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Palestinian women walk the tightrope of toxic 'shame' and occupation

The murder of a young Palestinian woman at the hands of her family highlights what many Palestinian women have been saying all along: The struggle against patriarchy and gender-based violence cannot be separated from the fight against Israel’s occupation.

By Nooran Alhamdan

Palestinian women, joined by Israeli and international solidarity activsits, march to the Qalandiya checkpoint during a protest against the Israeli occupation on International Women's Day, West Bank, March 8, 2012. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Palestinian women, joined by Israeli and international solidarity activsits, march to the Qalandiya checkpoint during a protest against the Israeli occupation on International Women’s Day, West Bank, March 8, 2012. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Israa Ghrayeb, a young Palestinian woman from the Bethlehem area, lived her life like any young woman: she went to work, spent time with friends, had hobbies. A true fashionista, Israa took great care in matching her scarves with her name brand t-shirts and sneakers. She ran an Instagram page attracting thousands of followers, in which she featured makeup tutorials and styling advice.

In August, Israa was reportedly killed by her own family members for posting a photo of herself with her fiancé on that same Instagram page. Her father, brother and brother-in-law beat her into a spinal fracture with their bare hands. After treating her fatal injuries without questioning their cause, the hospital released her. Days later, she was brought to the hospital again — dead.

The details of Israa’s case are still unraveling, but perhaps it is the normalcy of Israa’s life that makes the horror of her death resonate with so many women across the globe. That very normalcy is also what shatters our assumption that patriarchal oppression manifests only in certain ways, challenging our perception of what we consider the “ultimately oppressed” woman.

Israa’s murder is proving to be a crossroads for women’s rights in Palestine. When news of her killing broke first broke, with a video circulating on social media of what is believed to be Israa screaming while her family members continue beating her at the hospital, thousands of Palestinian women showed an outpouring of solidarity. Weeks after her murder, on Thursday, Feminist activists in Haifa, Yafa, Ramallah, Gaza and Beirut are taking to the streets to protest against gender-based violence and for women’s rights.

Across Palestine and all over social media, women are calling for justice for Israa, demanding that law enforcement take protecting women more seriously. Many are drawing a clear connection between Israa’s murder and the patriarchal violence they themselves experience, proclaiming that they refuse to be held hostage in the crosshairs of “honor” and the Israeli occupation.

This solidarity inspired me to ask Palestinian women about their experiences with so-called honor. What I found was a resounding expression of resilience in the face of stifling misogyny disguised as culture, tradition and religion. All the women responded on social media and asked to keep their names anonymous for fear of their safety.

“How do you navigate life as a Palestinian woman?” I asked.

“I was held at gunpoint. Twice. My own father said he would shoot me,” one woman tells me. A practicing Muslim, she had always abided by all the rules imposed by society, until she fell in love with a man who was not Arab. Her family refused to grant the young man an opportunity to even speak with them. When the man requested her hand in marriage, her entire family emotionally manipulated her through isolation, and routinely threatened to hurt or kill her. She eventually developed a stress-related blood clot and long-term PTSD.

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Another woman shares this: “My father says I will give him a heart attack. Sometimes abuse doesn’t need to be physical. That’s how patriarchy traps you, in so many ways…manipulation has different forms, like guilt and shame.” Like being forced to wear a veil and abide by cultural norms for fear of “what will people say?” Like having every aspect of her life micromanaged by her family. She is constantly gas lit by being told to be grateful for the freedoms her family already grants her, like having a car and being allowed to work.

A third woman attests, “My father was cracking jokes, saying how he didn’t actually mean he would kill me. The lawyer then said to me, ‘your parents let you dress like that?! How can you complain?’ I was wearing a sleeveless top and jeans.”

Another woman, a Palestinian with American citizenship, says she was accused by members of her family of secretly having a boyfriend at 16. After enduring days of abuse following the accusation, she pleaded for help from social workers and a lawyer. When that didn’t work, she sought help from the U.S. embassy in the country where she resided. The embassy sent her back to her family because she lacked a residency permit and for being a minor.

This woman told me of the stigma she later had to face from her family and hometown community in Palestine for being divorced. She had to overcome pressure and emotional blackmail for being a single mother, and for deciding to unveil. Her story, however, also gave me great hope.

At 45, she tells me that she is now “an independent woman,” with her own house, a secured retirement fund, able to keep her children safe and provide them with exactly the kind of education she had hoped for them. Her 17-year-old daughter will be attending college in Germany next year. “I won my family back, gained the respect of society. I recently completed my master’s degree and I don’t believe I’m done yet,” she adds.

Israeli security forces guard as Jewish Israelis tour the Palestinian side of the old city market in the West Bank city of Hebron, June 15, 2019. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Israeli security forces guard as Jewish Israelis tour the Palestinian side of the old city market in the West Bank city of Hebron, June 15, 2019. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

These statements are just a drop in the bucket. There are thousands of women with stories that all come back to one word: honor.

Honor, when understood in the framework of patriarchy and sexism, is the notion that a woman is a representation of how successfully the men in her family perform their masculinity. An honorable woman is one whose behavior can be “well controlled” by her family. By contrast, a dishonorable woman is one whose “immoral” behavior is attributed to the “loose” or lenient treatment of her male family members, challenging societal norms.

Honor exists on a spectrum. For some, honor can be measured by how much of a woman’s hair and skin are covered. For others, it could be as “simple” as never engaging in pre-marital sex. Some men take the concept of honor so far as to view the mere utterance of the names of their mothers, sisters, wives or other female family members as inappropriate and disrespectful. Honor culture instills a toxic shame in women for being themselves, for falling in love, for how they dress, for the personal choices they make — for simply existing as women.

Despite the desperation of their stories, the women I spoke to are proud of their womanhood. They reject their exploitation by the Palestinian community’s brand of patriarchy, but also by those who seek to, as anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod writes, “save” them from “brown men.”

It’s a challenging tightrope to walk, involving multifaceted battles. On one front, Palestinian women are struggling against white savior feminists who claim tragedies like Israa’s to make patriarchy seem like an inherently Arab, Muslim, or brown phenomenon, as opposed to the universal plague that it is. They must also deal with the inevitable hijacking of their struggle by colonial feminists, who justify the oppression and occupation of Palestinians by using the fight against sexism as “proof” that an entire people do not deserve liberation and dignity.

On the other, internal front, Palestinian women are struggling against patriarchy and sexism. They must insist that their campaign is not separate from or subsequent to attaining our rights and freedom as a people. “This is about us and how we raise our children and how we police one another’s bodies and how we reproduce patriarchy in our all interactions and the ways we define “shame” and “terbai” (upbringing) and what it means to preserve our cultural traditions in the name of national anti-colonialism,” writes Palestinian human rights attorney Noura Erakat.

Hopefully come Sept. 26, this message will ring even louder.

Nooran Alhamdan is a Palestinian-American student of economics and political science at the University of New Hampshire. 

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    COMMENTS

    1. itshak Gordine

      Arab society, whether it is in the cease-fire lines before 1967 or in Judea Samaria, is plagued by violence, corruption and bloodshed. It has always been so. Nothing to do with Israel. It’s a tradition at home. That is why very few of them want to leave the “Israeli hell” for an Arab “paradise”.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        What the Jewish jihadis named Itshak (here) and Lewis (below) fail to acknowledge is that the enduring, systematic depriving that the Israeli state engages in in regards to the Arab towns, in this case law enforcement and basic services, is a set of tactics and a larger implicit strategy, neglect by design, meant to keep the Arab citizens undeveloped and powerless.

        The very LAST thing Itshak and Lewis want to facilitate is a struggle against patriarchy and gender-based violence because it does not involve Jewish women so they absolutely could not care less, and because it cannot be separated from the fight against Israel’s occupation. The LAST thing these two characters and their allies want is progress. They enjoy way too much the racist game Itshak is playing here about “Arab society” and way too much the organized, systematic lack of progress called the occupation aka the status quo.

        This is why +972 Magazine is so great. Now, had +972 not published this and many similar pieces then these two characters would be railing against the Magazine with “how come you only pick on the Jews and never criticize the Arabs, huh?” sort of thing. Im Likudland nichts Neues.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          The one who is in denial is yourself.
          If you live in Israel today, you would notice that most young Israelis have both Mizrachi and Askkenasi ancestors. Like all leftist-progressive idiots, you seem to be trapped in 1975.

          Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          Just like a large part of my family I am a Mizrahi. We have nothing in common with the Arabs. We left the Arab countries because we were robbed and abused. Now we live in Israel, our beloved Jewish state.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Riiight. Only the hummus recipes. And your hankering for mini-skirts.

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            The Hummus makes women fat and they can not wear mini-skirts anymore.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Bruce Gould

      @Steve Grossman: “So why do you blame the “occupation”? An Israeli who had done military service in the West Bank explained this to me: the society between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is one in which some people have rights and some don’t, and in this situation all human institutions are degraded; whatever misogyny and paternalism exists, the Occupation makes it worse.

      The problem is understanding what “Occupation” and “no rights” means: try reading Ben White’s “Israel Apartheid: A Beginners Guide”. It’s a 1-day read.

      Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        But Bruce, arab women face the same threats from men in the entire MENA region – honor killings, polygamy, forced to cover their bodies etc etc. Thus, from basic deductive logic, it can be reasoned that these practices are nothing to do with IDF presence in Yesha. Rather, the practices are established in trasitional Arab societies.

        Reply to Comment
        • Bruce Gould

          “In Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, abused women are finding a way out…”Domestic violence is universal — it happens in every part of society. But we have noticed an increase in the number of Haredi women seeking help in recent years,” said Ayala Meir, director of the family services department at the Social Affairs Ministry…”

          https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/in-israels-ultra-orthodox-community-abused-women-are-finding-a-way-out/2017/09/08/23ec4260-8115-11e7-9e7a-20fa8d7a0db6_story.html

          Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            I am glad you agree with me that Arab society oppresses women all over Middle East & N. Africa.

            Reply to Comment
        • Some-one.

          Lewis the indigenous Palestinians who now make up the majority of the population between the river and the sea are being squeezed into ever tighter enclaves both on the West Bank and within the Green Line, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see where this ends, especially when you can see the incremental genocide happening in Gaza. Zionism is only against genocide when it happens to Jews, otherwise it is perfectly okay with it, don’t believe me? Believe The Forward:

          https://forward.com/opinion/israel/387791/myanmar-is-not-the-first-genocidal-government-israel-has-sold-arms-to/

          Now just imagine what it would be like to live your life constantly under threat of genocide?

          Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            Hamas is a terrorist organization condemned by most developed countries. May Hamas stop threatening and attacking Israel and making peace, and the situation for the people of Gaza will improve.
            Hamas is a terrorist organization condemned by most developed countries. May Hamas stop threatening and attacking Israel and making peace, and the situation for the people of Gaza will improve. Genocide in Gaza? Give us pictures and give us some figures. The anti-Jewish genocide killed 6 million people, the genocide of the Armenians and Rwandans killed 1 million.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            The so-called fake “fakestinyans”….
            1. do not exist
            2. are not indigenous
            3. are not the majority of the population in the Land of Israel.

            Your mathematical count of the “Arab majority” includes…
            400,000 half-Jews, quarter-Jews & spouses of Jews “AS ARABS”
            200,000 foreign workers holding Philippino, Chinese & Indian passports “AS ARABS”
            120,000 IDF-serving Israeli Druze “AS ARABS”
            1 Million dead arabs brought “back to life” by the PA ministry of fake statistics.

            Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordine

            The Arabs do not form by far the majority of the population between the sea and the river. Their birth rates have collapsed and the birth rate of secular or religious Jews is increasing more and more. In Judea Samaria our birth rate is 60% stronger than that of the Arabs. Finally, the majority of the Arabs of Judea and Samaria are under the control of the Ramallah entity

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Some-One: “Zionism is only against genocide when it happens to Jews, otherwise it is perfectly okay with it.”

            And realize, Some-One, that you are responding to a denizen of Afula who thinks it’s great fun to snidely suggest mass poisoning of non-Jews by cyanide in the water supply, as a “solution” to the problem of Gaza. If you don’t believe me I can supply the link.

            And his randy Kahanist sidekick Itshak Gordine here thinks the answer is slow extinction of Arabs by Jews in a sexual reproduction race to the finish line. Do the Jewish women you’re hot after procreating wear mini-skirts, Itshak? As, below, you suggest women do who want respect? Yes? You think that’s a respectful approach? Moron.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Some more Leftist BS from our Neo-marxist friend who lives 5000 miles away.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Itshak Gordine

      If they want to be respected by their men, let the Arab women take off their scarves and put on mini-skirts. Fortunately, the State of Israel offers easy access to education for Arab women. Surprising effect their birth rate has dropped by 50% in 20 years.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “If they want to be respected by their men, let the Arab women take off their scarves and put on mini-skirts”

        What a f—–g jerk you are.

        And I have to say it, you are absolutely unparalleled in scoring own goals, in making the author’s point for the author. I marvel at your world class blundering obtuseness, champ. How do you do it? Day in day out. In response to an article about how the struggle against patriarchy and gender-based violence cannot be separated from the fight against Israel’s occupation, what does Settler Halevy do? Why, he responds with insulting, coarse, sexist-racist sh-t about miniskirts!

        And this from the self-styled “religious” apotheosis of the “real” Judaism!

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          As usual you do not understand anything with your preconceptions. A submissive and veiled woman will be humiliated in a patriarchal society like the Arab society of Eretz Israel. This is part of their primitive traditions. A modern, free and confident woman will be more respected. Whether you like it or not, that’s the way it is. I only feel pity for the submissive women. What is very odd is that the leftists do not see any objection to the humiliation suffered by Muslim women. So they blame Israel, capitalism, etc. etc.
          In fact Israel has found a solution to limit the plight of some Arab women who are tired of being maids. They are offered vocational training or studies so that they can flourish in their profession. They are thus more respected by bringing money to family. This opens their eyes to a modern society of the future and improves their social status. In this way, as everywhere else, natality decreases as comfort increases. Unlike the others, the comfort among the Jews does not lower the birth rate, on the contrary.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Get out your avalanche beacon you’re going to need it.

            I understand only too well. You’re not going to slip out the back that easily with this one. Pretending to do one thing but really up to something quite else. Always with supreme entitlement and condescension. With you I always feel like I’m peeling back layers of the onion.

            You used “mini-skirt” to mock and humiliate them further. You want to try to convince us you care one whit about the humiliation of Arab persons, male or female but you must have amnesia for the things you write. The treacly hypocrisy of you preaching to us about not humiliating Arabs is a bit much to take without anti-nausea medication. Shamelessness, smug overlord supremacism, a “we know what’s best for the darkies down on the farm, they wouldn’t be happy with freedom, trust me, I know what’s best for them and I get to decide” attitude.

            You’ve attempted a tactical divert by upping the condition to “veil” not “scarf” to cover your tracks. Sneaky. Hanin Ashrawi and Hanin Zoabi wear no veils and no scarves. Let’s also throw in the feminist Palestinian lawmaker and political prisoner Khalida Jarrar imprisoned for 20 months by Israel—no scarf. And last but not least, let’s include Ahed Tamimi:

            Army arrests Palestinian teen for hurting soldiers’ masculinity
            https://972mag.com/army-arrests-palestinian-teen-for-hurting-soldiers-masculinity/131697/

            No scarf either. All quite liberated. And you can’t stand them. You can stand them least of all and they threaten Jewish male pride most of all. Hence your preoccupation with what women wear and who is humiliated.

            “Unlike the others, the comfort among the Jews does not lower the birth rate, on the contrary.”

            More bizarre supremacism. “Comfort among the Jews.” Wow. Let me translate: “Our fanatic ideological drive to settle territory with special super-breeding progeny, while enjoying the comfort of a brutal military regime that lets us lord it over the inferior breeders surrounding us, makes us unlike the rest of humanity, you see, we are an exception among the human race, not subject to the same limitations and exigencies. We get comfortable, we keep procreating like rabbits. The Jewish genius. We are in our Promised Land and we shall have dominion over the Earth, the plants, the animals and the Arabs.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “I only feel pity for the submissive women.”

            Oh you do, do you? Is that right?

            Why is it then, that you insist on Hanin Ashrawi, Hanin Zoabi, Khalida Jarrar and Ahed Tamimi submitting to the dictates of the IDF-Settler Complex? Wanna explain?

            Tamimi was slapped first. She slapped back.

            How Ahed Tamimi was slapped first, and why no one is talking about it
            ActivismOpinion Jonathan Ofir on December 28, 2017
            https://mondoweiss.net/2017/12/tamimi-slapped-talking/

            Why do you have a problem with that? You, champion of women’s non-submissiveness. Submissive women move you to “pity.” Well, look again, settler, and tell me why you have a problem with this woman’s non-submissiveness. And you, and everyone else here, ought to read Jonathan Ofir’s analysis all the way through before you answer.

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            Women can open their mouths to say bullshit ..

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Really profound. Did one of your “Great Sages” say it?

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            Yes, of course.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            That’s right, I forgot, you feel deep pity for Arab victims of misogyny but feel deep pride at forms of Jewish misogyny. I keep forgetting how the world works for you. Thanks for reminding us.

            The Talmud’s Deep Misogyny: No Women Allowed
            There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Talmudic rabbis think women are dangerous sex fiends who should avoid Torah study—and as a consequence prescribe humiliating guilty-until-proven-innocent public shaming ceremonies
            By Adam Kirsch
            Tablet
            https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/195125/daf-yomi-147

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            There are many talmudic schools for girls. The role of the Jewish woman is huge because she is the one who keeps the home. She can also work of course. Her role is paramount. Few religious Jews beat their wives. This is forbidden by the Sages. In fact, in the world there are only the primitive and sexual impotent to be afraid of women to the point of striking them.In some Muslim countries, men are so afraid of women’s desire and pleasure that they sexually mutilate them.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You gotta love that “the role of the Jewish woman.” What moon of Planet Otsma are you writing from?

            Translation from Halevyan Otsmaese: “I admit it, we think women are dangerous sex fiends, and we got our women well and suitably confined in “the role of the Jewish woman,” don’t you worry, but, and even though I can’t possibly produce data to back it up, I’m going to claim that we real Jews don’t beat our wives too much so who cares? We don’t go “to the point of striking them,” we only devise humiliating guilty-until-proven-innocent public shaming ceremonies. What’s the big deal? See how progressive we are? And finally, let me drop something off topic about genital mutilation that is not practiced in the OPT because I never miss a chance to smear the Palestinians with anything cheap shot I can find.”

            Reply to Comment
    4. itshak Gordine

      Of course. Everyone knows that if Muslim women have long been beaten from Malaysia to the Maghreb via Syria, Iraq and Egypt, it is because of the “occupation” …

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Exceedingly poor reading comprehension.

        Reply to Comment
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