Palestinian Women – and Men – Get Their #MeToo Moment

Arab women are not just going public about their experiences of sexual harassment, but they’re going against their friends, colleagues and political allies

Women protesting violence against women in Haifa, Israel, November 2019.
rami shllush

Three months ago, feminist activists protested in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Beirut under the slogan "Free homeland, free women." The protests were sparked by the murder of 21 year-old Isra'a Ghreib by her family members in the West Bank, but it was in Haifa where the protests took a surprising turn. 

A well-known human rights activist came to the demonstration, wishing to express his support, but was pushed out by female protesters who accused him of previous harassment. Shortly after, the local online sphere exploded with various #MeToo testimonies. The activist vehemently denied the allegations, claiming that it was an attempted revenge by an employee he had fired. Posts also appeared in his support.

In November, the Arab feminist organization Assiwar launched a 16-day campaign, which began on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. On each day of the campaign, the group’s Facebook page published a testimony of sexual harassment or exploitation. 

“The purpose was to bring the issue to consciousness,” said Lamia Naamenh, CEO of Assiwar. The campaign opened with a testimony of a woman about the human rights activist in Haifa, and ended with a post about a well-known Arab public figure. This made waves, especially because complainants were no longer going anonymous.

Naamneh noted that it was clear for the organization that "anyone who comes out with her name and the name of the man who hurt her" was welcomed to do so, "but there is a process to ascertain that they want this and that the story is true.” 

Knesset Member Aida Touma-Sliman from the Joint List says that the taboo on airing claims of sexual harassment began to break as far back as 1992 and that “the exposure of the victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault was always problematic because the victims themselves paid a heavy price.” 

Writer Khulud Khamis echoed this claim, saying that "Palestinian women have been trying to break the conspiracy of silence about violence for many years now. In recent years, more and more women are sharing testimony of sexual violence on social media, mostly anonymously, but it’s certainly possible to see a major change. The younger generation of women is a strong generation, with great awareness of their right to personal security.”

A Palestinian woman carrying a sign reading "An end to occupation, an end to violence" in a rally combating violence against women, Gaza Strip, December 9, 2019.
AFP

Most of the campaign's stories have been published anonymously. One was by a woman whom Assiwar accompanied during the trial against her uncle, who raped her for 12 years and was eventually sentenced to 13 years in prison. "In her testimony, she said how much this [conviction] empowered her,” Naameneh said. 

Another testimony came from a 36-year-old man who was assaulted when he was a child by an older neighbor.  Another from a woman who said a 92-year-old man she worked for tried to sexually exploit her. “He thought I was easy prey because I'm divorced. I was shocked and I ran to the neighbors to call his granddaughter. To my shock, she said I was making it up for the money,” she wrote. 

Attorney Abir Baker, Al-Sinar’s legal adviser, said that until now, the organization has helped women by giving legal advice and going to the police if necessary. Through the #MeToo campaign, however, they sought to bring awareness not by testimony in court but in the woman’s own words, "without intermediaries." 

Going public

The protests in September were initially encouragement, Baker said, because they managed “to unify the Palestinians and parts of the Arab world.” But the sympathy disappeared when women began to point at public figures. According to Baker, women’s organizations themselves began to doubt the testimonies brought forth in the movement, because suddenly the struggle was directed against friends, colleagues and political allies.

Israeli Arab women protesting against murders in Arab society, September 2019.
Rami Shllush

“People who wouldn't question the testimony of a female survivor of the Nakba describing her expulsion 71 years later were questioning a woman's motivation for telling the story of her assault 20 years later … Apparently it’s easier for us to glorify resistance against institutionalized violence, even if such resistance is done in unusual and sometimes illegal ways,” she said.

Prof. Honaida Ghanim, a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, agrees that sexual harassment and violence must be fought, especially by prominent public figures, but objects to public shaming. Ghanim criticized the campaign for lacking oversight, saying it "turned into a field court martial where every suspect becomes a convict whose sentence is publicly handed down," without giving them the right to defense. 

According to Ghanim, even if the report is true, this method encourages a dangerous phenomenon in which accounts are settled on social media, in a superficial and populist way.  Ghanim believes that feminist organizations must act very cautiously and study the implications of going public, not only for the accused men but also for their families.

Comentator Salim Salameh argues in turn that going public is an important step, because "The main goal is to create a general atmosphere that will encourage women to come out and tell their stories … We know that this is the tip of the iceberg and there are many more cases of Arab officials and public figures who have hurt women."

How dare they

It remains to be seen whether the Arab MeToo revolution will have the same implications as the global movement. According to Samah Salaymeh, the founder of the NGO Arab Women in the Center, there is still a problematic standard in which people wonder "what was she wearing when she got harassed in the office."

Salaymeh and her colleagues recently scored a victory when they got the principal of an East Jerusalem school suspended for sexually harassing teachers. “What was terrific was that the parents’ committee supported the teachers. The principal was popular, but they believed the teachers,” she said.

Lawmaker Touma-Sliman says #MeToo is a revolution of strong women, but warns that not all women have the strength to complain. "It’s important to put harassment on the agenda… The question is whether women will pay a heavy price for this.”

Attorney Baker asserts that the campaign wished to convey the message that "women live in the shadow of a sexist and hurtful environment even in places of values that we thought were safe. Violence against women is not just against housewives, the poor and the uneducated. There is sexual violence in the university, the political party and the NGO.” 

According to Baker, “Another message, no less important, is that men should remember that the silence of victims will always be temporary. The moment will come when they will have to deal with what they did, even if they think no woman would dare share, and no man would want to believe them.”

Palestinian women attend a marathon calling for an end to violence against women, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip December 1, 2019.
IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS