October 22, 1998
One Woman’s Crusade
Aida Suleiman combats the routine abuse suffered by hundreds of her sisters in Israel's Arab minority community
Getting to see Aida Suleiman is like playing chess with a temperamental computer. The first time I tried, she stood me up at the last minute because she had to deal with an emergency at a home for battered wives.
The 34-year-old Arab feminist is perpetually on the move: lobbying the parliamentary women's rights committee; coaching Druze peasant women to stand up for themselves; lecturing Arab high school students on sexual equality; campaigning for minority rights.
Finally, we agreed to meet outside Mary's Well, a Christian holy site being refurbished for the millennium in Nazareth, hometown to Joseph, Mary, Jesus and 56,000 Israeli Arab citizens. From there, we drove up a steep lane to her office in an old stone house overlooking the gray-green Galilean hills.
Suleiman, a buxom, restless ex-journalist with deep-set eyes and sunglasses perched on her dark, wayward hair, is busy 12 hours a day combating the routine abuse suffered by hundreds of her sisters in Israel's Arab minority community. She worries that she is neglecting her own daughters, aged 10 and 7, but hopes they will understand.
Our interview is constantly interrupted by calls on her desk and mobile phones. She deals with them briskly, switching seamlessly from Arabic to Hebrew to English and back, often in the same sentence.
For the past four years, the Haifa University graduate has been director of Women Against Violence, a self-help coalition she founded with six other Arab feminists. "Women kept complaining about violence," she says. "All kinds of violence -- husbands beating wives, parents beating daughters."
Increasingly, Suleiman is focusing on "family-honor" crimes. Last year, nine Israeli Arab women were recorded killed by fathers or brothers for "disgracing" their families. Activists believe many more such murders were never reported. So far this year, five family-honor victims are confirmed to have died.
"Men do not disgrace the family honor, whatever they do," Suleiman says. "They can be thieves; they can be murderers; they can be drug addicts. The family will always support them. But if it is a woman, she is disgracing the family honor. It is the men who decide."
A 22-year-old woman was killed by her brother because she complained to the police that her father was beating his younger children. The father was sent to prison. The brother cut her throat for bringing disgrace on them all.
A woman can't always tell when she is offending and when she isn't. Catch-22 rules. Any behavior by a woman that is not approved by the men of the family disgraces them -- from refusing to marry the man the parents choose, all the way to having sexual relations outside marriage.
The state tends to tolerate the killings as a private affair of more interest to anthropologists than the law. The courts prefer to convict for manslaughter rather than murder. The killer gets 10 years and is released after seven.
Now the women are fighting back. An offshoot of Women Against Violence, Al Badil (Arabic for "alternative"), has set up two safe houses, one for battered women and children, another for young single women in distress. Since 1993, the first has sheltered 400 mothers and 550 children; the second, 485 women, aged 15 to 25. A women's hot line, offering legal and psychological counseling 24 hours a day, has answered 333 calls in the past year alone.
Al Badil mobilizes local government social workers. The shelters take care of the women; the social workers talk to the families. As well as a haven, the shelters help the women come to terms with their traumas and chart a future.
"We don't decide for her," Suleiman says. "We make her aware of the options, the negative and positive sides of each solution."
On the other side of the barricade, some men get more violent when the social workers come calling. Some begin to think again. Most of the single women go back to their families. So far, none has been killed. Of the married women, 80 percent return to their husbands. Some are abused even more than before.
Suleiman is haunted by the case last year of a 35-year-old mother of three, who stayed in a shelter for 12 months and divorced her husband. All the reports from the social workers suggested that she was no longer in danger. The woman was eager to restart her life.
"We advised her to go back gradually," Suleiman says. "She visited her family first for a couple of hours, then a bit longer each time. Eventually, she came back and said she was sure she could go back without danger. She rented a house near her family. Two weeks later, she was killed." Her ex-husband was questioned but has not been charged.
"She was a mature woman," Suleiman says. "All the same, you start to blame yourself. She was a woman we knew for a whole year. She became part of us. You start to check. Did I do everything I could? Could we have saved her? Then you realize you have done your best. You give them the maximum, but you can't guarantee."
Walking around Nazareth, Suleiman is teased by Arab men, who accuse her of wearing the trousers in her middle-class household. Her husband, Jerys, is a building engineer. "Even if I do wear trousers," she says, "he doesn't wear skirts." But male chauvinist hostility has never gone further.
"I haven't been attacked," she says. "I haven't been threatened, or even abused for what I am doing. We are all women who are involved in our society, in politics, in education, in minority rights, in the peace struggle. We are respected for what we have done in other fields."
Despite her political identification with the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, Suleiman also acknowledges the impact of living in the Jewish state.
"Our experience," she says, "is different from that of other Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world. We cannot deny that Israeli laws on issues of domestic violence are some of the most advanced in the world.
"That influences our lives, although these laws were not originally meant for us. The Jewish legislators were not worried about us, but we are benefiting from the laws, and we are using them."