By Phyllis Chesler
July 8th, 2009 11:55 am
An Interview with Asma’a Al-Ghoul
Asma’a Al-Ghoul is a Palestinian secular feminist who has written poignant, heartbreaking pieces about honor killings and women’s rights in Gaza. Last month, Asma’a quit her job at Al Ayaam because her subject matter got her into “trouble” at work. She is also the journalist who was arrested over the weekend by Hamas’s “morality” police, ostensibly for “laughing immoderately” and for “immodest” clothing at the beach.
FILE - In this June 17, 2009 file photo, Hamas security officers patrol the beach in Gaza City. Hamas police in Gaza attempted to detain a woman after she was seen walking with a man on the beach, raising concerns that the conservative Islamic militant group is attempting to quietly enforce stricter Muslim law as it becomes more comfortable with ruling the coastal territory.
(AP Photo/Hatem Moussa, File)
Asma’a, the 27 year-old mother of a four year-old son, was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. She went into the water fully clothed. Apparently, that was not modest enough for them.
According to Asma’a, with whom I just spoke, the Palestinian police detained her and took her passport away. They also beat up four male friends: two right there on the beach, all four back in police custody. (One of these men was not sitting with them at the time but came to their aid when the police attacked them). Due to the intercession of a journalist-friend with whom the beach goers were visiting, the police let Asma’a go—but with a warning; they told her “they would be following her case.” The police also returned Asma’a’s passport to her. In addition, the police wanted to confiscate her laptop but luckily, they were unable to find it.
Since then, Asma’a received a written death threat. She has been staying home, and has, understandably, had trouble sleeping.
“But,” she tells me, “Both my friends and the media have been supporting me.” Indeed, Asma’a wrote to thank me for my recent piece which mentioned her plight.
“And” she points out, “yesterday at noon, the government, possibly for the first time ever, announced that they will be looking into this matter.”
Asma’a explained that many other such incidents have happened and been covered up. “People are afraid to speak out. But we must speak out in order to stop this. We fear that the government will banish those who speak.”
It has been said, that the Palestinian people once were the most educated people in the Arab world. Over the years, I have known and worked with both secular and religious Palestinian Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists who are in favor of modernity and women’s rights.
Nevertheless, increasingly, Hamas officials have been cracking down on women and on western ways. They have “urged shopkeepers to take down foreign advertisements which show the shape of women’s bodies and to hide lingerie which is currently displayed in windows. Officials search electronic shops to check if they are selling pornography on tiny flash drives.”
According to human rights activist, Isam Younis, “There’s an open, public program to preserve public morals in Gaza,..In reality that means trying to restrict freedoms. Hamas denies that any crackdown is under way. But they have failed to take any action against the groups that have been attacking hairdressers and internet cafes.
Under Hamas, women have been increasingly veiling: wearing hijab, wearing versions of the Iranian, Saudi, and Afghani abayas, chadors, burqas, etc.
Asma’a tells me: “Palestinian feminists have not called to support me. They are afraid. Some have told me that I am so ‘strong,’ (which means that they think) they are not.”
Asma’a has written a moving paper about honor killings and women’s rights in Gaza which she originally published in Arabic in Al-Ayaam. She has given me permission to edit and publish it here which I will do in two parts. In it, one of the things she describes is how Palestinian women themselves have internalized misogyny (something that is a global phenomenon and about which I’ve written in Women’s Inhumanity to Woman ). Women accept, even support, the punishment and murder of women.
According to Asma’a, at a recent workshop in Khan Yunis, many of the women gathered “were fully convinced that a woman who makes a mistake must be killed. A woman wearing a black folk dress consisting of two parts and only the forehead and one of the eyes can be seen through said: ‘She deserves to die…she should be a way to give a lesson to others.’ Neither she nor the other women believed that men should be punished for the same crime or for murdering a woman for the sake of ‘family honor.’”
“You know,” Asma’a said, “when my mother was my age she used to wear short skirts and no hijab. I do not wear hijab. But now, the women cover everything, even their faces. I am a secular Muslim. Theoretically, I believe that Islam and secular values can be compatible The government has attached themselves to the most extreme facets of Islam, not to Islam ( as it has been practiced in the past).” These morality police think they are god.”
As to the future—Asma’a tells me: “We don’t know. We are waiting.”
Asma’a is lucky. Her family supports her. This is crucial. She has friends. She has a college degree and a profession. The media is paying attention. The government, perhaps responding to such media attention, has gone through some pro forma damage control. Asma’a was not arrested. Still, for the first time, Asma’a is now thinking about leaving Gaza.
“Gaza needs liberal and secular people to defend liberty. For this reason, I have never wanted to leave. But after what happened, I am thinking of leaving.”
Asma’a wonders whether Hamas would become more flexible, more tolerant, if they were part of a real government. “Now, they are like a caged cat that has become a tiger.” I reminded her that the Islamists in Iran and Saudi Arabia also think they are gods and they have full state legitimacy–and they have largely caged and murdered women and dissidents. Their policies on women are reprehensible.
Asma’a immediately agreed. But she also said this: “There are no books in Gaza. If you don’t give people a chance to learn new things, how will they change?”
I was very moved by Asma’a’s article about honor killings in Gaza. She had—and still has—no idea that we share a common passion or that I’ve been writing about this subject for a long time. With Asma’a’s permission, I am publishing it here in an edited form. I will publish Part Two later this week.
The author would like to acknowledge the seamlessly efficient assistance of Elizabeth McAvoy and Colette McIntyre in the preparation of this piece.
Honor Killing is Permitted Socially and Legally
Gaza: Silence, Collusion and Shame for Female Victims, While Killers Enjoy the Sun and Freedom
By Asma’a Al-Ghoul
What did Iman A., a 18 year old girl, do to be murdered in such a brutal way? The question is raised by whoever hears of her– a girl coercively led to death. According to her cousin and friend “S.J”, Iman died last September after spraying anti-cockroach solution into her mouth for three consecutive days, imprisoned in her family’s bathroom by her father.
On the last day, she suffered from severe stomach pains. Her father relented and transferred her to the hospital. Unfortunately, she passed away while they were on their way. According to medics, the poison had spread to her liver and kidneys and finally stopped her heart.
Her mother feels that she died because of medical negligence, convinced that the strike of doctors at the time deprived her daughter of access to medial treatment. According to medics, Iman was brought to the hospital dead, but her mother, 42, claims that she “saw a line in the cardiogram, which indicated that her heart was beating!”
Iman was a beautiful girl who wore a headscarf and respected family traditions. Nevertheless, her father doubted her, imprisoned her and refused to allow her to proceed with her university study although she was happy that she completed her high school education.
At her funeral, held in her grandmother’s home in the Tal Al-Hawa district, her father said, crying: “This is Allah’s will… What happened is down to Allah’s will… Iman disappeared forever; it’s over.”
I heard him crying, but did not see the tears. However, it was said that he was psychologically traumatized after his daughter’s death. He did not know that his maltreatment and cruelty could and, eventually, would lead to Iman’s passing. “Iman did not want to die; she just wanted her father to be concerned for her,” her mother said. However, who knows the truth? Iman can never wake up to tell if she was killed or committed suicide.
According to human rights and women’s organizations, some 25 girls and women annually are killed or commit suicide, cases with mysterious circumstances that are never seriously investigated to unveil the circumstances of the death. Everyone remains silent, and human rights organizations only report briefly, coldly and neutrally on such crimes for the purpose of documentation. Everyone justifies such silence by claiming it is a family affair or “a crime to preserve family honor.”
Nevertheless, there is a question that remains unanswerable: If ending the life of an innocent girl like Iman is a family affair, when will it be a human affair? Our affair?
Over the past few years, we have heard stories of women that we keep in our hearts–secret–without being able to even whisper them to ourselves. This issue remains taboo, remains untouchable.
Najla’ A., 24, a divorced woman, was strangled by her extremist brother while sleeping. He hosted her at his home and waited until she slept to kill her. Her sister, “M.”, only noticed Najla was dead accidentally–she had got up to feed her baby. She said that Najla’ was living in Rafah refugee camp, working as an administrative assistant in a trade office in Gaza City. She used to be away from home for long hours, which ignited rumors about her behavior. Her brother, the “Sheikh” as the sister named him, could not tolerate it. The sister added that the police discovered what happened and arrested her brother. The family then initiated negotiations with the police–whispering into the ears of the chief of police followed by a gift:13 square meters of flagstones–and quickly the criminal was released without any feeling of guilt. Those who knew how much Najla’ needed this job to buy medicines for her sick mother remained still. Silent.
“M.” said that the most painful thing for her was that her brother strangled Najla when Najla was sleeping. He killed her like a coward. He betrayed her as she lay there sleeping, not even having the hospitatlity to let her know that she was going to be killed.
Unlike Najla’, Ahlam, who was barely 16, learned that she would die. “Ahlam used to sleep outside the house very often, and when I asked her, she told me that she was sleeping at an old woman’s house in Al-Shujaiya district. I knew that she was sleeping with young men,” said Her father, enjoying the sun in front of his house while Ahlam lay in her grave “disgraced”. A social worker, who followed up Ahlam’s case and asked to remain anonymous, explained that Ahlam complained about her family’s cruelty and expressed her fear of her father who was sexually harassing her. Ahlam’s father, who accepted to talk to us only when we told him that we were from a relief organization, coming to provide assistance for him, complained about being poor and needy. When he began his daughter’s story, he said, with pride and shame, “I told her that I would take her to eat shawirma. I took her in the car and we ate shawirma. I allowed her to listen to the song she liked. She did not doubt me, but when I drove the car away and asked her to get out, she hesitated. When she saw a knife in my hand, she said, ‘Why do you want to kill me, Dad?’” He was talking as if the story he was telling was not his own as other family members sat and listened. Even Ahlam’s own sister, a supposed “friend” of hers, adopted the same, unjust culture. Without emotion she said, “Ahlam did not listen to anyone… Ahlam was stubborn. She was sleeping in flats which she did not know anything about. She deserves it.” “Don’t you have sweet memories together?” I asked her. She answered, her eyes filled with confusion, “Yes, I love her. She was dressing my hair.” At that moment, Ahlam’s mother arrived home. When she heard that we were from a relief organization, she doubted us, refused to talk to us and, eventually, forced us to leave. We immediately left the area. Ahlam’s father benefited from passed legislation which eases the punishment in such cases–he was set free. Ahlam’s killer was free to enjoy his life, forgetting his aggrieved daughter’s question: “Why do you want to kill me?”
Iman, Ahlam and Najla’ are three girls who lost their lives because of their community’s heritage. No one cared about their fate or even whether they committed a crime that made them deserve such punishment.
In a workshop organized in Khan Yunis which focused on the role of the media in reporting so-called “family honor murders”, the discussion lost track as the speakers discovered that all the 60 women attending the workshop were fully convinced that a woman who makes a mistake must be killed. A woman wearing a black folk dress consisting of two parts with only the forehead and one eye revealed said, “She deserves to die… She should be a way to give a lesson to others.” When they were asked if the man should be punished as well, they were shockingly silent as if they suddenly remembered that there is another party in such cases. However, they said almost collectively, “Never mind, he remains a man.” The organizers of the workshop were extremely disappointed and a very deep gap emerged between the women’s rights activists and those in the workshop. A women’s rights activist stated that such thinking was frequent in poor and marginalized area where any talk about murders committed for “family honor” is not allowed since women themselves believe that such crimes are legitimate.
If you attended this workshop, you would realize why such an important documentary such as “Maria’s Cave” by Palestinian director Buthaina Khouri is banned from being shown in Gaza. The documentary was strongly criticized even in the West Bank, an area believed to be more open-minded, as it addresses the issue of murdering women for “honor” in bold and shocking language. So what is the difference between Gaza and the West Bank? Where is the West Bank’s “openess”? Attitudes are the same when the issue a woman’s. Under the umbrella of “honor,” killing is allowed; is even linked with resistance and patriotism as explained in Buthaina Khouri’s documentary, which I watched secretly and cautiously without making any attempt to recommend it to others.
When has talking about the very basic right of a human being–the right to life–become taboo, a topic one must be ashamed of? Why are we banned from revealing the names of these poor princesses mentioned in this article whom were killed? Is it out of fear of their families, the law, or the extremists–whatever their ideologies may be? All three threaten press freedoms, making the topic so taboo that addressing it means enagaging in immorality and publicizing depravity. Time is not appropriate to raise such issues.
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