Double Victim: Palestinian Women Victims of Sexual Violence (November 2011)

 

“Sexual assault is a traumatic event that has psychological and behavioral effects on the victim. For most victims, the assault represents the loss of life, love, and security, and causes family and social suffering. Generally, the women also suffer from the guilty finger pointed at them by their family and by society. Along with all of the above, Palestinian women suffer additional loss when they come in contact with the, criminal justice system, particularly with the police.” These comments were made by Saaida Maqary-Rinawi, a social worker and director of the Treatment of Violence in the Family Unit of Kafr Reina’s welfare office at a workshop titled Double Victim: Palestinian Women Victims of Sexual Violence, held in commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The workshop is also part of Mada al-Carmel’s Gender Studies Seminar.

Himmat Zu’bi, coordinator of the Gender Studies Program, opened the meeting. In her welcoming comments to the participants and the audience, she said, “Although more than a decade has passed since the declaration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and despite the extensive feminist activity in Palestinian society in Israel aimed at increasing awareness of sexual violence and proposing modes of intervention and treatment of the victims, the statistic gathered by specialist Palestinian nonprofit organizations indicate the dangers inherent in the phenomenon, particularly with respect to the victims’ lack of trust of the police. According to a-Siwar — the Arab Feminist Movement in Support of Victims of Sexual Abuse, only a small percentage of the victims who turn to the organization’s hotline file complaints with the police. This fact raises much queries/doubts and many questions. The objective of today’s meeting is to present new research that will aid in providing a response to this doubts and to some of these questions.”

In a preface to her talk (based on the thesis she wrote as a student in the School of Social Work at the Hebrew University), Saaida Maqary-Rinawi, a social worker and director of the Treatment of Violence in the Family Unit of Kafr Reina’s welfare office, spoke of the workshop’s importance. She pointed out that research findings show that Palestinian women victims of sexual violence face many difficulties in their contact with the criminal-justice system in general, and particularly with the police. Maqary-Rinawi notes, “Sexual assault is a traumatic event that has psychological and behavioral effects on the victim. For most victims, the assault represents the loss of life, love, and security, and causes family and social suffering. Generally, the women also suffer from the guilty finger pointed at them by their family and by society. Along with all of the above, Palestinian women suffer additional loss when they come in contact with the law-enforcement system, particularly with the police.”

Maqary-Rinawi’s research findings are consistent with research studies elsewhere that examine the experience of minority-group victims of sexual violence with the police. Police’s conduct with the victims include: treating the violence as a routine matter; minimizing the importance of the case; delegitimizing the victims’ claims; lacking empathy; ;women victims of sexual violence also experience language difficulties; and discrimination. In this context, Maqary-Rinawi pointed out that the studies reveal the “intervention of Israel’s legal system in questions of sexual violence in Palestinian society is based on preconceived notions and is not appropriate for the basket of services that the system makes available to the victims. The above failures are in addition to the lack of tools that measure the risks facing the victims, who are left without protection. Whereas research in other countries describe the meeting of victims of sexual violence as similar to repeated rape, my research indicates that the experiences of Palestinian women victims of sexual violence with the legal system place the victims in a ‘cycle of rape,’ which further intensifies their suffering. Thus, the police join with the many other entities that attempt to silence the victim.”

The second person to speak was Anan Abu Saleh, a social worker and regional director of the Female Youth and Children in Distress program in villages in the area of Sha’ur. Her talk, titled “Palestinian Female Youths, Sexual Violence, and Assistance Centers for Female Youth,” was based on her doctoral research as a student in the School of Social Work at the Hebrew University. Her dissertation focused on analyzing the connection between the political, social, and cultural backgrounds of Palestinian women who are victims of sexual violence, and selecting the mode of professional treatment of the victims. In her opening comments, Abu Saleh said, “The position of Palestinian women and their being part of an indigenous minority put them in four cycles of oppression: the first cycle is a product of their being women; the second is created because they live in a masculine/patriarchal society; the third results from their being members of a minority national group in an occupying and violent state; and the fourth arises from their being a victim of sexual violence.” She added: “These cycles join together and intensify the victims’ suffering. From the societal point of view, the victims (and sometimes also their families) suffer from stigma. From a political perspective, their suffering increases due to the victim’s alienation from the institution, and because of the discrimination in the modes of treatment and in the services given to them by the various institutions.” As for the professionals, Abu Saleh contends that “the complexity with which the victims cope also affects the professionals themselves. They face victims who do not trust them because they work in Israeli institutions; on the other hand, they have real difficulties due to the lack of resources for treatment.”

Haneen Elias, a social worker and lecturer at the Safed Academic College and a doctoral student in the School of Social Work at the Hebrew University (with a specific research focus on sexual violence), noted that the importance of the two talks lies in their focus on a phenomenon that few researchers have dealt with, although the phenomenon is not rare. The two researchers present the voice of the victims, she said. Elias also noted that “when dealing with the subject of sexual violence, it is important to distinguish between different types of sexual violence: sexual harassment; physical harassment; assault; and rape. The distinction is made not to grade the level of troubles and suffering they cause the victims, but to delve into them and come to understand them in order to design an intervention and treatment program that is appropriate for each type of violence. To cope with the phenomenon and to diminish its occurrence, it is important to investigate all its components, including the perpetrators of these crimes. This is necessary to enable us to design suitable programs to raise awareness and provide effective treatment.”

The speakers and the other participants in the workshop then discussed the dilemmas professionals face in treating women victims of sexual violence in Palestinian society. The principle dilemma that was discussed involved the question of whether the victims should use the legal track — in particular, filing a complaint with the police— in light of the findings of the two researchers.