BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Raja*, 25, sits on a tall chair in her office in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. She takes out her phone and pulls up a picture of herself from a year ago. She says she doesn’t recognize the woman on the screen. “I was not dressed the way I am usually dressed. I did not look good. I stayed at home. I was not allowed to go to work,” she says. “I saw nobody.”
Raja was on her honeymoon when she began to realize her husband was not the man she thought he was. He pushed her at a restaurant, a precursor of what was to come.
Just a few weeks after they arrived home, he took her phone and money, and locked her in the house alone for two days. Then he beat her. Her face was so swollen she could barely open her eyes. She had rope marks on her wrists and fingernail scrapes across her cheeks and chin.
When she was admitted to hospital, Raja reported the abuse to the local authorities, but nothing happened. She returned home, terrified, and asked for a divorce. Weeks later, she was back in the emergency ward. This time her husband had doused her with pepper spray. “I stopped breathing,” Raja says. “He put me on the ground and was hitting me hard, saying ‘You want to get divorced? This is what you will get for getting divorced.’”
A passerby heard her screams and intervened. She arrived at the hospital half blind and screaming in pain.
The next day, representatives from a local women’s organization, TAM, visited Raja in the hospital. They recorded her story and asked to share it publicly. She was apprehensive.
TAM director Suheir Faraj believes there are two main reasons Raja and other Palestinian women are hesitant to talk about domestic violence: a culture of silence and an absence of legal support.
Faraj says Palestinian laws feed the culture of silence. If a couple gets divorced, for example, the court usually sends children to live with their father. Faraj says Palestinian women avoid legal systems to protect their families. “We are raised from childhood with the value that family is the most important thing,” Faraj says. “Women hold everything in to not break up the family.”
A recent U.N. report says one in three married Palestinian women experienced domestic violence in the past year. Only a fraction of them reported the violence to the police.
But Raja had nearly died, so she decided to talk. Her story, recorded in audio format, went viral last summer, and TAM coordinated interviews between Raja and local reporters. Faraj says Raja was the first Palestinian woman to speak openly about domestic violence. In the following weeks, three more women shared their own stories.
When Raja took her husband to court, allegations spread on social media that his legal team had produced fake medical reports to show that he did not actually hurt her. In response, dozens of people demonstrated outside the hospital to demand its staff tell the truth in court. Later, after Raja’s husband fled from the West Bank into Israel, a larger group of demonstrators gathered in front of the courthouse, saying law enforcement should have arrested him earlier.
“The impact of Raja’s case is that many women learned if they speak out, they will get support,” Faraj says.
But real change would require a shift in the law. Article 99 of the Palestinian Penal Code is used to mitigate punishments for crimes committed in the name of “honor.” If a man kills a woman because he thinks she’s impure, his punishment can be relatively mild.
In 2015, one year before Raja’s case, TAM came together with 24 local organizations in the West Bank to denounce what they saw as the Palestinian Authority’s failure to protect women. The coalition launched a campaign called Women’s Courts. As part of the campaign, TAM posted billboards at busy checkpoints of bruised and bloody women to show the impact of violence. Its staff drafted family protection legislation and produced manuals for doctors, social workers and police with information on interacting with women who have experienced violence. They also launched a petition to freeze Article 99, which has 12,000 signatures so far.
After months of court hearings, Raja felt demoralized and finally dropped the case against her husband in December 2016. She acquiesced to tribal mediation and was divorced three months later.
While the legal system might be slow to change, Soona Nassar, legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Female Affairs, says the authority is implementing strategies to better support victims of domestic violence. For example, she says, medical professionals throughout the West Bank have been trained to identify victims of abuse, and the government provides monthly stipends to survivors who are the sole providers of their families. “We are on the right path, but it’s taking time,” Nassar says. “It’s not easy to implement changes.”
In the meantime, advocates are counting on more women like Raja to push for change. “Any woman that speaks up, any woman that says no to violence, any woman that raises her voice to ask for her rights, is an important part of change,” says Faraj.
*Not her real name.