Let’s talk about the latest episode in the documentary series “You Can’t Ask That” you made for Channel 33, the Arabic channel of Kan public broadcasting. In that episode, titled “Murder in the Family,” bereaved mothers and sisters tell their stories in great detail, and openly. Aren’t they endangering themselves by doing that?
A very Israeli question.
[Jewish] Israeli society lives in constant existential anxiety. Everything is marked out as a danger for you. The water you drink. Earthquakes. The enemies. At any given moment, seeds of danger are being sown. Arab women aren’t afraid to talk because of danger: They are afraid because of the shame. What people will say. How they will be judged. Whether something could hurt their family. I didn’t ask the woman opposite me if she was endangering herself.
And do you know that she isn’t?
I don’t know. I do know that the women came forward and shared their stories. They wanted to talk, and I listened to them and I asked questions.
I found it hard to watch the episode – I imagine that producing it was also hard.
I went home every day after hearing horror stories. Bloodshed. Slit throats. Fires. I tried not to bring it home with me, but I can’t say I succeeded. I would fall asleep and then wake up at 3 A.M.
A familiar hour for people with anxiety.
Terrible anxiety, but not only that. Questions came up to which I hadn’t received an answer, and I started to dig into them. I would sit opposite a bereaved mother or sister, and she would tell me her story. I was very gentle, because I didn’t want to cause pain, but there were questions going through my mind – such as, “Did you know she would be murdered?” – that I couldn’t ask.
You used softer formulations, questions like, “Did you feel anything special on that day?”
Yes. That’s a delicate way to try to ask a question like that. When I spoke to them before the shoot, I asked more explicitly: Did you know? And they knew. They told me. In most cases they know the murderer’s identity. But when asked that question on camera – they claimed they didn’t know.
They know. I know they know. They couldn’t say it was the husband, who was never caught and never tried. Or the neighbor, who was never caught and never tried. And they weren’t asked to say that; I didn’t want to put them in that position. It’s also complicated because no legal measures were taken vis-a-vis the murderer. I would wake up at 3 A.M., and begin re-editing the screenplay in my head, try to make sense of it, and then I’d find the holes.
They would know, but they were silent. They would know, but after she had run away, they would still bring her home. They would know he was threatening her, but they would tell her to stay with him. There’s one mother whose daughter was murdered by her own son: He is the murderer, and the grandmother isn’t capable of saying a word about him.
And you’re sitting opposite her and don’t ask. Can’t ask.
It’s a whole theater of emotions. Empathy. Pity. Anger toward her. Anger toward the police. At the male “establishment,” at the whole male identity, actually. Three in the morning and everything is a muddle inside. I’m not able to figure out what I feel, what I really think.
Because not only was the murderer not caught – he is living among them. In some cases he’s a member of the family. They see him all the time.
Exactly. It could also be someone she sees every day. She’s living with this terrible grief over her sister, and the murderer is living the good life. He remarried. He has a new wife. Young. You could see him living his life happily. You know, in contrast to the other episodes, this time before filming, I went to people’s homes. To the villages. From north to south. I made a point of talking to the women by myself; even of seeing where the body was washed.
What do you mean?
According to Muslim tradition, the body is washed in the home [before burial].
Who does it? Family members?
There is someone from the outside who is in charge, but family members also take part. I lost my sister at 22 – it was a case of medical negligence. After she died, it was really important for me to be part of that process. On the one hand, there is nothing more pagan; on the other hand, it seems so right. Of course, not every home has a big enough shower where a coffin or a body can be placed. It’s done in the living room, in the hall – wherever there is room. In every home I visited, I asked where the murdered woman’s body was washed and went to see the spot.
Because that is also where the women part from their loved ones. They can’t attend the funeral, they are prohibited from being in the cemetery on the day of the burial. So that is the occasion of parting. The women wanted very much to talk about it, about that intimacy, which is usually not spoken about. I also didn’t believe that my sister had died until I held her head in my hand, in order to wash the back of her neck, and a lock of her hair remained on my hand. I felt shivers all over. I realized that she was dead. That this is what death looks like.
Did you tell the women you interviewed your story?
Yes. They understood that I, too, had lost a sister. There was a sort of shared fate. In most of the homes I saw that one of the living room walls had been turned into a memorial wall for the victim – huge photographs of her covering the wall, and always the last photo taken of her. I asked the mother or the sister how they had parted from her. Before answering, it was important for them to know that I was a Muslim. To make sure that I would understand their answer. And then they described to me the moment at which the nightmare became reality, the moment that they understood that the rumor that their sister or daughter had been murdered was no longer a rumor but the truth.
They told me about how they fell apart when the body was brought home, about the sense of alienation they felt when the house filled up with strangers, about their bewilderment, about how they couldn’t find their place in the home. About thinking of the murdered women’s children. And in the middle of all that, they would remember to tell me how beautiful she was. One of them didn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye to her sister. She had seen her the day before she was murdered. The sister was pregnant, and she had bought her a baby crib. The next day, her husband simply burned her alive. The woman didn’t even get to wash her sister’s body. She parted from a plastic bag full of ashes.
‘The living dead’
The stories are different from one another. Did you identify patterns in them?
The stories are not similar, but most of them knew that something bad was going on. That the woman was being subjected to violence.
And is the knowledge of a murder-to-come inherent in knowledge of the violence? Is it the chronicle of a death foretold?
Not necessarily. Violence is very widespread. Not every battered wife is murdered. Not every woman who is badly treated will be murdered.
But the apprehension is there. None of the interviewees told you that it was like a bolt from the blue. The feeling was that they saw it coming.
When an Arab woman is murdered – and it happens a lot, as we all know – the incident is barely even referred to. Arab society does not take responsibility for these murders, not even at the level of representing them in the media. Arab media websites report that “a woman was murdered.” Without a name. Without the circumstances. Without the victim’s world. Like something that happened in a vacuum. A woman who experiences violence at home, when she hears this news, can’t relate to this information. She doesn’t know what went on, what the story is.
So, the murdered woman is only a kind of headline – something that is very remote from the woman who reads the report, even if she herself is undergoing violence or knows about a friend or a neighbor who is experiencing violence. She doesn’t know how to associate herself with the event. She can’t make the connection and say: That is what happened to her, and this means that I am in danger, too. In general, when it’s labeled an “honor killing,” people play the old tune of “she deserved it.”
Would her close circle also feel she deserved it?
Yes. From the age of zero you’re oppressed by your mother, who also underwent powerful oppression. You experience it after every glance you supposedly give a man. When you’re oppressed, you become an oppressor too. You will oppress your daughters, your girlfriends.
The victim becomes an assailant – it’s a familiar mechanism. In most cases the framing of the murder as an “honor killing” is totally wrong. That’s usually not the motive, it’s a cover for other motives, such as, the murder was perpetrated for financial, class-related or family reasons. Issues of child custody. Division of inheritance and estate matters. Everything but the thing itself.
Absolutely. People who hear the term “honor killing” tend to interpret it in the most superficial way – as though the woman slept with someone and thus soiled the family’s honor.
She used her body to hurt the family.
But it’s not that. It’s not even necessarily something physical. Or sexual. A woman who doesn’t want her man subverts very deep codes within Arab society. The concept of “honor” is far broader than that. If you don’t want to live with your husband, you are harming the family’s honor. If you tell your parents that you are unwilling to return home after a divorce, you have harmed the family’s honor. To say what you want – in keeping with the ABCs of feminism – is to harm the family’s honor. That’s Arab society: devoid of substance and judgmental. It’s a society that is in transition regarding women. Either we get through it successfully and become a society that can be a model for others, or we commit suicide.
Arab society is still dependent on the image of the omnipotent man. He no longer exists, but women want to preserve that image. Out of fear. They’re afraid that otherwise, society will fall apart completely. So the women continue somehow to uphold that lie.
To preserve the status quo.
Arab women are trying to preserve the status quo. But the world is changing. Women in Arab society can today access the social networks. They watch series and telenovelas from all over the world, they see cheating and licentiousness, and also love and freedom. They want independence. They want to live a free life. Of course, that’s not really an option. So what actually happens is that women who want to achieve independence still need a man. They don’t have the option of going to Tel Aviv at age 20 with a backpack and renting an apartment. The man is the ticket to independence.
So she marries, and in most cases is disappointed. She discovers that this man, who talked about freedom and a career and studies, and promised all kinds of things, expects to come home every day to a clean house and a hot lunch. He won’t look after the children. He won’t let her do what she wants. She is supposedly have her own opinions, but at home she lives by codes that are 1,000 years old. The woman works and she also bears the burden of the household. What will happen if she wants a divorce? That is the true tragedy of Arab society. A woman who wants a divorce can’t take her children and try to build an independent life. She has to go home to her parents. None of us wants to go back to her parents’ home.
Certainly not under those conditions. She returns home as her parents’ caregiver.
She looks after elderly parents, she is in charge of the house, she cleans, she cooks, she babysits for all the children in the clan – she becomes everyone’s maid. A woman who has already discovered her sexuality returns to her parents’ house bearing the label of the divorcee. Now she needs everyone’s approval for every little thing, and of course she’s required to suppress any desires or urges she might have. She is the living dead.
The change will begin on the day the parents tell their daughter that they support her divorce, that they see her as an independent person and support her, even if not financially. In the meantime, that’s just not happening. There’s a saying in Arabic: “Why did you choose the bitter? Because there’s something more bitter than that.” Ask women who are undergoing domestic violence and they will tell you: Why should I get a divorce? I don’t want to go back to my parents’ house.
The violence in my house is preferable.
Certainly. At least I am in my house, and only one man rules me, not a whole clan. That’s one of the things that recur in the stories of the murders. The woman experiences violence, she understands the seriousness of her situation, but she doesn’t want to go back to her parents, so she says nothing. She doesn’t understand that if she goes on saying nothing, she will pay with her life.
Staining the family honor
One of the victims in the episode of your show, a girl of 13, is murdered because her [female] cousin posted a photo of the two of them on Instagram. Social networks are still platforms where the family’s honor can be stained.
That girl had the picture taken, and her female cousin posted the photo. A male cousin saw the picture and was horrified. He kept telling her brother that she was a whore and that everyone could see it. The girl was under protection, at a shelter for women, but he still managed to get to her and murder her. But the networks can also bring these things to the surface. Recently a Palestinian girl was murdered in Bethlehem. She went out with her fiancé and posted a photo of the two of them together. A [female] cousin incited the men in the family against her, telling them her cousin wasn’t modest and wasn’t worthy. Whe was savagely beaten and hospitalized.
Her family claimed they had to keep beating her, because she had been possessed by a demon, and the way to expel a demon is to keep hitting until it leaves. She was simply murdered in the hospital – in a public space that was supposed to protect her! One of her sisters was resourceful enough to record her screaming. The recording is making the rounds on all the social networks and WhatsApp.
The family tried to claim that she committed suicide, but the people who saw the post didn’t give up; the recording is all over the place, they’re not letting the family whitewash the murder. And that’s in Palestinian Arab society, which is even more conservative [than Israeli Palestinian].
Suddenly, other voices are being heard. The concept of “honor” is starting to be deconstructed. Sharaf karaf – honor is disgusting. Thanks to the social networks, that is now on the table and a discussion is getting underway about its substance. Men’s voices are also being heard this time, demanding that the Palestinian government investigate this specific murder. The feeling is that people no longer want to be silent.
That’s not reflected in this particular episode in your series.
No. But for the first time women are coming forward and telling the story of their loved ones. That’s something we didn’t see before.
Do you think that what you were told, the stories the women told you, are true?
It is their truth.
It is their truth and I respect it. Look, the audience isn’t stupid. A woman can tell her story even as her eyes say something completely different.
Where is it that they are not telling the truth, or are telling a truth of that moment?
When defending the murderer. They do that even when the camera is not turned on.
How do they defend him?
They say she drove him crazy. That she didn’t respect him. I can’t stand to hear it.
Is that what they really feel?
Yes. It’s what they think. That she provoked him. That she went a step too far. Maybe the step that her mother dreamed of taking in her time and didn’t dare.
So within this terrible pain, they are also being judgmental.
Very much so. I met one mother, both of whose daughters were murdered. In a single night her son slit the throats of both of his sisters. She woke up to see her two daughters lying there with their throats slit. The house is a murder scene. And she talks only about one of the girls, only about one of the victims. She doesn’t even mention the other one. Why? Because the other was more brazen. She challenged her [mother]. She answered back. She didn’t give in.
So she deserved what she got.
Yes, there is a feeling like that. There is this resonance in the mother who, deep inside herself, even after she paid the dearest price of all, is not capable of telling herself the truth.
And then you understand the scale of the loneliness. Both of the mother and the victim.
Utter abandonment. You can’t even imagine something like that. Your mother is not there for you. Even when you’re dead.
Excuse the cheap psychology, but could this be your story, too? You’re also a woman who draws fire, who has broken with convention. You left home, you chose an “unacceptable” occupation, you married a Jew.
It couldn’t be my story, because I grew up in a home where my mother questioned my father all the time. Even though my parents didn’t have a good relationship, I still got freedom. I still got a dose of crazy courage, which I was born with, and which was cultivated. My mother may regret it a little today, but she cultivated it; she didn’t try to stop me, she let me. We might not agree about everything, but she didn’t stop me. And my father didn’t, either. On the contrary. If my mother tried to stop me, my father would let me loose. In most homes, the image of the man is that he’s the holy of holies. But that was not the case in my home.
It’s also worth recalling that an “honor killing” is usually a planned murder. It’s not a crime of passion.
A planned murder. Absolutely. There was one woman whose story I wanted to include in the episode, but in the end it didn’t work out. Her daughter was murdered by her partner. I was stunned by how well-planned the murder was. He was a butcher. On the day of the murder he left the house and arranged to meet with a friend. He prepared a cover story. He tried to lure the friend to his house, and when he declined, he persuaded him to come. He planned to pin the murder on the friend. He sent the mother a message from her daughter’s phone. Every last detail was planned. Another recurring story is the use of hired killers. The husband commissions the murder and he himself goes to hang out at a gas station. When the police come and want to know where he was, there is visual documentation showing exactly where he was.
You’ve been dealing with the murder of women for more than a decade – enough time to have developed a perspective.
You know, I don’t think it will go on much longer. I think that this episode of the series will also accelerate the process.
What do you expect will happen?
Many of the murdered women are their husbands’ second wives. They married a man knowing that he has a history of violence. I think we’ll see that happening less. They will understand that there’s nothing for them there. That he is not really a lifesaver, but a danger. Women today are daring more to escape. They are detecting the threat and daring to run. Daring to pay the social price. There is also greater willingness and greater openness to tell the story. It used to be harder to talk about. Even girls’ education, I’d like to believe, is changing. I am very optimistic after this series.
I thought Arab society was just stuck behind. That the women had given up. But I discovered that it’s just the opposite. I am discovering secularity, which is something I had really hoped for. A kind of new, inner secularity of women, who understand that neither the sheikh nor the qadi nor God can decide that their whole life is meant to be serving the man. They no longer believe men. They no longer believe all that nonsense of the religion. When they said “inshallah” [God willing] – I could spot the wink. Something is moving. It will take time before it emerges into the open, but it’s moving.