The deadly war on women that Israel refuses to talk about

Police and officials won’t use the term ‘honor killing’ anymore, but Israeli Arab women are still being murdered, and feminists are still fighting attitudes and a legal system they say is soft on the phenomenon

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

A female Arab student walks by colorful art hanging in the corridors of the Hebrew University campus in Jerusalem in 2009. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
A female Arab student walks by colorful art hanging in the corridors of the Hebrew University campus in Jerusalem in 2009. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Twenty-two-year-old Beersheba resident Bahia Mana’a was in a car with her boyfriend and at least one other man when something went terribly wrong. Her body was found by police at 3 a.m. on August 15, on the side of a highway near Ashkelon.

Last month, the body of Tasneem Abu Quider, also 22 and a married mother of two, was found by police in her home in the Bedouin village of Abu Quider in southern Israel. Last week, police arrested two suspects in her alleged murder: Abu Quider’s mother and father.

These two deaths are the latest in a string of seven cases so far this year alone in which Israeli Arab women appear to have been murdered by partners or close family members, according to feminist activists in Israel’s Arab community. These deaths are just the most extreme manifestation, they say, of violence against a group that they say is triply marginalized in Israeli society.

“First, there’s the fact that we belong to a patriarchal community,” says Neila Awad-Rashed, the director of Nazareth-based Women Against Violence, an NGO that provides shelter and advocacy for victims of domestic violence.

“Second, we belong to a national minority that is discriminated against in the State of Israel, and third is the fact that we are women, because women are also second-class in the State of Israel. That’s three circles of oppression.”

Reports compiled by Knesset researchers suggest that the incidence of Israeli Arab women murdered by their partners is no higher than that of the general population.

Year Total women murdered by partners Israeli Arab women murdered
2004 10 2
2005 11 0
2006 12 2
2007 13 4
2008 11 1
2009 8 2
2010 18 6 (or more)
2011 18
2012 13
2013 14 1

The statistics above show that only 18 percent of murders by domestic partners occurred in the Arab community. Arab Israelis constitute a little over 20 percent of the population.

However, according to one of the Knesset reports cited above, “These statistics do not include murders of women in the Arab sector for ‘other familial reasons,'” a euphemism employed by police and the officials to describe honor killings. “According to the police, in 2009 there was one murder in the Arab sector for ‘other familial reasons,’ in 2010 two women were murdered, in 2012 four women, and in 2013 four women were murdered for ‘other familial reasons.’”

According to a footnote in the report, despite the shift in terminology from “honor killing” to “other familial reasons,” adopted by police fiat in 2012, the criteria are identical.

Don’t use the term ‘honor killing’

Israeli Arab feminists contacted by The Times of Israel acknowledge that a subset of murders by family members do in fact fit the description of “honor killings” – a term that refers to the murder of a mother, sister or daughter for suspected sexual impropriety ranging from infidelity to flirtatiousness to having been the victim of rape. In 2000, the UN estimated that 5,000 honor killings occur worldwide per year.

But feminist activists in the Arab community believe that the use of this term by Israeli media, government and police is counterproductive.

“I don’t accept that they treat these murders like a unique type of murder,” says Joint (Arab) List MK Aida Touma-Suleiman, who also heads the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality.

Arab Joint List MK Aida Touma-Suleiman (Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Arab Joint List MK Aida Touma-Suleiman (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“These are femicides like all the murders of other women in other societies. The police have had clear orders for a few years — not to speak about honor murders. For years we explained to them that murder of women is murder of women. It doesn’t matter who the perpetrator is — whether it’s a husband or brother. Both want to control her life. Both want to make her behave a certain way and not another.”

Suleiman also disputes the government’s statistics, saying there are many cases of violence against Arab women that get buried in other categories. For instance, according to police statistics from 2012, if you look at all murders in Israel, 67 percent involve members of the Arab sector. Some of these are incidents of domestic violence that are not described as such.

Asked why it is bad for the police to describe murders of women as “honor killings,” Suleiman replies, “because when they think about it only as an honor crime — that means first of all that it is a cultural issue. When it is a cultural issue, they try to solve it in a paternalistic way.”

According to Neila Awad-Rashed, calling a murder an honor killing gives it a bit of legitimacy in Arab society. “And that makes it easier for the police to move on. When we talk about Arab women being killed, most of the time there is never even an indictment.”

Even when there is an indictment, Awad-Rashed says, judges will often accept a plea bargain. In the past, judges would lighten a perpetrator’s sentence based on character references from local dignitaries, “even in the case of a father who murdered his own daughter.”

A famous case involves the Abu Ghanem clan from Ramle, where ten women have allegedly been murdered since 2000. In 2006, 19-year-old Reem Abu Ghanem refused to submit to an arranged marriage and ran away from home to become engaged to a man she had fallen in love with in another city. According to some accounts, police returned her to her family after obtaining their signed agreement not to harm her. But when Reem’s original fiancé broke off the engagement, four of her brothers conspired to murder her. One of the brothers, a pediatrician at Israel’s Assaf Harofeh hospital, provided sleeping pills.

The plan was to suffocate her in her sleep, but when she woke up and pleaded for her life, another brother strangled her and threw her body down a well. Despite the brutality of the murder, in 2008, three of the brothers had their charges reduced to manslaughter in a plea bargain.

They received 20-year sentences. Of the 10 alleged murders of girls in the Abu Ghanem clan, only two have resulted in convictions so far, according to Haaretz.

A divided society

A 2010 survey of students at Arab Academic College for Education, a teacher’s college in Haifa funded by Israel’s Education Ministry, found wildly divergent opinions on honor killings. A full 20 percent of students were in favor of the practice of honor killing, while 59 percent believed the honor killer should be executed, a 64% said the punishments being meted out to honor killers in Israel are not severe enough. The respondents were 19-25 years old and, notably, 89 percent of them were women.

Janan Faraj Falah, a Druze lecturer in gender studies at the college, told the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality last November: “The results of the study shocked us. We’re talking about college students studying to be teachers. These are the people meant to shape the opinions and views of the next generation in Arab society.”

After the results of the survey were presented to the Knesset, the Education Ministry immediately instituted a course on gender equality at the college as well as lectures and workshops on women’s roles in society. Falah then repeated the survey after students completed the course and the results showed less approval of honor killings, she reported.

This positive view of honor killing among some members of Israeli Arab society is what prompted MK Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List to propose a law in 2010 banning the use of the term.

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi (Photo by Flash 90)
Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi (Photo by Flash 90)

“A man who murders a woman has no honor,” he told the Knesset, “and therefore it is inappropriate to describe it in positive terms. It is enough to say that a woman was murdered because that in itself is terrible, and sometimes the [police] say it was an honor killing, as happened in Lod less than a year ago, and it turns out not to have been and it damages [the dead woman’s] reputation, and the reputation of her daughter and family for generations to come.”

Tibi’s proposed law, which failed to reach a vote, would have prohibited the police, prosecutors and the media from describing any alleged murder as an honor killing. It would also have prohibited the use of the phrase “for romantic motives,” a Hebrew variation of the English “crime of passion.” Violators would have been fined and required to apologize publicly. In addition, the family of the victim would have been eligible to sue the offender for up to NIS 50,000.

Feeling like second-class citizens

Whatever the immediate motive, violence against women stems from a patriarchal worldview, says Samah Salaime, a social worker who helps victims of domestic violence in the central Israeli town of Lod. “I think domestic abuse happens more in Arab society because the status of women vis-a-vis men is more subordinate. Arab women are also less likely to complain and get help.”

According to Women Against Violence, 30 percent of women seeking domestic abuse shelter in Israel are Arab. In fact, this figure may not reflect the full extent of abuse in the Arab sector because many women won’t go to the authorities.

“We asked people in 2013 about their measure of confidence in institutions,” said Awad-Rashed. “More than 65 percent of Arab women spoke of a lack of confidence in the police system.”

“If the police are the same ones who use violence to disperse demonstrations, who destroy our houses, of course people won’t see them as an address for support and encouragement.”

Beyond that, says Awad-Rashed, welfare services are inadequate and discriminatory. Out of 14 shelters throughout the country, only two are designated for Arab women. One of these is run by Awad-Rashed herself.

“If the percentage of Arab women in the shelters is 30 percent, then at least 30 percent of the shelters should be for Arab women.”

Can’t Arab women go to the other shelters?

“We need someone who can speak about our problems and our trauma. We need to be able to speak in our mother tongue. It’s more professional for the social worker to be part of the society. If the social worker is not Arab how can she assess how much danger the woman is in?”

“So we’re talking about budgets. The government just closed one of our halfway houses because they said it was too expensive. They’re trying to privatize everything. The Welfare Ministry’s attitude makes the situation worse.”

According to Aida Touma Suleiman, “it’s about time that we understood that the fact that women don’t have a clear address in terms of social workers or welfare services or the police station is leading to more crimes.”

Social worker Salaime, on the other hand, does have a good word for the Israeli government.

“In the last year the police did a relatively good job. They did find the killers. I have to give credit where credit is due.”

Higher education

Arab students make up about 13 percent of undergrads at Israel’s colleges and universities, and of these, 56 percent are women. Is this fact having any effect on women’s status in Arab society?

Aida Touma Suleiman says she is not sure the percentage of women in university is higher if you count all the men studying in places like Jordan and the West Bank. In any case, she says, the influx of women into higher ed will have an impact on gender equality “in the long term, but not tomorrow.”

Students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASh90)
Students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (Miriam Alster/FLASh90)

“The status of girls in school doesn’t reflect their status in society,” says Salaime. A man can go work and make a living. An Arab girl can’t work in agriculture or construction or industry or business. The only way to advance is through academics. I am a working woman with a master’s degree, but I haven’t reached equality. If a woman gets a doctorate will she be immune from being beaten at home? I don’t think so.”

According to Awad-Rashed, only 22% of Arab women work outside the home (as compared to 59% of Jewish women and 60 percent of Arab men). Of these, only 1.1% are in a managerial position (as compared to 5.4% of Jewish women).

“Working does reduce their economic dependence, but it doesn’t change the patriarchal culture,” she says.

Awad-Rashed stresses that the obstacles to Arab women working are not just internal social ones but “structural obstacles that the state puts in our way. There are not enough places to work, our villages and cities are not industrialized, public transportation is not adequate and there are not enough preschools for kids. There is discrimination in budgets and services.”

Israel’s former economy minister Naftali Bennett echoed some of these criticisms in a speech at the Prime Minister’s Conference for developing the Arab sector in 2013. “There is a built-in discrimination against Arabs in the job market. There are obstacles and a lack of exposure to jobs as well as a security situation that wrongly prevents the hiring of Arabs. The banking system makes it hard for the Arab sector to develop and I see the government as the one that must break the glass ceiling for Arab workers. We must tell the truth. It’s harder for Arab young people than for Jewish young people. But I want to send a message that you shouldn’t give up on the state and the state won’t give up on you.”

But Salaime says that beyond economics, the most important way to prevent violence against Arab women is simply to raise awareness.

“You can be a housewife but you know that no one touches you and anyone who hurts you will have to pay the price. You’d be surprised by how many women don’t have that awareness.”

Salaime says she can’t say the number of murders has gone down in the last 20 years, but she has seen progress.

“The number of babies born went down and the divorce rate has gone up. More women are choosing for themselves whom they want to marry. I know a lot of women who got out of a bad relationship, found work and started over. We’re moving in the right direction.”

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