Fighting a battle on two fronts

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“I swear, we Palestinians have enough problems,” bluntly explains former Shu’fat Refugee Camp resident Jihad, 44, when asked about domestic violence in her community and why she divorced her first husband. “There is no help for us, the [Palestinian] Authority is corrupt, there is no work. I know families who have not eaten fresh food in months. The Israelis block off the camp for hours at a time. And to the world, to Americans, all of our young men are terrorists,” she spells out.

“But all our men have known is violence, war, and struggle,” she reasons. “They are good people and hard workers. As long as people have food, and a place to live, families will manage personal problems on their own,” continues Jihad, whose name, like all of the domestic violence victims in this article, has been changed.

When asked again about her divorce Jihad relents, explaining the deterioration of her relationship to her husband. She married at 21, which she considers a mature age for wedlock, and was pregnant within months. “In the beginning, things were okay. I can’t say that I loved my husband but things were fine,” she starts.

“Late into the pregnancy, my husband began to hit me during arguments – if I disagreed with something he said, or told him that I disliked something he did. I stopped speaking to him but this did not change things, and the situation became worse. When my son was three, my husband hit me so hard that he broke my nose. I was afraid for my life and decided that I didn’t want my son to grow up watching this so I left and went to my parent’s house,” she continues.

Jihad says her parents were furious with her when she decided to get divorced. She remarried when her son was nine, but her new husband refused to take care of him, and so she left the boy with her parents. “Now my relationship with my son is very bad,” she says, “but thank God, he is married and happy. Who knows where we would be had I stayed with his father?”

Jihad’s story of difficult choices is not unique among domestic violence survivors throughout the world. What is unique about her story, and that of countless other women dealing with domestic violence in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, is that many Palestinians, including survivors of domestic violence themselves, view this social problem as secondary to the worsening political situation and overall nationalist struggle. Palestinians tend to emphasize violence perpetrated by the Israeli army before violence committed by family members.

This attitude prevails despite the fact that data collected by non-governmental organizations indicates that a Palestinian woman in the West Bank, Gaza Strip or East Jerusalem is more likely to be physically, sexually or verbally assaulted within her own home than anywhere else. The majority of this violence is perpetrated by men, although cases of women battering their children also occur.

A United Nations funded study on women’s health perceptions in the old city of Nablus found that 54 percent of women reported being assaulted, either by a family member or a soldier, and in some instances, both. As one resident of Abu Dis put it, “Women face sexual harassment by soldiers as well as abuse and violence at the hands of our families. For us, there is a double burden.”

Although domestic violence is widespread in the Palestinian territories, this has not translated into increased apathy or consideration for its victims. Prevailing social attitudes reveal that many people either misunderstand or dismiss the problem as unimportant. A 1997 survey of 425 married women and 489 unmarried men from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, published by the Palestinian Working Women Society, revealed that 47 percent of men and 35 percent of women interviewed approve of wife battering when a wife “did not obey” her husband.

The same survey indicated that 43 percent of women interviewed consider battering to be a consequence of provoking a family member to violence. Participants defined “provoking” as disobeying a husband’s wishes or breaking certain religious and moral codes, including speaking to “strange” men or going out of the house without a hijab, or Islamic head covering. These survey statistics alone, however, do not reveal the complicated and layered story of domestic violence in Palestinian society.

“When my brother threatened to kill me, my entire family got involved,” explains Nada, a 23-year-old Jerusalem resident. “My father physically blocked my brother’s path to my room and my other brothers threatened to kill my brother if he touched me. My family does not view this kind of behavior as acceptable. But they used my brother’s anger as an excuse to lock me up at home. Instead of dealing with my brother directly, I was unable to leave the house for days because of my parent’s fear that my brother would find me and try to hurt me.”

Palestinian communities often rely on family discussion and negotiation to deal with problems like domestic violence. However, such methods often prioritize family honor and kinship ties over rehabilitation and help for the victim, privileging men’s freedom and space over women’s autonomy and security.

As Nada explains, “No one tried to restrain my brother’s movements, only mine. There was no one in the family to help with the emotional trauma of my brother’s threats and emotional abuse. In time, everyone in the family acted as though everything was fine and ignored my discomfort. They even encouraged me to go visit my brother to mend our relationship.”

A 1999 survey conducted by the Women’s Health and Development Directorate of the Palestinian Ministry of Health found that of the 1,153 women surveyed, 85 percent said they knew or suspected that girls in their family were experiencing emotional, physical and sexual abuse by family members, most often citing husbands as the source of violence.

The women interviewed reported high rates of being emotionally abused themselves, and 21 percent said that they had been physically abused during the previous year. The survey also suggested that incest was on the rise, with many participants stating they had been subject to sexual advances or assault by a family member, including fathers and brothers.

The difficulty of creating a strategy to deal with the issue of domestic violence is exacerbated by a lack of public assistance and security. Palestinian women with Jerusalem identity cards are not likely to involve Israeli police in issues of domestic violence, and for women in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, the Palestinian Authority has neither the structure nor the resources to deal with such issues. Much of the pressure to address such social problems therefore falls on non-governmental organizations and social workers.

“Our phone is always ringing off the hook,” says social worker Rana Fuad Salfiti, of the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, which has offices in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Hebron. “Many women complain that they now have more difficulties at home than before the Intifada. We repeatedly hear about situations where men are at home because there is no work, no opportunities, and they are constantly under the threat of possible arrest or detainment by Israeli soldiers or police. This leads to more tension at home, these fears lead to frustration and men are taking this frustration out on their families,” she explains.

The Intifada has simply worsened what was an existing problem. A frustrated political situation, lack of work opportunities and an inability to see an end to the current situation are just some of the reasons family tensions are on the rise. Fights and arguments at home can take a violent turn, leaving women and children vulnerable to assault.

School counselor Narmin Khanafseh of the New Generation elementary school in Abu Dis has noticed an increase in the violent behavior of children over time, which she pegs on rising violence inside and outside their homes. “Children are playing ‘Palestinians and Israelis,’ reenacting violent images they see on television. They are also experiencing more violence at home because their parents are frustrated and take it out on their children,” she says.

Recognizing that domestic violence is a problem is one thing, however, and dealing with it is quite another. “We [social workers] understand these issues so we know how to think about and deal with [them] but many people, because they are surrounded by violence every day, feel that domestic issues are to be dealt with later,” says social worker Rania Khaleel Salahdin, of the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling Ramallah branch.

“People are exposed to [political] violence every day, people are dying every day, and every day the army is invading another community or town. People are worried about their children being arrested or killed by soldiers and they watch young men being treated worse than dogs.”

“What is a human being supposed to do when surrounded by this kind of force,” she asks, “when one is forbidden to speak without permission and when one is forbidden from doing things because of the color of their identity card? In these conditions, people say we will think about social problems tomorrow.”

But people’s rising frustration during this Intifada is not the source of the violence within Palestinian families, argues Majida Al-Saqqa of the Culture and Free Thought Association in Khan Younis. “This is an issue of taking and keeping power. It is a problem that existed before the Intifada, and is now getting worse because the political situation means less people are talking about the problems in our society, our own social problems,” she says.

Ironically, reported cases of domestic violence have decreased since the beginning of the Intifada. In 2002, 188 women filed reports with the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling. In contrast, 338 women visited the Center’s offices in 2001 to file reports. But these numbers do not tell the whole story, insists Salahdin.

“Many women call to tell us that they would like to come to the Center, but cannot because they are unable to leave their houses. They have to get food for their families, take care of their children, and tend to their house,” she explains. Women also cite curfews, the presence of soldiers and fear of their batterer as reasons for not being able to come into the center for counseling or aid.

The last ten years have seen an increased effort by Palestinian women’s and charitable organizations to raise awareness about the problem of domestic violence and family crisis counseling. Implementing institutional strategies to deal with the problem, however, has not been entirely effective. A former volunteer with the Nablus-based Society for Defense of the Family explains. “During the Oslo Process, a shelter was built in Nablus to help women facing domestic violence. Our shelter is fine – it functions – but it is not progressive in its policy or its vision,” she critiques.

“Women stay for short periods and often return to their families, without any more knowledge, counseling or rehabilitation. We also have a number of hotlines where people can call in for advice, but these hotlines do not help people who cannot leave their homes. We have enough hotlines. What we need now is a comprehensive vision,” she says.

Suad Abu-Dayyeh, head of the social work unit at the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, agrees with this assessment. “There are many of us who are working to help women, but because things are changing everyday, it has been nearly impossible to develop an overall system and strategy to address violence and women’s needs. Every time a case of violence or abuse comes to our attention, every time a woman needs our aid, we must come up with a new strategy, a new plan,” she explains.

“This is an ineffective way to deal with the problem at large, and is partly due to our lack of organizing, but also due to the current situation. Often we are unable to move from one town to another to help women. We need a strategy that deals with issues related to violence and a strategy for how to work within the current situation,” she adds.

But despite the difficulties, women are organizing and resisting the social problem of domestic violence, institutionally and on their own. In just one example, the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling is in the planning stages of building a new shelter for battered women in Bethlehem. The funding proposal clearly states that the shelter will not be a temporary fix for women dealing with violence, but rather will include programs for social and economic rehabilitation and counseling.

Um Ibrahim, a 31-year-old resident of Jayous village near Qalqilya, has joined efforts with other women in her community to combat what she sees as growing domestic problems and ill treatment of women. “Our community is isolated from the support services available in Tulkarem and Qalqilya, and the closures make this problem even worse,” she says. “Because of the increased weight on women’s shoulders, some of us decided to record and write down women’s experiences so as to help women talk about their difficulties.”

Individual women and organizations are working to change opinions and stereotypes about domestic violence and its victims. Such strategies raise awareness and instill institutions able to effectively combat domestic violence in the future. As Khanafseh notes, “We are discussing the issue of violence with students and their parents all the time. For us, it is incredibly important to give children and their families a chance to focus on what is going on around them and at home. We want to give families tools to deal with the family violence now on so as to make sure children and their parents are healthy in the future.”

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