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The Politics of Killing Women in Colonized Contexts

[A demonstration against killing women in Ramleh and Lydda, 11 June 2012. From NRG Maariv. Image by Amir Meiri.] [A demonstration against killing women in Ramleh and Lydda, 11 June 2012. From NRG Maariv. Image by Amir Meiri.]

As therapists, activists, and scholars who have worked with abused women, and conducted social anthropological studies on the killing of women in Palestinian society, we decided to respond to the article by Lila Abu-Lughod and Maya Mikdashi, “Tradition and the Anti-Politics Machine: DAM Seduced by the ‘Honor Crime.’” They reiterate—as our own interventions, activism, and studies have found—that the killing of women cannot be divorced from the realm of the political. However, in reading the reactions and comments, such as those that ask for the view within Palestine, we felt compelled to share with readers our analyses and activist work, and to speak up. 

We have much respect for DAM’s work and contribution, and we want to stress that both DAM and Abu-Lughod and Mikdashi are making clear interventions in addressing the criminalization and politicization of Palestinian women by their family members. Violence against women is a complex political, moral, and ethical issue, but the burning questions we face in our everyday work are how to address and respond to violence against Palestinian women inside the Jewish state. How do we portray the killing of the colonized woman by the colonized man? And who profits from such criminality? 


Naming the Problem 

For over ten years, Palestinian feminists have insisted on using the term of “femicide,” or "qatl al-nisa" and not “honor crimes” so as to refuse legitimization and justifications that bestow “honor” on killers and abusers. The concept of femicide in Palestine (including in the West Bank and Gaza Strip) was first invoked by Shalhoub-Kevorkian after the establishment of the first hotline for women in East Jerusalem and the West Bank during the late 1990’s. The term has allowed us as feminist supporters and legal activists to work with family members who can be of help to women who have suffered from violence, to activate potential resources, and to mobilize internal familial rejection of the crime of killing one’s sister, mother, or other female relative. Challenging the language used by oppressors inside and outside the family can draw people together. 

As feminist activists, we believe that language and naming have consequences. One reason we resist the use of “honor crime” is that every time a Palestinian female is killed, minutes after the murder and even before conducting any kind of investigation, the Israeli police and media announce it as based on “family honor.” The Israeli system’s use of this term becomes a tool to culturalize and dismiss the gravity of killing Palestinian women. Culturalization not only lifts the responsibility from the criminal justice system to protect abused women, but also allows the Israeli system to position itself as superior, as belonging to a more “modern” and “advanced” culture. Scholars of colonialism remind us that colonizers will make any effort to destroy and fragment the internal cohesion and social structure of the colonized. Internal violence is an optimal way to destroy the “collective consciousness” of the colonized, keep them far from requesting freedom or resisting their colonization. 
 

Activating and Maneuvering Internal Resources

Our work in colonized Palestinian society has taught us that within the Israeli context, femicide is structured by a complex interrelationship between informal Palestinian systems of control and the formal Israeli legal and welfare system. Informal social structures in the context of colonialism in the Jewish state, including systems of kinship, patriarchy, and religious and traditional tribal systems, play a role in defining the physical and social boundaries within which female and male individuals are able to move and act. These structures regulate social behavior, roles, responsibilities, and relations within Palestinian society, enforcing social norms and codes that define and delimit mobility, choice of spouse, type and level of education, dress, profession, and sexual behavior. In a context of constant political attacks, fragmentation of communities and families, violence against the individual and the land, and constant uncertainty, these informal systems fluctuate between being systems that preserve the society’s safety, internal security, and cohesion, and systems that reach for power under conditions of complete powerlessness, making use of women’s living and dead bodies. 

As we have tried to intervene and engage with abused women, we have come to understand that the positive aims of the informal system of social control are to fight for life, capitalizing on values such as family ties and support, and other forms of Palestinian local solidarity, to preserve the social fabric. But, this same informal system gets confused when internal male violence against women occurs. In some cases, the informal system plays a role in preventing the killing of women victims of violence. However, the record is mixed. Many informal enforcers of social norms (teachers, clergy, and friends) and family members who choose to protect and advocate the needs of victims of abuse are not taken seriously. They are rejected, excluded, and even attacked by the Israeli welfare and criminal justice systems. In other cases, the Israeli police contact internal notables known to them to seek their help. The imposition of such notables who are not the victim’s choice sometimes exacerbates the already complex situation: it challenges the male abuser by another powerful male who is connected to the police. 

The police’s mode of work empowers existing patriarchal systems. As one Israeli police officer explained: “We help them, and empower them, so they always come back to us, and we call them and get all information needed.” The police award certain men the title of “Mechobadim,” the “honorable” or the “notables” and consult them when abused women call for police help (see Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Erez 2002). In more than one case, a woman was killed precisely because she was given by force back to her family by such “notables” and/or because she went to ask help from the police. 

In other cases, when the welfare workers or the police do not have local brokers or “notables,” they refuse the internal interventions requested by women victims of abuse. The Israeli system’s refusal to cooperate with an aunt and uncle who were ready to support their niece, or to agree to call a teacher that the victim indicated she trusted, or to look into the readiness of a friend and a sister to host their relative, resulted in an attempted suicide by one young woman and a three-day disappearance by another (which worsened the situation and led to the young woman needing to stay in a shelter). When another victim preferred to go home rather than to a shelter, with the stigma attached to it, “trained/professional” helpers informed her that she would lose official support. She said, “They threatened to get a court order and put me by force into the shelter.” Abused women we worked with, interviewed, and supported described how, when they tried to ask for help from the Israeli police, officers were not only uninterested in their victimization but took advantage of their vulnerability by sexually harassing them, neglecting them, or ridiculing them. 

Israeli officials turn to the patriarchal and masculine informal system to “help” “protect” and “prevent” the killing of women. Yet it is Israel’s ongoing control over the Palestinian minority that has in so many ways coopted, manipulated, weakened, and selectively strengthened these particular informal structures. If we do want to think about the role of social norms or culture in femicide, we must ask how some local men’s desire to become “keepers of norms” and “defenders of social values” might be linked to the political context in which all other values, humane norms, and acknowledged rights to a safe home/land have been silenced. 

The problem with the formal system is also complicated. As most polls show, Palestinians do not trust the Israeli system, and the police are the most distrusted government agency. As in many other colonial contexts, the Palestinian minority in Israel has come under the colonizing power’s laws and legal institutions. It is important to acknowledge that Palestinian women have and continue to resist prevailing relations of power, whether Israeli colonization, Palestinian traditional rule, or the patriarchal structures inherent in both (Shalhoub-Kevorkian, 2004), but power is still inscribed on the Palestinian body, and femicide victims are no exception.
 

Activism

The most recent initiative of Palestinian feminist activists is a committee called “The Committee for Resisting Women’s Killing.” It is a coalition of Palestinian NGO’s working to develop a social-political agenda to prevent women killing. In addition, the Gender Studies Program at MADA Al-Carmel (Arab Center for Applied Social Research) held a major event on 28 November 2012 to focus on the complexity of the Palestinian context within the Israeli state. The charge was to consider the “interrelationship between the social and the political” and we discussed in detail the various methods of “haunting” Palestinian women victims of abuse in the hope of also haunting Palestinian men. The discussions among social workers, young women, and young men pointed out that the existing legal and welfare system are tools for oppression and explored how culuralization traps society, curbs its mobilization, and supports the Israeli colonial logic of erasing the Palestinian by the Palestinian. 

In addition, WAVO (Women against Violence Organization) held a major event on 12 December: a public court and hearing to address the negligence of Palestinian society and both the formal and informal systems in curbing such criminal acts. The activity allowed the speakers and the audience to discuss the state’s role in manipulating women’s dead bodies. We realized that although the Palestinian community is about twenty percent of the total population, there are only four women police investigators who speak Arabic, the language that abused Palestinian women speak. WAVO’s activity also discussed the failure of the welfare departments, the police system, the prosecutor, and state funders to provide support for abused women. Experts looked at the state’s discriminatory budgets and opened up a heated discussion regarding the political/Zionist motive behind the privatization of shelters and other related services for abused women. 

The welfare system is directed by policies embedded in and affected by the Jewishness of the state and its Zionist ideology. In the welfare system, the allocation of posts and resources are controlled by the ministry of finance; and those who “supervise” the Palestinian workers who are “protectors” of abused Palestinian women are Jewish superiors. Welfare departments in Palestinian localities complain of the lack of social workers, the heavy case loads, and the inaccessibility and unsuitability of existing services. The police system does more than culturalize and orientalize; it inscribes its power over women’s living and dead bodies while playing the game of divide and rule. The police reproduce patriarchy by giving power to men and trade off women's lives and safety in return for men's collaboration. They offer men guns and weapons, the same weapons used to kill women. 

Our arguments here are built on research we conducted in Ramleh City in Israel between 2007 and 2010. We chose Ramleh because ten women were killed there and in Lydda over the last six years. In Al-Jawareesh neighborhood in Ramleh, ten women were killed between 2000 and 2008. Our findings reveal that the Israeli state system is playing a crucial role in reproducing the killing of women through its legal formal system by empowering of the informal-social-patriarchal system that includes mukhtars (leaders of extended families), clergymen, and police brokers. We found that when a woman is threatened by one of her family members, she is taken, sometimes by force, to a shelter to “protect” her. We found that in addition to being under the threat of death and being excluded as a Palestinian and as a woman, these females are excluded for the third time to a shelter. Women victims viewed shelters as another prison. 

Al-Badeel, a women’s rights organization, provided the Ramleh police department with a list of women who had received death threats from family members and who were not under police protection (Touma-Sliman, 2005); no one was arrested. In most of the cases, even when the murderers are known to the police, the cases are closed because the police claim “lack of evidence.” In the case of Hamdeh Abu-Ganem, a young woman killed by her brother in 2007, her mother and another woman from the family testified against the brother. Despite their testimonies, the Tel Aviv District Court delivered a verdict of not guilty of the crime of murder, finding him guilty only of the lesser charge of being an accomplice (Zinger-Heruti, 2008). This case is one of many in which murderers received light sentence or continued their lives as if they had not murdered a woman. According to our findings and interviewees, women do not trust either the formal and informal systems. As Israeli formal institutions neglect their responsibilities, the dominated, unemployed, and excluded men assert their power over the weakest group of the patriarchal hierarchy--women.


A New Proposed Law 

A new proposed law was submitted to the Ministry of Judicial Affairs requesting harsher punishment for Palestinian men who kill their women relatives on an “honor basis.” The proposed law, put forward by Professor Mote Kreminitzer from Hebrew University Law School, tries to “save” Palestinian women from Palestinian men. The proposed law fails (by omission or commission) to address victims' needs when most needed. It will do nothing for the women victims when they are alive but is designed to punish their abusers once the women are dead. Law here is an additional tool for oppression. If we add to all we have described the fact that all forms used in the Israeli welfare, police, and health system are written in Hebrew, as are all laws, regulations, and court forms, and that most of the “service providers” are either Jewish or Israelized, we see that Palestinian women are left with no address to redress. 

Colonialism is empowering killers and sustaining internal crimes through bureaucratic and legal means. Does it hope to erase and destroy the Palestinian minority in its homeland? In both of the meetings we describe, the question raised for us was: Who benefits from violence against women? Who benefits from femicide?

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Citations

Shalhoub-Kevorkian, N. and Erez, E. (2002) “Integrating a Victim Voice in Community Policing: A Feminist Critique” International Review of Victimology, 9(2): 113-135.

Shalhoub-Kevorkian, N. (2004). Racism, militarization and policing: police reactions to violence against Palestinian women in Israel. Social Identities, 10, 171-193.

Shalhoub-Kevorkian, N. (2009). Militarization and Violence against Women in Conflict Zones in the Middle East: A Palestinian Case Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Touma-Sliman, A. (2005). Culture, national minority and the state: working against the “crime of family honor” within the Palestinian community in Israel. In L. Welchman and S. Hossain (Eds.), Honor: Crimes, Paradigms, and violence against women (pp. 181-198). London & New York: Zed Books.

Zinger-Heruti, R. (2008). 16 years for being involved in killing his sister on the ground of [family honor]. Haaretz, 3 March.

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See Also: 

Tradition and the Anti-Politics Machine: DAM Seduced by the “Honor Crime”, Lila Abu Lughod and Maya Mikdashi

DAM Responds: On Tradition and the Anti-Politics of the Machine, Tamer Nafar, Suhell Nafar, and Mahmood Jrery (DAM)

Honoring Solidarity During Contentious Debates. . . A Letter to DAM From Lila Abu-Lughod and Maya Mikdashi, Lila Abu Lughod and Maya Mikdashi

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