an honor killing. Egbariya says the family suspects she was killed by a relative over a property dispute, not “honor.”
Khalili, 27, a divorced mother of three, was shot to death by a masked man while sitting in her car with her brother and little daughter, who were left unharmed except for scratches from broken glass. In this case, suspicion has fallen on Khalili’s ex-husband and his family, who reportedly had harassed the victim since the court awarded her the couple’s house. If true, she was killed over an economic dispute fueled by divorce, not family “honor.”
Going over a list of the 20 Arab women in Lod and Ramle killed in the last five years, Egbariya says that to the best of her knowledge, nine were honor killings, usually of unmarried adolescent girls. In only two of these nine cases did family members testify against the killers. In the overwhelming majority of these murders, no one was convicted or went to jail.
Whether the motive was “honor,” economics or anything else, what links these killings is that in every case, says Egbariya, “a woman was doing something that a man disapproved of, that challenged his power.”
WE’RE DRIVING through some of the Arab neighborhoods of Lod: Ramat Eshkol (“This used to be a Jewish neighborhood, but now it’s only Arabs and Ethiopians,” she says), Neveh Yerek, or Green Fields (“I don’t see a lot of green here,” she notes), and Rakevet, near the railroad tracks, as poor a shantytown – dotted, though, with drug dealers’ villas – as can be found in any Israeli city. “You see the spikes on top of all the gates? Self-protection is the name of the game around here,” she says.
Egbariya is a tall, quietly charismatic woman who, when describing harsh realities, often resorts to ironic humor. But when we drive up to the community center she ran when she first came to Lod in 2000, she is in plain distress, covering her face with her hand. “I haven’t been back here in nearly seven years, since I left.”
In 2004, months after she left, the center was torched by some unknown assailant for an unknown unreason. Now it is a dark, cavernous squat for junkies. The floor is black with accumulated trash and filth, mocking the murals that were painted on the walls in more hopeful times.
This was where Egbariya’s work with local Arab women victims began. After a little while on the job, she saw that a lot of the women coming to the center were tense, crying, afraid to leave the house. They told her the source of their “inner terror” – the violence and threats from some of the men in their hamulot. Egbariya decided it was necessary to end the “conspiracy of silence” and she organized a conference at the center for Arab women, public figures and religious leaders.
“A short time before,” she recalls, “a man from Lod killed his 15-year-old niece. He’d been beating his divorced sister and his niece threatened to call the police on him, and one afternoon the girl was sleeping and he put a pillow over her face and shot her dead. The mother was going to speak at the conference – in ‘disguise,’ but everyone would know from her words who she was. A few hours before the conference, the man comes to the community center – he was walking around free – and told me he wanted to make a sulha, a truce, with his sister – which wasn’t true – but that if she spoke at the conference, he would make a balagan, a ruckus. I asked him what he meant by balagan, and he said he would bring an M-16 into the center and start shooting.
“I called the police and they told me to cancel the conference, and so did a lot of the people planning to attend. But I said if we do that, we’ve lost and this guy and all the others like him have won, and a lot of people backed me up. So the police planted some officers in the audience. About 120 people showed up. The mother told her story, the audience knew who she was. People were crying. The father didn’t show up that night – and I’ve never seen him since.”
Some 40 regulars at the community center went on to become activists in the city, she notes.
Egbariya left after four years when some local Arabs plugged in to the municipality decided they wanted “one of theirs” to run it, she says.
They tried bribing her to quit, without success, and one day a young married man showed up in her office and started coming on to her. “When all else fails, they go after a woman’s honor – it’s where she’s most vulnerable. I told the man, ‘You want to catch me in a fadiha, a shameful act? I’ll call your wife right now and we’ll see whose fadiha it is.’ There was a video camera in the office and I started filming him.
“He left, but when I got home, my husband told me that’s it, if they’re willing to go to such lengths to get rid of you, then this is too dangerous. So I resigned.”
Living with her husband, who is a teacher, and their three sons in the Jewish-Arab village Neveh Shalom, she was first exposed to the phenomenon of honor killings – and the conspiracy of silence – as an adolescent in the Galilee village of Turan. A village girl just a little older than herself was poisoned by her father. Egbariya asked the men in her family why, and was told that the girl had “made a mistake.” She asked her older sister what sort of mistake could lead a girl to be killed by her father, and was told, “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
EGBARIYA MENTIONED that 20-year-old killing in a lecture to some 120 police officers in the North, which was arranged through the Abraham Fund. “A policeman in the audience said he remembered it,” she says. “The father was released from prison after five or six years. The head of the Arab local authorities was his main character witness.”
She went on to get her master’s degree in social work at the Hebrew University, starting her career in Jerusalem’s Old City, where “the families live one on top of another, seven to a room. There’s incest, sexual molestation in the alleys, and if the women report it to the authorities, they’re considered traitors.” But she didn’t have to deal with murder until coming to Lod.
The streets in the city’s Arab neighborhoods are an assault on the senses – here and there sewage runs openly along the curb, the smell of animal carcasses hangs in the air, heaps of trash and rubble seem to be everywhere, and in the roughest parts of town, such as Pardess Snir and the Dahamesh enclave, residents say they hear gunfire through the night.
We stop at the entrance to the Muslim cemetery. “When a woman is murdered over family ‘honor,’ there’s no funeral, no gravestone, somebody just comes at night, digs a grave, throws the body in and covers it up,” Egbariya says, then tells the story of an Arab mother from Ramle who stood up against this on behalf of her murdered daughter, who is buried in the cemetery.
“Her daughter was 17 and she was killed a few years ago by her son. He didn’t want to do it, but men in the hamula kept pressuring him, until one night they drugged him and he killed his sister, then they threw the body into a hole and covered it up. The mother went to the police, she testified against her son and he was convicted and imprisoned. This is unique. The mother put up a gravestone on her daughter’s burial place, and had it inscribed with a saying from the Koran, ‘On Judgment Day, God will ask: ‘For what crime were you killed?’ The hamula didn’t like this, so they destroyed the gravestone. Since then, the mother has lost her mind, she goes around talking to herself.”
BREAKING THE CONSPIRACY of silence around honor killings requires relatives of victims to go to the police and testify, but this means either death or exile from Israeli Arab society. Egbariya recommends the creation of a witness protection program, but it’s hard to imagine people coming forward in any but the rarest cases when the consequences are so dire. Still, she blames police and other municipal authorities for taking an attitude of “as long as the Jewish population isn’t being hurt, it’s not our problem.”
Honor killings take place in Muslim communities across the Middle East, and occasionally in the West; the reason usually given why Lod ranks No. 1 in Israel’s Arab sector is because of the extent of violent crime and guns, which are also controlled by hamulot.
With police notorious for refusing to intervene until after a crime has been committed, Egbariya has even found herself turning to the hamulot themselves for justice and protection for her charges. Once a teenage girl in Ramle was being hounded by her parents and relatives for being too “free,” and one day she was reported to have passed what looked like a note to a man in the shouk, and the rumor went around that it was a love note to her boyfriend. Shots were fired at her family’s house; the girl was in immediate danger.
“Her brother was a drug dealer under house arrest, and the girl told me he beat her up until she agreed to sell drugs for him. The man she met in the shouk was a buyer and the ‘note’ she gave him was a packet of drugs in exchange for money for her brother,” says Egbariya. “I went to the heads of her hamula and told them the story. Next thing I heard, they’d sent men to beat up the brother.”
A girl’s life was saved. A murder of surpassing dishonor was prevented. In Egbariya’s words, this was a rare winning battle “in a long, terrible war.”