New Chat Service Could Save Arab Women Locked Up With Abusive Men Due to COVID-19

Calls for help from Arab Israeli women suffering domestic violence surged during both lockdowns. A new service makes it possible to get help discreetly

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Razan Bisharat, left, and Haya Hadad in Nazareth, November 2020.
Razan Bisharat, left, and Haya Hadad in Nazareth, November 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

“Can I share with you?” Huda (not her real name) wrote. “Do you promise not to say I’m dirty? That I’m a woman without honor?” The person she was addressing on the other side of the computer screen was a volunteer at a new service, WavoChat, which offers support to Arab Israeli women suffering domestic abuse.

Line after line, the volunteer relays the grim story of a woman who had managed to muster sufficient courage to reach out to her. Huda, 38, was raped by her brother and father when she was just 10. Her father died two years ago, but she continues to suffer violence from within her family. Her close relations, including her brother and her mother, abuse and humiliate her. Although the brother has stopped sexually abusing her, his physical abuse has not abated. Furthermore, she stated, the family locks her up and prohibits her from leaving the house. She tried to escape a decade ago, but failed.

This was the first time Huda had shared even a little about the impossible conditions of her life. Her message was received by Razan Bisharat, a 29-year-old social worker who’s also director of the service. Huda, she notes, found some small solace in the new reality foisted on the world by the pandemic. “She wrote me: ‘You know, I feel now for the first time, in this coronavirus period when people are going into isolation, that I’m not alone in what I’m going through.’”

Bisharat continues to quote from Huda’s text: “‘I feel that now, a great many people are experiencing what I’ve been familiar with for many long years – they too cannot go outside and are imprisoned at home, like me.’”

Reaching out via Facebook

The new chat service operates within the framework of Women Against Violence, a Nazareth-based nonprofit founded in 1992. Since 2015, the organization has also run a national telephone aid line for abused Arab women. It’s a partner in the Association of Sexual Assault Crisis Centers in Israel.

WavoChat was established when Women Against Violence sensed that the number of calls it was receiving had risen dramatically during the coronavirus crisis.

Its recently issued six-month report confirmed that impression. The data show a steep 40 percent increase in calls reporting violence since the pandemic began, compared to the previous six months. Of the 619 calls received, 330 reported physical and verbal violence, along with economic and mental violence, while 289 reported sexual violence.

It was crucial to launch the chat service, Bisharat says. “We noticed that during the first lockdown [in March-April], more and more women started to reach out to us through our Facebook page,” she recalls. “The whole family was at home during that period because of lockdown or quarantine, and the women suffering violence didn’t have the privacy to call or share – so they looked for a way to reach out and started to write to us on Facebook.”

However, the social media site has one major disadvantage, Bisharat points out: it’s an open platform that isn’t secure. “We realized that we needed to develop a new service, and to adjust to technological developments,” she explains.

Haya Hadad, left, and Razan Bisharat at the Women Against Violence office in Nazareth, November 2020. Credit: Rami Shllush

Bisharat, who worked previously in a hostel for abused Arab women, is scathing in her criticism of the maltreatment many Arab Israeli women endure. “Arab women experience oppression in [the wider] Israeli society and in the Arab community,” she says. “They have a very low status in this country and are discriminated against inside and outside the home. The Arab community is highly traditional, patriarchal and collective, and Arab girls, adolescents and woman are brought up from an early age not to share, and to keep mum about what happens in the home. The subject of sexual assaults and violence against women is strongly suppressed. The milieu is also rife with serious prejudices, so that abused women have no support and the message they receive is to be silent.”

Additional barriers also loom, Bisharat notes. “Arab women don’t have the confidence to go to the police and file a complaint,” she says. “Many of them are mistrustful and afraid that the police won’t provide them with protection on an equal basis. They’re fearful that after they submit a complaint, they’ll be even more vulnerable to violence. In addition, only 28.6 percent of Arab women are integrated into the labor market – in other words, the majority do not work – and this structural dependence on the husband makes it difficult for them to separate and become independent.”

As though all this weren’t enough, Arab women are also apprehensive about turning to the local social services, Bisharat says – for fear that this will become common knowledge in the closely knit community.

“Women suffering from violence are deterred from reaching out and sharing, in case it becomes known,” she says. “Another problem it’s important to acknowledge is that some Arab social workers harbor prejudices – they themselves silence Arab women and say ‘We don’t have to tell everything,’” she adds.

The most dangerous place

Women Against Violence discovered the underlying concept for WavoChat in a similar Hebrew-language project, KolMila (“Every word” in Hebrew), which has been operating since 2015. That service, which offers an online chat response for victims of sexual abuse, exists within the framework of the Sexual Assault Crisis Centers in Israel. According to Mika Natovich Manzur, the director of the network’s aid unit, between 4,000 and 5,000 women contacted the service in 2019.

“The overwhelming majority of the women who use the chat service in Hebrew are between 14 and 30 years old,” she says. “Another distinctive feature of this group is that they reach out to us immediately, as the event is occurring. They tell us about an assault that’s happening in the present, not the past.”

Last April, during the first wave of the health crisis, there was a 50 percent spike in the number of first-time users to the Hebrew chat service.

Razan Bisharat and Haya Hadad, at the Women Against Violence office in Nazareth, November 2020. Credit: Rami Shllush

The Arabic-language service, in contrast, is meant for all types of domestic abuse and is intended for female adolescents and women.

“These days, when people are shut in at home because of the pandemic, the home is not only an unsafe place for abused women, it becomes the most dangerous place,” Bisharat says.

“The report data show that 90 percent of the cases of verbal and physical violence occurred in the home of the woman contacting us,” she continues. “Through the chat service, they can communicate, share and tell their story without arousing the suspicion of those around them. It’s a platform on which they can contact us anonymously.”

Bisharat breaks off her description of the service to provide a concrete example. “A woman shared with me that before the pandemic – when her husband went to work – she at least had some space and time before he returned when she could have a cup of coffee without enduring humiliations and violence. Now she doesn’t even have that respite.”

According to the Women Against Violence report, one group whose situation has taken a turn for the worse because of the pandemic is female college students, who have been forced to move back in with their parents. “We were contacted by a female student of 20, unmarried,” Bisharat relates. “She’d come home because of the pandemic and her parents were beating and humiliating her, and threatening to murder her if she didn’t break off her relationship with a man she loves.”

Another social worker, Haya Hadad, who recently began volunteering at WavoChat, cites the case of another female student, also age 20, who moved back home and is now enduring physical and mental abuse at the hands of her father. “She had immersed herself in her studies, which for her were a refuge from him,” says Hadad, 32. “Now that she’s home, she’s suffering worse violence than ever and has no support from her mother.”

Bisharat hopes the new service will make it possible to broaden the contact with young women who use social media sites, and also to make the service accessible to women with hearing and speech impediments. “We know that the amount of harassment and economic exploitation they endure is very high, and that during the pandemic it’s hard for them to get to the aid centers and other options that are available,” she points out.

Hadad adds: “The launch of the chat service in Arabic is important, and I encourage every girl and woman who has suffered violence to reach out to us and not remain alone with these feelings.”

A demonstration in Haifa against domestic violence, 2019.Credit: Rami Shllush

No emojis or smileys

In addition to Hadad, seven other women have been recruited for the Arabic chat service, devoting three hours once every two weeks to the project. “The desire to help and volunteer is ingrained in us through education from an early age,” says Hadad, a five-year veteran of volunteer work on Women Against Violence’s telephone service. “I didn’t hesitate to take on this volunteer work in parallel. It’s new and challenging – or maybe it’s just that I don’t know how to say no,” she laughs.

However, she believes there are also unanticipated challenges in operating the new project – and not necessarily of a technical nature. “I’m used to responding aloud, through hearing and listening, so it’s very challenging to offer support via chat,” she explains. “I have to convey to the person who contacted us that I believe her, that I’m with her. To create that feeling, we make use of warm, embracing words and clear formulations, and avoid the use of emojis and smileys. We need to express everything in words.”

The volunteers offer support without judgment or prejudice, Hadad says. “The first step, from our point of view, is that a woman who’s the victim of violence made contact, entered the chat and shared,” she says.

Bisharat adds: “From our perspective, she already knows that there’s someone who can help her – and that’s a big deal. If we detect an extreme case, we’ll refer her to the authorities. But our primary task is to give her support.”

Women of all social classes and ages contact their service, Bisharat says. “The youngest person who contacted us was a 14-year-old high school student,” she relates. “She reported harassment in school and said she didn’t feel comfortable about speaking to the educational adviser about it.”

In addition to the data about the surge in violence during the pandemic, the Women Against Violence report also noted a sharp increase in cases of girls and women who are being threatened and blackmailed by photographs, videos and slanderous personal information being posted against them on social media sites.

But alongside the reports of abuse and online threats, Bisharat notes that WavoChat is also being contacted by women who have been left without a therapy framework during the pandemic. “We were contacted by a 22-year-old woman who was sexually assaulted when she was a girl,” Bisharat recounts. “She had been in psychological therapy, but now she was isolated. She shared with us that now she’s locked in the house with her whole family, she’s experiencing nightmares and a flood of traumatic memories. She’s not functioning and feels like she’s suffocating.”

In order to present the barely discussed subject of abuse in a way that would eliminate any stigma, Women Against Violence chose Maysa Daw – a promising actress, indie musician and member of the DAM rap crew – to present the promotional video for WavoChat.

A drive-through coronavirus test center in the Arab Israeli town of Tira.Credit: Eyal Toueg

“These subjects come up in a lot of my songs, so it was clear to me that I would want to take part in the project,” Daw, 28, tells Haaretz. “I didn’t need even a second to say yes. I come from a supportive family, so I’m not afraid to be associated with this subject or to be the face of the chat service.

“I have the option, the strength and the ability to raise my voice, and not to live in fear – as opposed to women who experience violence – so it’s important for me to address this subject. We mustn’t allow violence against women to become invisible and not spoken about.”

Bisharat concludes by saying: “Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, a physician, writer and feminist who is well-known in the Arab world, said that from a societal point of view, a woman who wears a hijab and a woman in a bathing suit are the same thing. She exists only in two states of objectification in the social gaze: either she covers her body or she reveals it. What needs to be done is to change and break the social gaze at women, in order to liberate them.”

For more details about the service, visit chat.wavo.org. The service operates on Sundays and Thursdays at 8-11 P.M., and Tuesdays at 5-8 P.M. There is also a 24/7 phone system available on 04-656-6813.

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