Femicide rates are escalating in the Middle East, and specifically in Israel. One of the latest victims was a 19-year-old who was shot last month. Dima Bushnak became the target of a suspected “honor killing” in northern Israel after revealing her aspirations to study architecture and facing threats from her family. Despite the term “honor killings” being largely disputed by those dealing with the issue, it is used to describe the murder of women who are deemed to have shamed either a specific man or their family by contravening societal norms and familial expectations. Bushnak was the 16th woman, and the sixth Arab woman, murdered in Israel this year.
Global femicide rates, according to the World Bank Index, have been decreasing since the 1990s. But this is not reflected in the Middle East.
In countries such as Jordan and Egypt, women are killed for turning down marriage proposals, as evidenced by the 2022 case of Naira A., a 21-year-old female student who was fatally stabbed by a rejected suitor. The most recent statistics from the Observatory of Crimes of Violence Against Women in Egypt show that there were 813 instances of violent crimes in 2021, a significant rise from 415 in 2020.
Earlier this year, the Jordanian Women’s Solidarity Association published data showing a 94% increase in violence against women in 2022.
The Israel Observatory on Femicide reports that 2022 saw a surge in femicide cases, with 24 women being victims of gender-based homicide, a 50% increase from 16 cases in the previous year. Half of the victims were Arabs, a group that comprises just 21% of Israel’s population. In 58% of the cases, the culprit or primary suspect was the victim’s current or former partner. Four cases of matricide, where mothers were murdered by their sons, were reported.
Shalva Weil, founder of the Israel Observatory on Femicide and a senior researcher at the Seymour Fox School of Education at Hebrew University, attributes the rise in Israel to a domino effect caused by the spread of broad gender inequality and says that from January 1 to May 1 of this year, there were 15 cases of femicide in Israel. “The rate has doubled since last year,” she told The Media Line.
Gender equality declining in Israel this year
Noting that gender equality appears to be declining in Israel this year, Weil cites a decrease in the number of women elected to the Israeli parliament as evidence. The 23rd Knesset, elected in 2020, included a record 38 female members. This declined to 36 in the 24th Knesset and the current Knesset, the 25th, elected in 2022, includes just 31 female MKs.
Weil further said, “I believe there has been a rise because there is a general increase in violence this year with the current government, and this is reflected in both the Arab and Jewish sectors. There is little control over arms in the Arab sector, and many Arab groups are engaged in lethal disputes. Occasionally, a woman is caught in the middle, so sometimes they decide to kill the woman too.”
She suggests that law enforcement is ill-prepared to address the issue, stating: “The police have been too afraid to intervene with Arab groups.”
An Israeli police spokesperson told The Media Line, “The Israel Police treats every incident of violence, regardless of the identity of the suspect or the victim, with great severity, and works to eradicate any case of violence.” They did not provide any further details.
Dr. Yofi Tirosh, vice dean at the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law, told The Media Line that Israeli governmental policy was responsible for creating gender imbalance, and therefore contributing to the increase in women’s murders. She mentioned examples such as the government’s investment in Jewish religious women’s education, which she believes undermines a woman’s self-esteem, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s absence from an annual conference on domestic violence held in Istanbul.
While she objected to the term “honor killings,” since it suggests that femicide in Jewish society is less severe, Tirosh noted that “in Arab society, there’s a prevalence of violence, with various gangs, mafia types, and organizations perpetuating revenge killings. The bloodshed is unending.”
Tirosh accuses the government of being indifferent to the problem of violence in Arab society, reluctant to intervene, and unwilling to allocate the necessary resources to prevent it. “When you invest in the prosperity of Arab society—in education, job opportunities, good infrastructure—and people live better, violence decreases,” she said. “It’s truly horrific and heartbreaking. The rates are higher than among Jewish women, but I would be cautious not to approach it from an orientalist perspective.”
Weil pointed out that women from Bedouin communities—where polygamy is common—are especially vulnerable to femicide because the status of a second wife is often deemed lower. “In Bedouin society, polygamous unions are more common than in other Arab societies. The second wife’s status can be endangered, particularly in Bedouin society.”
Lebanon has also witnessed an increase in the rate of women murdered by their families. The gender equality organization ABAAD–Resource Center for Gender Equality, revealed figures that showed an upward trend since 2021. Founder Ghida Anani told The Media Line, “In 2021, Lebanon saw 12 femicides. The number increased in 2022 to 18, and so far in 2023, we have recorded 11 femicides.”
Samah Salaime, director of Na'am–Arab Women in the Center, an NGO based in the central Israeli city of Lod, told The Media Line that organized crime and the sale of weapons by Israeli military officers contribute to the murders of women. She said, “Femicide has turned into a profitable business. Contract killers are hired and paid to execute the deed. They take money from a husband, ex-partner, or family and conduct it in a clean, organized manner. This is the dangerous step.”
“We lost 18 people from January 2023 and it’s three times more than last year and I hold the military services responsible—the weapons that have been stolen from the army find their way to crime organizations. We know that because the police and the Knesset have reported that 77% of the weapons in Arab [Israeli] society come from the army.
“This means that someone wants this to happen and isn’t doing their job protecting the supplies in the army.” Salaime described the smuggling of weapons from the military and their sale to criminal organizations as “very profitable and a good business for criminals and soldiers who need money.”
She further charged that 80% of cases of murdered women remain unsolved, and pointed to one case that, she said, was only solved because the killer turned himself in.
Rafah Anabtawy, director of the Kayan Feminist Organization in Israel, also told The Media Line that many cases remain unsolved due to widespread inertia resulting from societal attitudes toward Arab women. She added that 50% of Arab women and children live below the poverty line in Israel, which contributes to social problems and a rise in violence.
“More than 60% of the women who were killed in Arab society complained to the police or to social workers before they were killed, and the police did nothing," she said.
“After the crime happens, most of the cases remain unsolved and the criminals continue to be free. The police don’t take it seriously and a lot of the time when they are investigated, police are not making any real effort to complete the investigation, so the killers feel they can do whatever they want.
“More than 60% of the women who were killed in Arab society complained to the police or to social workers before they were killed, and the police did nothing."Rafah Anabtawy
“Even if they are caught, there are a lot of agreements and compromise between the killer and the police, so all of this [feeds into increasing cases of femicide].”
She added that things will only improve when there is social and governmental will for change.
“We do everything we can to improve the situation: We raise awareness, we do campaigns, we work on our society. The Israeli government should [support it] but there is no real political will for it.”
Lama Jradi, senior prevention program lead at ABAAD—Resource Centre for Gender Equality in Lebanon, told The Media Line that an abundance of difficulties in the Middle East has both compounded the problems of gender inequality, violence against women, and femicide and pushed their prevention off the public agenda. “Regrettably, the Middle East region is still suffering from recurring and various crises, including security, health, and economic issues.”
But with rising rates of femicide in the Middle East, particularly in Arab communities, individuals and organizations are rallying to address the problem.
Among them is Lili Ben-Ami, who, after the brutal murder in October 1999 of her sister, Michal Sela, by her sister’s husband, founded the Michal Sela Forum. The forum seeks to harness technology to identify signs of domestic violence before it escalates to murder. “We need to develop new solutions that will prevent and predict,” Ben-Ami tells The Media Line. Her organization is focusing on mapping five key behaviors that could indicate potential domestic violence, which include obsessiveness, differing public and private behaviors, gaslighting, overreaction, and self-martyrization. This work is intended to provide early warning signs and prevent further tragedies in a region where gender inequality is pervasive, and where too often, violent crimes against women go unaddressed.