Honor crimes are carried out within different cultures in order to ‘save’ the dignity and pride of a family, especially when a daughter/sister has been involved in a culturally unacceptable act. In Israel, honor killings have been used as a means to justify gender-based violence against marginalized women. We face a major problem due to the lack of involvement of responsible authoritative powers to stop such killings, to punish those responsible, and to educate future generations.
*Disclaimer: this article should not act to reinforce negative stereotypes that readers might have against Arabs or other minorities in Israel. Honor killing is not specific to a society, ethnicity, or religion.
One of the numerous definitions of honor, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a keen sense of ethical conduct”. Honor is also part of a phrase known as “honor or shame killing”, whereby a relative, especially a girl or woman, is murdered due to the perception that she has brought dishonor to her family. The reason for dishonoring a family can vary from simply talking to a man that was not approved of by the family, getting divorced, having extramarital sex, renouncing a faith, or even being the victim of a rape. The principles are often defined and accepted by a religion or a community, and the people who take the law into their own hands are often the men of the family, resulting in gender-based violence.
In Israel, gender-based violence has been on the rise and women continue to be the main victims. Although gender-based violence affects all socioeconomic classes, its main targets are disadvantaged and marginalized women, including Arabs, asylum-seekers, Mizrahi women, Jews of Ethiopian extraction, but it also often involves members of the LGBTQ community. In the last 10 years, 169,031 files were opened by women complaining of physical abuse by family members, according to the Israeli Police Yearbook. The most terrifying aspect of this is that police estimate this number barely even scratches the surface (˜25%) of actual instances, which in fact suggests at least 680,000 women were abused in their own homes. Other statistics show that at least 50 attempts to kill women by relatives take place every year, and approximately half of those involve Palestinian Arab families, although Arabs make up only 20% of the population in Israel. Another minority struggling with this issue is the asylum-seeker community, even though women are also a minority within this group. In 2018 alone, there were at least 20 reported cases of women being murdered by men, often by men in their own family; brothers, fathers, or husbands. For many women, “domestic terrorism” at home is a much bigger cause for concern than most of the events making the headlines in this conflict zone.
There are many aspects that require attention if we want to combat gender-based violence, particularly against women.
Firstly, the mentality of people needs to change, especially that of women themselves, who are taught to justify physical and emotional abuse from an early age. Sexual abuse in Arab families often goes unreported, in order to not dishonor the family. When a girl grows up being taught that she is not equal to a man or that he has a right to exert force on her, an entire generation will carry this misconception and pass it on.
Another important aspect of the problem is neglect. As a country that is heavily affected by its unstable political situation, Israel seems to actively dismiss the violence against women as an “Arab problem”. Many of the murders involving Arab communities within Israel are automatically classified as “suspected honor killing”, a stereotype that has been often associated with this minority in Israel and which only helps to further diminish the problem. A Palestinian member of the legislative branch of the Israeli government (the Knesset) explained it best: “A man who murders a woman has no honor”. As a society, we need to acknowledge that many murders are not honor killings, since most of the killings are not about a woman’s so-called sexual purity but are actually related to crimes that cause violence in any major city, such as drugs, revenge, or gang-related crime. A gradual change in this regard is observed, whereby protesters have come together to encourage the police to investigate the crime rather than dismissing it as another honor killing.
Gender-based violence is further strengthened by poverty. A quarter of the women killed in Israel each year are from the Arab neighborhoods of Ramleh and Lid, two cities outside Tel Aviv that have become dangerous centers for organized crime due to six decades of discrimination and neglect, providing ample accessibility to weapons and increased violence. Decreasing poverty is therefore an essential aspect of fighting the increasing number of murders.
Another major obstacle concerns the fact that the Israeli society is deeply gendered and violence against women is increasing. Proper statistics on such topics are lacking, which in turn hampers policymaking. This important social issue is not given enough importance, despite influencing the livelihood of future generations. Outsiders might wonder why the women did not act in time, as violence often ensues in stages; however, it seems that at least half of those killed had previously been to the police to complain, but were not awarded enough protection. Often, such cases go by without anyone being held responsible. The Knesset has voted down a proposal to establish a parliamentary commission of enquiry into the killing of women. It seems obvious to many in Israeli society that the majority of the coalition members are more loyal to the right-wing political thinking than to the protection of their own citizens and women. Government programs to address gender-based violence need to be implemented in a coordinated manner and following a well-defined time schedule. The release of the first allocated funds is the first step in the right direction.
As a society, we need to challenge the ideas that are harmful to our shared well-being, predominantly by raising awareness and empowering women. The latter involves vocational training, family counseling and enrichment programs, for instance the ones offered by the Eritrean Women’s Community Center in Tel Aviv. By ensuring the accessibility of women to culturally appropriate social services, we can ensure that women can seek assistance before the situation escalates to murder. Campaigns to stop gender-based violence against women have been becoming increasingly stronger, with national strikes being held. The 25th of November marks the international day for the elimination of violence against women. The UN women has several strategies in place to accomplish these goals. A coordinated effort to fight gender-based violence still requires the allocation of a budget, the appointment of enough social workers, and the construction of new shelters for abused women.
Last but not least, a uniform way of approaching sexual education in the school system needs to be introduced. Without a doubt, it will help to reduce gender-based violence and contribute to increased awareness about honor killings. Sex is a taboo topic that many societies still struggle to discuss, particularly the Palestinian one. However, sexual education is an important aspect of any education and is essential for raising teenagers that can function well in society. In many traditional societies, sexual education is performed by the parents, who explain to their own children what they know and what they have been taught by their own parents and their own experience. This often strengthens the bond within the family; however, many kids will be inhibited from asking questions or inquiring about aspects that they might have been misinformed about by schoolmates. Having a system in place encourages the safe and healthy approach to this topic and should not be viewed as an attempt to spread corruption or values that go against those of the society. It is difficult for many parents to accept that internet access is now available even in remote villages, and this will offer a platform for kids to inquire and be misled if they do not feel safe to ask their parents or teachers. A workshop to encourage Palestinians to talk about sex has recently been highlighted in the news. Despite facing criticism from many in the society, such initiatives should be strongly encouraged.
While writing this article, I felt extremely challenged. I wanted to deliver the message across to the reader, but I was also scared. It has repeatedly happened that people use the fight against sexism as ‘proof’ that we Palestinians do not deserve dignity and liberation. There is simply no justification to the oppression and occupation of Palestinians.
Gender-based violence knows no borders, it is not tied to one race, one region, or one religion. In the pervasive case of violence against women, the motivation stems from a sense of power and control that men develop over women, either because of the way they are raised, or because they choose to interpret social and cultural cues to infer their superiority over women. Sadly, violence against women in Israel seems to come last in line, after three main problems from Israel’s point of view: security, terrorism, and border-control. A coordinated social protection system, combined with legislative and policy reforms, as well as awareness campaigns and efforts to change behavior are crucial to discourage gender-based violence.