The 'education' of Ethiopian wives

A wildly disproportionate 1/3 of Israeli women murdered in domestic disputes are Ethiopian immigrants.

ethiopian derfner featur (photo credit: Illustrative photo by Ariel Jerozolimski)
ethiopian derfner featur
(photo credit: Illustrative photo by Ariel Jerozolimski)
When the TV news would tell of an Ethiopian immigrant who had murdered his wife, "Shoshana" recalls that her ex-husband would say, "Good for him. I'll bet he suffered just like I do. One day I'll do the same thing." Beaten, cursed and publicly humiliated by her husband, who suspected her of sleeping with every man she said hello to, Shoshana once made a noose for herself and wrote a suicide note, but gave up the plan when her husband discovered it and howled with laughter. When his death threats escalated, she left the house with her two children, called the police and went to a battered woman's shelter in the center of the country. Her husband never went to prison, largely because she refused to testify against him. "He said he'd kill me if I put him in jail," she explains. That was several years ago. Today, Shoshana, in her 30s, lives with her two kids in an apartment whose location is unknown to her ex-husband, and is employed as the house mother of the shelter. "Miri," an Ethiopian immigrant in her 20s, came to this shelter several months ago, after she ran out of her apartment with her two children, fleeing her husband who had tried to choke her. "He yelled at me, 'Today is the end for you,' and he went looking for a knife," says Miri, noting that she managed to escape because the police station was only a few blocks away and her husband was hobbled by a work accident. Before that, he beat her with a belt when she was several months pregnant - landing her in the hospital with severe bleeding - because she said she didn't feel up to attending his cousin's bar mitzva. He beat her with his fists when she said she wanted to learn to drive and when she wanted to work night shifts at a factory. "He used to tell me, 'My dream is to kill you," she says, adding that he, like Shoshana's ex-husband, was obsessively jealous. Unlike Shoshana, though, Miri is looking forward to testifying against her husband. After her divorce goes through, she plans to leave the shelter with her two kids, find a little apartment somewhere and "try to clear my head of everything I've gone through these last years." Shoshana speaks haltingly when remembering how she was terrorized. She doubles over as if in pain, and holds onto herself for comfort. Miri, wiping away tears, says her stomach burns and her head aches; she is on medication and her "whole body is always in knots." They are speaking, one after the other, in the downstairs den of this battered women's shelter, a large house with a tall, locked gate and intercom in a residential neighborhood. Of the seven temporary residents, two are Ethiopian immigrants (not counting Shoshana, the house mother). Over the last decade, nine of the roughly 80 women who've gone through the shelter have been Ethiopians. That about matches the proportion of Ethiopian immigrants staying in battered women's shelters across the country - 78 out of 688 women, or 11 percent, as of the end of 2005. But even this latter figure falls well short of the proportion of Ethiopians among women who are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends. Over the last decade, that ratio has been approximately one in four. In the last two years, it's gone up to almost one in three - in 2006, five of the 16 women murdered in domestic disputes were Ethiopian immigrants; in 2005, it was four of 12. And this is when the roughly 100,000 Ethiopian immigrants make up only 1.5% of the population. It's gotten so that when the first news reports come in about a man killing his wife and leaving a houseful of children motherless, people are likely to anticipate that the story involves an Ethiopian family. And if the husband tries to commit suicide immediately after the murder, it's virtually guaranteed to be an Ethiopian tragedy. These are not coincidences. Behind many closed doors in this otherwise peaceable immigrant community, something terrible is going on. THE MOST recent murder occurred on December 26 in Holon's impoverished Jesse Cohen neighborhood. Felega Tadessa, 40, a mother of seven in her ninth month of pregnancy, was bludgeoned and stabbed to death in the family home, allegedly by her husband Daynehu. Some of the children were home at the time. Immediately afterward, the husband, 47, stabbed himself in the abdomen and chest, but survived. The family was poor, getting by mainly on child allowances, and reports were that the couple fought frequently. They had previously sought a divorce, but, in a custom brought over from Ethiopia, their extended family members got together to intervene and convinced them to stay married. The frequency of wife-murder goes completely against the grain of Ethiopian behavior in Israel, where they are known - justifiably - for being gentle to a fault. Compared to many other poor immigrant groups, now and in the past, they are quiet and law-abiding. With the exception of an Ethiopian youth gang or two taking part in the multicultural crime scene around Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station, Ethiopian immigrants do not feature in the profile of lawlessness. As a rule, the notion of a garden-variety Ethiopian immigrant murderer, rapist, drug dealer, robber or mugger is an anomaly. Something else that's anomalous about Ethiopian wife-murder, in comparison to wife-murder in general, is that it's almost always followed by the murderer's attempted suicide. "Ethiopian immigrants are very gentle, respectful people. We have a lot to learn from them about how to treat other people," says Orna Ben-Zvi, head of welfare services in Rehovot's Kiryat Moshe neighborhood, where about half the residents are Ethiopians. On October 21, 2005, one of those residents, Sarah Sisa'i, was either pushed to her death from her third-floor window by her husband, or driven by his threats to jump, says Insp. Yarden Calendarov, who headed the investigation. Sisa'i's husband, Netanel, had a long history of using terrible violence against her, going back to Ethiopia. Yet while police know the husband was alone in their apartment with the victim prior to her death, and that the couple, in their mid-40s, had been arguing again that day, Netanel was never charged with Sarah's murder. "We had no evidence. We went door-to-door and nobody was willing to testify," Calendarov says. However, Sarah's son, Avi, 22, contends that he and his family presented police with several eyewitnesses who could have tied Netanel to the murder, but they were disregarded. "The police didn't seem too interested. They did a superficial job of investigating," he says, adding that this is a complaint made often by Ethiopian immigrants who seek police intervention against violent husbands and fathers. Defenders of the community often blame wife-murder among Ethiopians on the difficulties they encounter here - culture shock, poverty, unemployment and loss of status. They often point to mistakes or oversights in absorbing Ethiopian immigrants, such as providing too few social workers or failing to keep their extended families living close together. All these problems and radical changes obviously make it hard on Ethiopian immigrant families, and are certainly likely to exacerbate the phenomenon of domestic violence. But this phenomenon didn't originate here. "We were married in Ethiopia, and my ex-husband used to beat me there, too. It was like that between us from the beginning," says Shoshana. SHOSHANA, MIRI and the large majority of Ethiopian Jews here come from the Gondar region, where a 2003 survey by Ethiopian researchers found that "every other woman living there was battered," says Ben-Gurion University's Dr. Lea Kacen, a leading authority on the community here. In Ethiopia, a wife is essentially considered the property of her husband. She has to serve and obey him, and if she doesn't, he is entitled to use violence against her to enforce his dominance and her subservience. "They don't call it 'violence,' they call it 'education,'" Kacen notes with irony. In Ethiopia, this is the code. Everyone understands it, everyone accepts it - even the women who suffer under it, because they have no choice. Asked what sort of "infraction" might get a woman "educated" by her husband, Kacen replies: "She has to do everything he asks her to do, and she has to meet all the expectations of a wife. For instance, when the husband comes home from a day's work [usually farming], the wife has to come out of the house to meet him, kiss his knees and wash his feet. "His food has to be ready, the house has to be neat and tidy. If she doesn't do all these things, the husband 'educates' her. He can shout at her, he can hit her, he can use all sorts of violence." Kacen adds: "Whenever the husband wants sex, except when the wife is menstruating, she has to give it to him, whether she wants to or not." Wife-murder was rare in Ethiopia, but that's because the system of male domination and female subservience was so entrenched in the villages - less so in the cities - that it didn't take much "education" to get the wives to do their husband's bidding. If the violence got out of hand, the woman could escape to the kitchen of the home, which the husband was forbidden to enter. The couple was surrounded by their extended families, who, along with the local kesim - Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders - and shimagles - respected arbitrators - would bring their weighty influence to bear. They would counsel the husband to be less harsh and the wife to be more obedient, thereby keeping the families, as well as the Ethiopian code of domestic behavior, intact. But when they came to Israel, starting with Operation Moses in 1984, Ethiopian husbands found their tyrannical authority at home suddenly undermined. By contrast, Ethiopian wives found freedoms and opportunities they'd never imagined - and which they wanted. The clash was inevitable. "The old system worked in Ethiopia," says Shoshana, "but it doesn't work here." Shoshana, an attractive woman in jeans and sweater, has left Gondar far behind. "I knew it was bad between my husband and me from the start," she says, noting that he beat her a few times in Ethiopia, too. In Israel, she and her husband went through an upheaval that's common among Ethiopian immigrants. "I went to ulpan and he didn't; I learned Hebrew and he didn't; I went to the parents' meetings at school and he didn't. I was integrating in Israel and he was sitting around the house. He envied me," she says. "He resented me." A POPULAR slogan among Ethiopian immigrant men goes: "Israel is a country for women and children." The many counselors, teachers, social workers and other authorities they come in contact with are usually women, and Ethiopian men aren't used to dealing with women in authority, so they tend to stay away from places like ulpanim and parents' meetings at school. Since Ethiopian immigrant women are more avid about learning Hebrew, and are willing to work as housecleaners - something Ethiopian men consider strictly women's work - they find employment more readily. Ethiopian immigrant children, who, according to Kacen, traditionally aren't allowed to look their fathers in the face or speak to them until they are spoken to, go to school here and learn the brash ways Israeli kids speak to their parents. "In Ethiopia, the husband was the head of the house, he was on top, his word was law. He comes to Israel expecting to find the land of milk and honey, and instead he finds that the women have more rights, his wife is doing everything and he's being left behind. He feels that his wife has become the head of the house," says Shoshana. And the idea of talking about his frustrations with his wife or anyone else is utterly foreign to an Ethiopian man in such a situation. "He keeps it inside. He becomes like a volcano," says Shoshana, who hastens to add that "there are a lot of good Ethiopian men, too. They're our brothers, our cousins, our fathers." But her husband, she says, was not a good man, and he kept her living in fear. "I was afraid to go out of the house. If I was standing outside talking with my neighbors and one of them saw him coming, she'd tell me, 'Quick, get in the house,' and I would run inside." When the atmosphere at home would become unbearable, Shoshana would go stay at her in-laws, who, at least at first, were sympathetic. (Her own parents remained in Ethiopia.) "Then after a couple of days my husband would tell them, 'Send her home,' and I would go," she says. "I was like his property." Miri, also an attractive woman, dressed for indoors in sweat pants and a loose sweater, pats the empty spot next to her on the couch as if it's forbidden territory, and says, "I couldn't even sit next to another man because of my husband's jealousy. He wouldn't let me drive or work nights because he said I'd go and see other men, which was completely untrue." I didn't ask Shoshana or Miri what might have caused their husbands' jealousy. Yet Kacen notes that the "first outbreak of violence" by Ethiopian husbands after they reach Israel commonly occurs over their wives' refusal to have sex with them on demand, something the wives never dared do in Ethiopia. "As soon as the women get here they say, 'In Israel there's democracy, and if we don't want to give in to our husbands we don't have to,' so some of the men force their wives to have sex by beating them," she says. An Ethiopian man whose wife doesn't want to have sex with him may suspect her of having affairs, which just compounds the potential for violence, Kacen adds. NOT SURPRISINGLY, the subject of wife-murder is an acutely sensitive one for the Ethiopian community, and also among social workers and others who feel a sense of solidarity with the immigrants. The term "cultural sensitivity" can be heard among them frequently, as well as the term "stigma." Many Ethiopians and their supporters are afraid that drawing attention to the frequency of wife-murders will stigmatize the immigrants. This fear leads some of them to downplay the magnitude of the problem. "A little proportion, folks," says Orna Ben-Zvi, head of welfare services in Kiryat Moshe. "There is no phenomenon of Ethiopian wife-murder, there are only individual acts of violence." Also there is Nava Conforti, head of the regional Dolev Center for the Treatment of Domestic Violence. Both women say that among all the incidents of domestic violence they encounter, the Ethiopian immigrants' share of it is no larger than the Ethiopian immigrants' proportion of the general population. "I don't use the term 'domestic violence,' I use the term 'education,'" says Conforti, adopting the traditional Ethiopian way of talking about it. In no way, however, do Ben-Zvi and Conforti defend or excuse the use of violence by Ethiopian husbands. They make it clear that the message they impart to the husbands is that violence against wives is forbidden in this country. But their emphasis on "cultural sensitivity," it seems, leads them to underestimate the gravity of the problem - even in Kiryat Moshe. Asked about the October 2005 death of Sara Sisa'i, which local Ethiopians believe as a matter of course to have been wife-murder, Ben-Zvi and Conforti reply that the husband was never charged, so it cannot be assumed that any murder took place. Later, though, when I asked Ben-Zvi by telephone if the circumstances of Sisai's death weren't at least suspicious and troubling, she acknowledged that while "there is no proof, one can assume what happened. I'm in no position to say for certain, of course, but it's hard to believe she threw herself out of the window or slipped and fell." Like many professionals who work with Ethiopian immigrants, Ben-Zvi and Conforti are also reluctant to endorse harsh measures against violent husbands - except in the more urgent, extreme cases - and prefer solutions that involve social workers, extended families, shimagles and shlom bayit - peace at home - instead of police, courts and battered women's shelters. The latter route breaks up families and exacerbates poverty, notes Ben-Zvi. "When a woman complains to the police against her husband, it dishonors him," she notes. Conforti adds: "Sending a husband to prison isn't going to rehabilitate him, it's only going to humiliate him further, and when he gets out he will be even more of a danger than before." When I tell them that their impression of the extent of Ethiopian domestic violence doesn't match the nationwide picture, Ben-Zvi says it might be that the problem isn't as bad in Rehovot because of the city's culturally sensitive, community-oriented method of dealing with Ethiopian family disputes. They acknowledge that there's probably a lot they don't see - battered Ethiopian wives usually don't complain to the authorities, and few Ethiopian women are seen bruised because those who are bruised are forced by their husbands to stay indoors until they heal. But Ben-Zvi adds that this is common among all abused women, not just Ethiopians. I ask them if they can put me in touch with an Ethiopian man who'd beaten his wife, and both say they can't think of any wife-beater who would talk to me, Ethiopian or not. "None of them admit it," Ben-Zvi says with knowing laughter. ONE OF THE mysteries of Ethiopian wife-murder is the suicide or suicide attempt by the murderer that usually follows. Kacen says she can't explain it, then speculates that it might be because an Ethiopian man who murders his wife and leaves his children motherless loses all honor in the eyes of his family and community. But it is no dishonor in the Ethiopian family and community for a husband to engage in "educational" wife-beating, so why would it suddenly be such an utter disgrace when "normative" wife-beating turns lethal? "What I can't understand is why these murders so often take place in front of the children," Kacen adds. Since Ethiopian men keep their agonies and furies locked inside, there's finally no way to understand it. A common complaint of Ethiopian husbands to social workers is: "You say we're not supposed to beat our wives, but how else can we educate them?" This is where the culturally-sensitive, community-oriented approach comes in, with extended family members, shimagles, social workers and others mediating the couple's disputes, and teaching them how to talk out their differences and, hopefully, compromise with each other. This way was tried for four years in Beersheba, and resulted in a handbook for Israeli professionals dealing with disputes in Ethiopian families. Kacen, who co-authored the handbook, says that while there is no proof that wife-beating went down among Ethiopian husbands in Beersheba, there has been a rise in complaints of violence there by Ethiopian wives. "This is a good sign," she says, noting that while the incidence of violence by Ethiopian husbands is disproportionately very, very high, the incidence of complaints by Ethiopian women is disproportionately low. The culturally-sensitive way of treating Ethiopian wife-beating was developed here because the standard Israeli way - removing wives and children from the home and placing them in shelters - was certainly less dangerous than leaving them at home, but it was not a "solution," either. Separation or divorce is not easy on any family, but on Ethiopian immigrants, who tend to be poor and completely tied to their extended families, such a disruption is all the more traumatic. But on the other hand, the drawback of the culturally-sensitive approach is that reuniting a battered wife with her husband can be extremely risky, even fatal. THE FIRST time Shoshana left her husband and went to a shelter, the husband's social worker and employer implored Shoshana to go back to him, and she finally gave in. "We had two good months," she recalls. But her once-sympathetic in-laws turned against her, her husband became suspicious of her once again, his death threats resumed, so she went back to the shelter, this time leaving him for good. "I never wanted to raise my child as a single mother," she says, but, given the alternative, she is certain she made the right decision. Shoshana is sitting in the shelter's downstairs "clubhouse," which has a couple of old couches covered with colorful bedsheets, a TV and a computer. The shelter, a five-bedroom house with a yard used for a kindergarten, is crowded with seven women and 17 children. The women, who stay an average of about a year, do cooking and cleaning shifts, and some of them hold jobs, with the Ethiopian women typically working as janitors or looking after old people in their homes. A social worker and an art therapist visit the women once a week, as do volunteers who teach crafts and Hebrew. "It's hardest on the children," says Shoshana. "The children here are usually either aggressive or completely closed. They want to go home, a lot of times they don't want to go to school, or they don't pay attention in school." But the women, she says, gain strength from each other. "We've had women of all ages, Ethiopians, Russians, Moroccans, Arabs, and obviously there are arguments, but overall everyone gets along," says Shoshana. Her own stay at the shelter "gave me self-confidence, emotional support, love. I got a feeling of family from the other women and the staff - a family that cared about me and protected me." In the years since, Shoshana has had relationships with Ethiopian men, and none has laid a hand on her. She's become more cautious. "My fear protects me," she says. She's also become more assertive, saying, "If a man hit me now, I'd hit him back." Ideally, Shoshana would like to marry again. "I'm young, I need someone to love me, to ask how my day was, to ask my children how their day was," she says. "But not at any price." Miri's goals, for now at least, are more modest. She's optimistic that after her divorce goes through and she leaves the shelter, which should be within a few months, she'll find a job and a little apartment for herself and her two kids, and start a new, better life. "We'll be okay," she says with a hopeful, vulnerable look. I ask her if she'd like to get married again one day. "Are you crazy?" she laughs. "No, no. No husband, never again, not for me. Not in this life. "The only thing I want for me and my children is to be left in peace."