Samah Salaime Egbariya would like to erase the term “honor killing” from today’s lexicon. The Palestinian activist and social worker sees the term used to explain away violence against women in Arab communities in Israel and other locations around the world. By not calling these situations gendered violence, Egbariya says they are viewed as outside the norm of Arab-Israeli culture, and thus not seen as a central societal problem.
This “othering” of violence against Arab women has not helped to decrease the number of domestic violence homicides in that community, and may have even increased it. According to Egbariya’s research, on average there are 20 domestic violence homicides in Israel each year, with Arab women making up about 10 of those cases. Since Arab women make up only 20 percent of the population nationwide, they are disportionately represented in that homicide rate. The problematic concept of distancing ourselves from this type of violence is similar to the historic response to domestic violence cases in the U.S., naming it a private matter that is best kept within the home.
Egbariya is the founding director of the nonprofit Arab Women in the Centre, an organization that raises awareness about gender-based violence and advocates for Arab survivors in Israel. Changing the language used around violence against women is only one of many items on her agenda. Arab Women in the Centre also provides shelter to women and their families fleeing domestic violence. A lack of services specific to Arab women is one of the many issues that likely lead to the elevated homicide numbers.
According to Egbariya, there is only one domestic violence emergency shelter in Israel specifically geared to accommodate Arab women, while there are 13 for Jewish women. Additionally she noted that Arab women are only allowed to be placed in a Jewish shelter if their situation is deemed high-risk and if the Arab shelter is full. The language barrier that can exist between Hebrew-speaking Israelis and Arabic-speaking Israelis or immigrants can also lead to increased difficulties in providing services for minority women. For example many responding Israeli police officers or detectives do not speak Arabic, so it can be difficult to communicate with crime victims, let alone take statements or build a case around an abuser.
Egbariya strives for peace in all aspects of her life. A resident of Neve Shalom, which is a purposely mixed Arab-Israeli community, her children attend schools where they learn both Hebrew and Arabic. According to Egbariya’s research, however, Palestinian women in mixed cities have the worst status. Lod, a city where the Centre does a lot of work, was called “the country’s most dangerous city for Arab women” in the Jerusalem Post. She noted that in 2008 there were 10 murders of Arab women in Lod.
Part of her job at the Centre involves staging demonstrations against domestic violence and bringing media attention to the issue of violence against women. One recent staging involved forming a human chain that stretched from a police station to the house of a mayor who had claimed, following a woman’s murder, that domestic violence couldn’t happen in his neighborhood. Egbariya noted that there were no Israeli journalists present at the event. “Sometimes I have a feeling that we don’t interest anyone,” she said.
Egbariya has worked at the Centre since 2008, and she has seen an increase in services for Palestinian women in that time period. She said there are now 29 non-governmental organizations in Israel that are aimed at serving Palestinian women. Some work directly with the Bedouin community, a nomadic Arab minority.
One of the challenges that face advocates is combatting the stereotypically macho mentality of men. A recent social media campaign by the Centre was aimed at drawing attention to this notion of traditional gender roles. She noted that violence against women often occurs in these communities when a man feels as if his power or control has been challenged.
Increasing the economic and professional status of Palestinian women is one way the Egbariya hopes to equalize their role in society. Due to an ongoing lack of resources including access to transportation, social welfare and early childhood education, many Palestinian women are limited in their options. It can be difficult to work or attend school without a support network that can help out in the home. “It’s not that she doesn’t want to work,” Egbariya said. “The market is not ready for the Arab woman.”
While the work can be daunting, Egbariya remains committed to working for the rights of Arab women in Israel. “It’s not easy at all,” she said. “It’s challenging. I’m not even close to giving up.”