A visit to the Hebron Governorate today has left me despairing for women here in Hebron. Right from the start I recognised the deeply embedded patriarchal mindset at play.
I met with the Director General of the Governors Office and shared a story I had heard from the head of the family protection unit in the police:
The officer had described a ‘success’ as forcing a boy to marry a girl to save her honour as he had taken her virginity. He argued that he had saved her from violent abuse from her family by restoring her honour through persuading the boy to marry her. I challenged the officer at the time, saying ‘surely success is in changing the mindset around virginity and honour? And surely forced marriage is never a solution.’
Sharing this story, I had hoped I would find common ground and to start a discussion around honour culture. Quite the opposite happened: He responded by telling me he would only ever want to marry a virgin. I then asked him ‘would you then be a virgin too?’ and he replied, ‘You can’t test a man’s virginity, so it is not necessary.’
This encounter left me speechless.
If these are thoughts of the man in charge of the Governors Office, then how will we ever see change here?
From this point forward, one shocking revelation followed another, after another.
Let’s set the scene: The sole reason for my visit was to meet just one person: the woman managing the women’s and children protection unit. But instead I am joined by six individuals. Of the six I am introduced to the two men in the room, no one else. After my introduction to the Director General and the Head of Security, The Head of Security proceeds to contradict all the statistics gathered by the UN, the police and the NGOs that support an increase in domestic and honour related violence. They claim, unanimously, that people are becoming ‘more open minded’ and honour related crimes are now very rare. If it was not for the DG’s opening statement and the facts:
- 29.9% of ever-married women in the West Bank and 51% in the Gaza Strip have been subjected to a form of violence within the household; with 48.8% of women in the West Bank and 76.4% in the Gaza Strip declaring having been psychologically abused; 17.4% in the West Bank and 34.8% in the Gaza Strip physically abused; and 10.2% in the West Bank and 14.9% in the Gaza Strip sexually abused.
- 65.3% of women who were exposed to violence by their husbands declared preferring to remain silent; while 30.2% said they had recourse to their family, and 0.7% opted to seek the assistance of an institution (women institution or centre.)
- According to the Independent Commission for Human Rights and women’s organizations, 28 women were killed in the name of so-called “honour” in 2013, a rise from 12 in 2012 and in 2011 8.
I may have been persuaded.
Following the wave of persuasive rhetoric from the city’s officials, I deliberately turned to a woman in the room and asked for her opinion on what was the largest challenge facing women in Palestine. She looked to her (male) seniors and responded:
‘The issue is the occupation; it presents many problems for women.’
‘Many young men are killed and mothers lose their sons, which is a particular problem for women. ‘
‘Does this not cause problems for the fathers too?’
She responds (with something I sadly have also heard from the manager of the Excellence Centre, the centre I am collaborating with to deliver Become The Voice):
‘Mothers love their children more than fathers, their bond is greater – they feel the loss more.’
Her responses are not misguided: the occupation creates many issues for women in particular, but this is not one of them. She could have chosen to talk about any of the following:
- The closure of Parliament (2006) making patriarchal penal codes difficult to reform.
- An under resourced police and security sector that is deeply corrupt.
- Violent incidents from the Israeli officers.
But no, she chose to claim that mothers love their sons more than fathers do.
I did not hold back: ‘If this is your thinking, then surely you must believe that women do belong in the home and that there are in fact designated roles for man and women? This runs counter to your efforts to implement CEDAW (the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.)’
She responds with an automatic, ‘No we want women to work, we are working with rural communities to increase their education and encourage them to work.’
‘What then are doing to improve the situation for women?’
I am told they are working to educate the young on how violence against women is not a good thing. They are working to build more safehouses for women.
I tell them that is great, but what is being done to tackle the emphasis on honour that is driving so much of the violence?
She lamely responds: ‘Nothing as yet, I would love to see a strategy in place, but we have nothing yet.’
At this point, I decide to change the direction of the conversation a little as it is clear that my probing is causing irritation.
I ask, if she had a group of young women willing to make a stand for women’s rights online, what would she ask them to do?
She tells me, (contradicting the Head of Security on this being a non-issue): ‘I would ask them to run a campaign against domestic violence.’
This was enough confirmation for me that the Governate are well aware of the reality of discrimination against women. However their policy to remain focused on the occupation and to appear to guide their communities towards increasing liberalism demands a certain set narrative.
Despite being at the Governate to enquire about women’s rights, I was met by a seemingly staged occupation centred discussion. I cannot help but feel the rather dramatic presence of six people, including senior officials, is to ensure discussion is kept to the ‘party line’. Eventually, I am directly exposed to the regressive mindset that mothers make better parents and that women carry the family honour. Which then makes protecting it a necessity and the reasoning behind honour-based violence comes full circle. The wish of one woman to instigate a grassroots movement to challenge closed-minded, outdated thinking, is unlikely to blossom with colleagues such as hers.