Palestinian women walk the tightrope of toxic ‘shame’ and occupation

The murder of a young Palestinian woman at the hands of her family highlights what many Palestinian women have been saying all along: The struggle against patriarchy and gender-based violence cannot be separated from the fight against Israel’s occupation.

By Nooran Alhamdan

Palestinian women, joined by Israeli and international solidarity activsits, march to the Qalandiya checkpoint during a protest against the Israeli occupation on International Women’s Day, West Bank, March 8, 2012. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)
Palestinian women, joined by Israeli and international solidarity activsits, march to the Qalandiya checkpoint during a protest against the Israeli occupation on International Women’s Day, West Bank, March 8, 2012. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Israa Ghrayeb, a young Palestinian woman from the Bethlehem area, lived her life like any young woman: she went to work, spent time with friends, had hobbies. A true fashionista, Israa took great care in matching her scarves with her name brand t-shirts and sneakers. She ran an Instagram page attracting thousands of followers, in which she featured makeup tutorials and styling advice.

In August, Israa was reportedly killed by her own family members for posting a photo of herself with her fiancé on that same Instagram page. Her father, brother and brother-in-law beat her into a spinal fracture with their bare hands. After treating her fatal injuries without questioning their cause, the hospital released her. Days later, she was brought to the hospital again — dead.

The details of Israa’s case are still unraveling, but perhaps it is the normalcy of Israa’s life that makes the horror of her death resonate with so many women across the globe. That very normalcy is also what shatters our assumption that patriarchal oppression manifests only in certain ways, challenging our perception of what we consider the “ultimately oppressed” woman.

Israa’s murder is proving to be a crossroads for women’s rights in Palestine. When news of her killing broke first broke, with a video circulating on social media of what is believed to be Israa screaming while her family members continue beating her at the hospital, thousands of Palestinian women showed an outpouring of solidarity. Weeks after her murder, on Thursday, Feminist activists in Haifa, Yafa, Ramallah, Gaza and Beirut are taking to the streets to protest against gender-based violence and for women’s rights.

Across Palestine and all over social media, women are calling for justice for Israa, demanding that law enforcement take protecting women more seriously. Many are drawing a clear connection between Israa’s murder and the patriarchal violence they themselves experience, proclaiming that they refuse to be held hostage in the crosshairs of “honor” and the Israeli occupation.

This solidarity inspired me to ask Palestinian women about their experiences with so-called honor. What I found was a resounding expression of resilience in the face of stifling misogyny disguised as culture, tradition and religion. All the women responded on social media and asked to keep their names anonymous for fear of their safety.

“How do you navigate life as a Palestinian woman?” I asked.

“I was held at gunpoint. Twice. My own father said he would shoot me,” one woman tells me. A practicing Muslim, she had always abided by all the rules imposed by society, until she fell in love with a man who was not Arab. Her family refused to grant the young man an opportunity to even speak with them. When the man requested her hand in marriage, her entire family emotionally manipulated her through isolation, and routinely threatened to hurt or kill her. She eventually developed a stress-related blood clot and long-term PTSD.

Another woman shares this: “My father says I will give him a heart attack. Sometimes abuse doesn’t need to be physical. That’s how patriarchy traps you, in so many ways…manipulation has different forms, like guilt and shame.” Like being forced to wear a veil and abide by cultural norms for fear of “what will people say?” Like having every aspect of her life micromanaged by her family. She is constantly gas lit by being told to be grateful for the freedoms her family already grants her, like having a car and being allowed to work.

A third woman attests, “My father was cracking jokes, saying how he didn’t actually mean he would kill me. The lawyer then said to me, ‘your parents let you dress like that?! How can you complain?’ I was wearing a sleeveless top and jeans.”

Another woman, a Palestinian with American citizenship, says she was accused by members of her family of secretly having a boyfriend at 16. After enduring days of abuse following the accusation, she pleaded for help from social workers and a lawyer. When that didn’t work, she sought help from the U.S. embassy in the country where she resided. The embassy sent her back to her family because she lacked a residency permit and for being a minor.

This woman told me of the stigma she later had to face from her family and hometown community in Palestine for being divorced. She had to overcome pressure and emotional blackmail for being a single mother, and for deciding to unveil. Her story, however, also gave me great hope.

At 45, she tells me that she is now “an independent woman,” with her own house, a secured retirement fund, able to keep her children safe and provide them with exactly the kind of education she had hoped for them. Her 17-year-old daughter will be attending college in Germany next year. “I won my family back, gained the respect of society. I recently completed my master’s degree and I don’t believe I’m done yet,” she adds.

Israeli security forces guard as Jewish Israelis tour the Palestinian side of the old city market in the West Bank city of Hebron, June 15, 2019. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Israeli security forces guard as Jewish Israelis tour the Palestinian side of the old city market in the West Bank city of Hebron, June 15, 2019. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

These statements are just a drop in the bucket. There are thousands of women with stories that all come back to one word: honor.

Honor, when understood in the framework of patriarchy and sexism, is the notion that a woman is a representation of how successfully the men in her family perform their masculinity. An honorable woman is one whose behavior can be “well controlled” by her family. By contrast, a dishonorable woman is one whose “immoral” behavior is attributed to the “loose” or lenient treatment of her male family members, challenging societal norms.

Honor exists on a spectrum. For some, honor can be measured by how much of a woman’s hair and skin are covered. For others, it could be as “simple” as never engaging in pre-marital sex. Some men take the concept of honor so far as to view the mere utterance of the names of their mothers, sisters, wives or other female family members as inappropriate and disrespectful. Honor culture instills a toxic shame in women for being themselves, for falling in love, for how they dress, for the personal choices they make — for simply existing as women.

Despite the desperation of their stories, the women I spoke to are proud of their womanhood. They reject their exploitation by the Palestinian community’s brand of patriarchy, but also by those who seek to, as anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod writes, “save” them from “brown men.”

It’s a challenging tightrope to walk, involving multifaceted battles. On one front, Palestinian women are struggling against white savior feminists who claim tragedies like Israa’s to make patriarchy seem like an inherently Arab, Muslim, or brown phenomenon, as opposed to the universal plague that it is. They must also deal with the inevitable hijacking of their struggle by colonial feminists, who justify the oppression and occupation of Palestinians by using the fight against sexism as “proof” that an entire people do not deserve liberation and dignity.

On the other, internal front, Palestinian women are struggling against patriarchy and sexism. They must insist that their campaign is not separate from or subsequent to attaining our rights and freedom as a people. “This is about us and how we raise our children and how we police one another’s bodies and how we reproduce patriarchy in our all interactions and the ways we define “shame” and “terbai” (upbringing) and what it means to preserve our cultural traditions in the name of national anti-colonialism,” writes Palestinian human rights attorney Noura Erakat.

Hopefully come Sept. 26, this message will ring even louder.

Nooran Alhamdan is a Palestinian-American student of economics and political science at the University of New Hampshire.