While the public debate surrounding the #MeToo movement has been in full swing for several years in Israel and abroad, there has been almost no significant public debate on this sensitive issue in Arab and Palestinian society. Only recently have the first, tentative signs of change appeared, led by human rights groups, which post women’s testimonials on social media.
Embedded in a primarily conservative and patriarchal society, Arab women in Israel have difficulty exposing instances of sexual violence, even when they occur within their inner circles, says Layla Hassan, director of Assiwar, the Arab Feminist Movement in Support of Victims of Sexual Abuse. “It’s impossible to ignore this patriarchal social structure, in which women are still shunted off to the sidelines… This is an epidemic that requires an investment of money and resources to fight,” she says.
However, says Linda Hulad, director of the Nazareth Rape Crisis Center, “Over the past year, there is a changing trend. More women are speaking up publicly about sexual harassment. This can be seen in initiatives like Assiwar, which publishes testimonials about sexual harassment on social media, or the Palestinian women’s organization Tala’at, which is workin for Palestinian women’s rights.” Despite her cautious optimism, Hulad says that, on the other hand, “the MeToo campaign is beginning to fade in Western countries, so it’s all the more fragile in a conservative, male-dominated society like Palestinian society in Israel.”
The testimonials posted by Assiwar, including two that involve public figures, and the suspension of Dr. Masoud Hamdan by the University of Haifa amid accusations of sexual harrassment in July, are exceptional instances. Many of the public responses included victim-blaming, but still, it filled the Palestinian feminist community with hope.
As Hassan puts it, “The significant change comes with transforming personal experiences of sexual harassment into a collective struggle against the harasser, which takes place in the public sphere with the assistance of outside entities.” According to Hassan, this is not necessarily how the MeToo movement played out on the global stage, but rather “there is now a process in which women, who used to tell one another, now tell the world.”
Assiwar’s campaign inspired a spike in attendance at demonstrations, but some critics accused the organization of harboring an outside agenda and politically persecuting public figures. The range of responses did not surprise the organizers, who see the differences as a product of a generational gap.
“One of the main reasons the MeToo movement failed in Israel’s Arab society is because of the social norms and tradition, which pose a significant obstacle for women who want to come forward,” says Rania Abu Alawa from Jerusalem, a 24-year-old M.A. student in public policy. “Women who complain receive no social support or backing. Arab women have used the MeToo hashtag, but it didn’t lead to significant public debate. Arab society is still not open to taking the conversation about sexual harassment to the next level.”
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Marie Jeris, 43, from Haifa is a student advisor in the health field and believes that the MeToo movement is too detached from the specific social context of Arab society. “Arab women face a double social obstacle – both as women and also in dealing with the harassment within a traditional, patriarchal society. The culture of honor silences women’s voices and keeps them from standing up and talking about the sexual harassment they experience.”
Rawan Basharat, 38, an educator and social activist from Jaffa, believes that MeToo doesn’t sufficiently address the complex realities faced by women from minority groups. “The movement does not include a broad range of women and certainly not Arab Palestinian women. Even within Arab society, it’s difficult to digest the fact that there are men who occupy key positions and also could be harassers.”
Jeris points to the priorities of public discourse in Arab society, which gives greater weight to the national struggle than the struggle against sexual harassment. “Any other struggle is seen as unimportant. The focus in Arab society on the national struggle only overshadows women’s attempts to break down the wall,” she says.
Attorney Shada Amer, who heads efforts to prevent sexual harassment in Arab society at the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, says the debate on sexual harassment in the Arab community has political aspects as well.
“Arab women are a minority in Israel, which has its implications for relations with law enforcement agencies and the courts. The political situation poses extra problems for an Arab woman,” she says.
“The law is worded in Hebrew and is unrelated to the cultural context in which a female Arab citizen lives and conducts her life. For example, a woman who has worked at a local council for many years works mainly with people she knows – acquaintances and neighbors as well as relatives. If she's sexually harassed, she'll find it very difficult to discuss this with her supervisor in the organization, especially when it comes to filing a formal complaint.”
Indeed, crisis centers tell of many women worried about being ostracized or fired – when their job opportunities are very limited to begin with.
According to Amar, the Arab and Jewish communities have different ideas about what constitutes sexual harassment. “For example, there are looks in the public sphere that aren't considered offensive in Jewish society but which Arab women would consider harassment," she says. “It’s a complex situation that's not expressly defined by law. Translating a harassment experience from Arabic into Hebrew limits the ways different women experience it.”
Hulad adds that Arab women often have trouble interpreting certain behaviors and situations as sexual harassment. “Women don’t always interpret a situation as harassment, so they turn to a crisis center for information and consultation,” she says.
According to Hassan, Israel must raise awareness within the law enforcement and justice systems about the particular obstacles and cultural differences that prevent Arab women from reporting sexual harassment. “Protecting the privacy and dignity of the complainant, for example, is a very important value in Arab society. The threats a woman may receive after filing a complaint are also more serious. This goes together with the cultural ‘translation’ of the situation and the harassment.”
The challenges the Arab women face vis-à-vis the authorities also often manifest as a deep distrust on the part of the police. According to the Association of Rape Crisis Centers, the police’s level of confidence in reports is even lower than in Jewish society. A survey focusing on personal security by the Central Bureau of Statistics in 2018 revealed that indeed, most victims of sexual harassment in Arab society do not turn to the police.