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Men Kill, and Women Get Locked Up for It

Leora Bilsky
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A protest in Lod demanding action and policy changes over the murder of women, last week.
A protest in Lod demanding action and policy changes over the murder of women, last week.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Leora Bilsky

The murder of Rabab Abu Siam raised an important question: Why does the state seek to protect battered women, victims of domestic violence, by means of “protective detention”? It essentially means putting them into a type of prison.

The question has come up before in relation to the concept of shelters for battered women, and it still has no answer. Why are the women the ones who must be kept far away from their lives and communities and jobs, rather than the men who are attacking them? Why must these women basically stop their whole lives in order to receive protection? How can a state be failing in the basic role that justifies its existence as a state – protecting life? And doesn’t the fact that the main method used to protect battered women is putting them in a shelter show that they continue to be abandoned by the law – like a modern Homo sacer?

The justification given in the past for the idea of a women's shelter was based on consent. Thus, it was possible to fundamentally differentiate between incarceration/detention (for a criminal) and shelter (for a victim). The idea of a “city of refuge,” which was originally meant to provide protection for a killer (who killed accidentally), has undergone a transformation, so that now the killers roam free while battered and threatened women are routinely sent to shelters.

Recently, the choice by Palestinian women to refuse to enter a shelter has flipped the script. Without the women’s consent, the state felt compelled to exercise its power of coercion. The women were summoned to court and issued injunctions obligating them to either enter a shelter or be taken into police detention against their will. The basic distinction between shelter and detention was shaken, and essentially collapsed.

When Rabab Abu Siam wanted to see her children and was murdered in her parents’ home in front of her children, we heard police officials tossing the blame back onto the victim: Why did she leave her hiding place? Why didn’t she inform the police? What they were really saying was: How could she have acted like a free and autonomous person? And more brilliant ideas were immediately proposed, such as an electronic cuff to monitor a woman’s whereabouts.

And so, Palestinian women’s refusal to go along with the system brought the question to the forefront again, and it gets right to the heart of the matter: Why is the entire system constructed backwards? Why aren’t the people who pose a violent threat the ones who are in protective (or preventative) detention? Why should women be obligated to enter a shelter, and be abandoned by the law if they refuse? In a situation of uncertainty, when it is not known whether the man will act on his threat, and if the woman will be killed, why is infringement on the woman’s freedom the immediate default option? Why is exercising the option of preventive detention against abusive men seen as threatening the foundations of the rule of law, while the actual detention of women is not considered problematic?

The Israeli dilemma echoes another dilemma with which the United States Supreme Court has recently grappled. At the same time that the court decided to revoke a woman’s constitutional right to abortion, seeing its ruling as causing no infringement of a woman’s choices or autonomy, it reaffirmed the constitutional right to bear automatic weapons (exploited by men to go on mass shooting sprees) as an essential part of protecting basic freedoms.

Despite all the differences between these dilemmas, there is a key similarity when it comes to how the rule of law is conceived of – as primarily concerning the protection of men’s freedom. Women’s demands that their freedom be protected are perceived as threatening the basis of the rule of law.

With every new report about the murder of a woman who was subjected to domestic violence, who was forsaken by and not afforded the protection of the law, the need for a complete change of approach grows more acute. Palestinian women who refuse to enter a “shelter” are making it plain for all to see that the emperor has no clothes. For too long, it has been easy for the legal system to hide its ineffectiveness behind shelters for battered women. Now, the violence of the law has been exposed, and with it, the open secret that battered women and women’s rights organizations have known for many years: The law is forsaking them in the name of lofty ideas about the rule of law.

Leora Bilsky is a professor at the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law and director of the Minerva Center for Human Rights.

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