By Maria Hanif Al-Qassim*
Dear Arab man. I often write about women: Their complex realities, their daily struggles and their inspiring triumphs. In the context of the Arab world, I also write about the discrimination they face every day, in the hope that my humble words can find a receptive ear and trigger some sort of positive change.
I write to a broad audience, hoping that my words will somehow find their way to you — maybe even resonate with you. But I have hesitated countless times to write to you openly. I have paused before addressing some critical issues directly with you, my Arab male counterpart. Today, however, is the day I gather all my courage to do so. Nov. 25 is designated by the UN General Assembly as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Not long ago, we witnessed the brutal murder of Palestinian Israa Ghareeb, who is believed to have died at the hands of her own male family members: A so-called honor killing. Israa’s pain-ridden screams and pleas have echoed across the Middle East since the news of her demise broke. How can the role and identity of a male relative so quickly change from protector to murderer when it comes to the very person they are meant to care for? Many of us Arab women are wondering.
The reactions across the Arab world ranged from outrage to disbelief to deep sadness and heartbreak over the loss of an innocent 21-year-old. I felt a glimmer of hope as I read through, listened to, and watched the reactions. It was comforting to see both men and women refusing to let this so-called honor killing pass without a fight. For once, it felt like times had changed.
A fight against centuries-old tradition and ideology is no easy feat, however — that much was strikingly evident from the countless men across the Arab world who shamelessly declared the act not only excusable, but honorable.
That made me realize we have a long way to go, and that it is time for us to have an open dialogue if we are to hope for real and lasting change in our societies.
Today, let us not try to pretend that real issues do not exist. Let us not pretend that the majority of women in this region do not suffer a range of abuses, or that women are not still at risk of losing their lives to crimes disgustingly and audaciously justified in the guise of protecting a family’s honor.
This letter is about staring crude reality in the face, admitting to our shortcomings and taking responsibility for the violence against women in the Arab world.
Abuse targeting women does exist in our region, and it comes in many forms: Physical, emotional, sexual, psychological, economic and verbal. Many people in our region downplay the extent to which abuse is prevalent around us, dismiss some forms of abuse, or justify it in certain instances as a necessity to discipline women or preserve family honor.
The fact of the matter is that more than a third of Arab women have experienced some form of abuse. Considering that six out of every 10 women do not seek protection from abuse means that the real prevalence may even be higher than this figure. Underreporting of spousal violence is common in the Arab world, which is attributed to many factors, such as shame, fear of retaliation, lack of awareness about legal rights, fear of the legal system, and financial insecurity.
A national survey in Morocco estimated the prevalence of physical violence against women to be at 62 percent. Even in Tunisia — often considered the most progressive country in the Middle East in terms of gender parity policies and legislations — the state reports that more than half of Tunisian women have experienced some form of domestic abuse.
In the Arab world, as many as four in every 10 female homicide victims are killed by intimate partners. In Palestine, Israa was the 19th case of honor killing in 2019, according to nongovernmental agencies. Palestinian police data for 2018 indicate that honor killings accounted for 12 percent of total homicide cases. In neighboring Jordan, a country known for having one of the highest rates of honor crimes in the world, Human Rights Watch estimates that 15 to 20 women and girls are burned, beaten or stabbed to death every year by family members; again, in the name of honor.
These figures are horrific, not least because they take into account only those who have in some way voiced what they have been through, or have had someone do it on their behalf. Can you imagine how drastically the figures would change if all abused women in the Arab world spoke up, or if states were more transparent about honor killings within their borders?
This brings us to the next point: How abuse is justified in our societies, particularly within families. In Egypt, the prevalence of domestic violence has not changed in over two decades, with almost a third of married women experiencing a form of physical violence and abuse from their husbands. Often, domestic violence occurs because an abuser believes that violent acts against members of their family are acceptable, and at times even justified.
Too many men still view women through radically and dangerously distorted lenses. The way the rape of women is used as a weapon of war is especially telling. Women are still viewed as objects that can be used and discarded, traded and abused to cause insult to other men. Is it any wonder then that women are being abused at such alarming rates in this region?
It is imperative that we ask ourselves how a woman and a man, both creatures of the same species, still stand at opposite ends on the spectrum of fairness and justice. Violence toward a wife, a sister or a daughter is still violence. Men do not own the women in their family and, as such, nothing warrants abusing them, let alone taking their lives.
It is high time that we questioned everything we have learned about gender norms, as agonizing as the process may be. That is the only way forward for our frail societies, and the only way we will prevent tragic, untimely and unjust deaths like Israa’s — after all, she was guilty of nothing more than being born a woman.
- Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif