Let 's talk about the latest episode in the documentary series "You Can't Ask That" for Channel 33, the Arabic channel of Kan public broadcasting. In that episode, titled "Murder in the Family," bereaved mothers and sisters tell their stories in great detail, and openly. Aren't they endangering themselves by doing that?
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A very Israeli question.
[Jewish] Israeli society lives in constant existential anxiety. Everything is marked out as a danger to you. The water you drink. Earthquakes. The enemies. At any given moment, the seeds of danger are being sown. Arab women aren't afraid to talk: They're afraid because of the shame. What people will say. How they will be judged. Whether something could hurt their family. I would ask the woman opposite me if she was endangering herself.
And do you know that she does?
I don't know. I know the women came forward and shared their stories. They wanted to talk, and I listened to them and I asked questions.
I found it hard to watch the episode – I imagine producing it was also hard.
I went home every day after hearing horror stories. Bloodshed. Slit throats. Fires. I tried not to bring it home with me, but I just say I succeeded. I would fall asleep and then wake up at 3 A.M.
A familiar hour for people with anxiety.
Terrible anxiety, but not only that. Questions came up to which I had received an answer, and I started digging into them. I would sit opposite a bereaved mother or sister, and she would tell me her story. I was very gentle because I wanted to cause pain, but there were questions going through my mind – such as, "Did you know she would be murdered?" – that I didn't ask.
You used softer formulations, questions like, "Did you feel anything special on that day?"
Yes. A delicate way to try to ask a question like that. When I spoke to them before the shoot, I asked more explicitly: Did you know? And they knew. They told me. In most cases they know the murderer's identity. But when asked that question on camera – they claim they know.
They know. I know they know. They say it was the husband who was never caught and never tried. Or the neighbor who was never caught and never tried. And they weren't asked to say that; I want to put them in that position. Also complicated because no legal measures were taken vis-a-vis the murderer. I would wake up at 3 A.M., and start re-editing the screenplay in my head, try to make sense of it, and then find the holes.
They would know, but they were silent. They would know, but after she had run away, they would still bring her home. They would know he was threatening her, but they would tell her to stay with him. One mother whose daughter was murdered by her own son: He is the murderer, and his grandmother is capable of saying a word about him.
And not sitting opposite her and just asking. Can not ask.
A whole theater of emotions. Empathy. Pity. Anger towards her. Anger towards the police. At the male "establishment," at the whole male identity, actually. Three in the morning and everything is a muddle inside. Not able to figure out what i feel, what i really think.
Not only was the murderer not caught – he is living among them. In some cases you may be a member of the family. They see him all the time.
Exactly. It could also be someone she sees every day. She's living with this terrible grief over her sister, and the murderer is living the good life. He remarried. He has a new wife. Young. You could see him living his life happily. You know, in contrast to the other episodes, this time before filming, I went to people's homes. To the villages. From north to south. I made a point of talking to women by myself; even of seeing where the body was washed.
What do you mean?
According to Muslim tradition, the body is washed in the home [before burial].
Who does it? Family members?
There is someone out there who is in charge, but family members also take part. I lost my sister at 22 – it was a case of medical negligence. After she died, it was really important for me to be part of that process. On the one hand, there is nothing more pagan; on the other hand, it seems so right. Of course, not every home has a big enough shower where a coffin or a body can be placed. Done in the living room, in the hall – wherever there is room. In every home I visited, I asked where the murdered woman's body was washed and went to see the spot.
Because that is also where women are part of their loved ones. They do not attend the funeral, they are prohibited from being in the cemetery on the day of burial. So that is the occasion of parting. The women wanted a lot to talk about, about that intimacy, which is usually not spoken about. I also believe that my sister had died while I held her head in my hand, in order to wash the back of her neck, and a lock of her hair remained on my hand. I felt shivers all over. I realized she was dead. That this is what death looks like.
Did you tell the women you interviewed your story?
Yes. They understood that I, too, had lost a sister. There was a sort of shared fate. In most of the homes I saw, one of the living room walls had been turned into a memorial wall for the victim – huge photographs of her covering the wall, and always the last photo taken of her. I asked my mother or sister how they had parted from her. Before answering, it was important for them to know that I was a Muslim. To make sure I would understand their answer. And then they described to me the moment at which the nightmare became reality, the moment they realized that the rumor that their sister or daughter had been murdered was no longer a rumor but the truth.
They told me about how they fell apart when the body was brought home, about the sense of alienation they felt when the house was filled with strangers, about their bewilderment, about how they found their place in the home. About thinking of the murdered women's children. And in the middle of all that, they would remember to tell me how beautiful she was. One of them has the opportunity to say goodbye to her sister. She had seen her the day before she was murdered. The sister was pregnant, and she had bought her a baby crib. The next day, her husband simply burned her alive. The woman would even get to wash her sister's body. She parted from a plastic bag full of ashes.
'The living dead'
The stories are different from one another. Did you identify patterns in them?
The stories are not similar, but most of them knew that something bad was going on. That the woman was being subjected to violence.
And is the knowledge of a murder-to-come inherent in the knowledge of violence? Is it the chronicle of a death foretold?
Not necessarily. Violence is very widespread. Not every battered wife is murdered. Not every woman who is badly treated will be murdered.
But the apprehension is there. None of the interviewees told you it was like a bolt out of the blue. The feeling was that they saw it coming.
When an Arab woman is murdered – and it happens a lot, as we all know – the incident is barely even referred to. Arab society does not take responsibility for these killers, even at the level of their representation in the media. Arab media websites report that "a woman was murdered." Without a name. Without the circumstances. Without the victim's world. Like something that happened in a vacuum. A woman who experiences violence at home when she hears this news, relates to this information. She knows what went on, what the story is.
So, the murdered woman is only a kind of headline – something that is very far from the woman who reads the report, even if she herself is undergoing violence or knows about a friend or neighbor who is experiencing violence. She knows how to associate herself with the event. She's making the connection and saying: That's what happened to her, and that means I'm in danger, too. In general, when people are labeled an "honor killing," people play the old tune of "she deserved it."
Would her close circle also feel she deserved it?
Yes. From zero age oppressed by your mother, who also underwent powerful oppression. You experience it after every glance you supposedly give a man. When oppressed, you become an oppressor too. You will oppress your daughters, your girlfriends.
The victim becomes an assailant – a familiar mechanism. In most cases the framing of the murder as an "honor killing" is completely wrong. Usually not the motive, a cover for other motives, such as, the murder was perpetrated for financial, class-related or family reasons. Issues of child custody. Division of inheritance and estate matters. Everything but the thing itself.
Absolutely. People who hear the term “honor killing” tend to interpret it in the most superficial way – as though the woman slept with someone and thus soiled the family's honor.
She used her body to hurt the family.
But not that. Not even necessarily something physical. Or sexual. A woman who wants her man subverts very deep codes within Arab society. The concept of “honor” is far broader than that. If you want to live with your husband, you are harming the family's honor. If you tell your parents that you are unwilling to return home after a divorce, you have harmed the family's honor. To say what you want – in keeping with the ABCs of feminism – is to harm the family's honor. Important Arab society: devoid of substance and judgmental. Is a society that is in transition regarding women. Either we get through it successfully and become a society that can be a role model for others, or we commit suicide.
Arab society is still dependent on the image of the omnipotent man. He no longer exists, but women want to preserve that image. Out of fear. They are afraid that otherwise, society will fall apart completely. So the women continue somehow to uphold that lie.
To preserve the status quo.
Arab women are trying to preserve the status quo. But the world is changing. Women in Arab society today can access the social networks. They watch series and telenovelas from all over the world, they see cheating and licentiousness, as well as love and freedom. They want independence. They want to live a free life. Of course, not really an option. So what actually happens is that women who want to achieve independence still need a man. They have the option of going to Tel Aviv at age 20 with a backpack and renting an apartment. The man is the ticket to independence.
So she marries, and in most cases is disappointed. She discovers that this man, who talks about freedom and a career and studies, and promises all sorts of things, expects to come home every day to a clean house and a hot lunch. He looks after the children. He'll let her do what she wants. She is supposed to have her own opinions, but at home she lives by codes that are 1,000 years old. The woman works and she also bears the burden of the household. What if she wants a divorce? That is the true tragedy of Arab society. A woman who wants a divorce will take her children and try to build an independent life. She has to go home to her parents. None of us wants to go back to her parents' home.
Certainly not under those conditions. She returns home as her parents' caregiver.
She looks after her elderly parents, she is in charge of the house, she cleans, she cooks, she babysits for all the children in the clan – she becomes everyone's maid. A woman who has already discovered her sexuality returns to her parents' house bearing the divorce record. Now she needs everyone's approval for every little thing, and of course she's required to suppress any desires or urges she might have. She is the living dead.
The change will start on the day parents tell their daughter that they support her divorce, that they see her as an independent person and support her, even if not financially. In the meantime, that just isn't happening. A saying in Arabic: “Why did you choose the bitter? Because women have something more bitter than that. ”Ask women who are undergoing domestic violence and they will tell you: Why should I get a divorce? I want to go back to my parents' house.
The violence in my house is preferable.
Certainly. At least I'm in my house, and only one man rules me, not a whole clan. One of the things that recur in the stories of the murderers. The woman experiences violence, she understands the seriousness of her situation, but she wants to go back to her parents, so she says nothing. She understands that if she goes on saying nothing, she will pay with her life.
Staining the family honor
One of the victims in your show episode, a girl of 13, is murdered because of her [female] cousin posted a photo of the two of them on Instagram. Social networks are still platforms where family honor can be stained.
That girl had the picture taken, and her female cousin posted the photo. A male cousin saw the picture and was horrified. He kept telling her brother that she was a whore and that everyone could see it. The girl was under protection at a shelter for women, but she still managed to get her and her murder. But networks can also bring these things to the surface. Recently a Palestinian girl was murdered in Bethlehem. She went out with her fiancé and posted a photo of the two of them together. A. [female] cousin incited the men in the family against her, telling them her cousin needed modest and very worthy. Whe was savagely beaten and hospitalized.
Her family claimed they had to keep beating her because she had been possessed by a demon, and the way to expel a demon is to keep hitting her until she leaves. She was simply murdered in the hospital – in a public space that was supposed to protect her! One of her sisters was resourceful enough to record her screaming. The recording is making the rounds on all social networks and WhatsApp.
The family tried to claim that she committed suicide, but the people who saw her post gave up; the recording is all over the place, not letting the family whitewash the murder. And in Palestinian Arab society, which is even more conservative [than Israeli Palestinian].
Suddenly, other voices are being heard. The concept of “honor” is beginning to be deconstructed. Sharaf karaf – honor is disgusting. Thanks to the social networks that are now on the table and a discussion is underway about its substance. Men's voices are also being heard this time, demanding that the Palestinian government investigate this specific murder. The feeling is that people no longer want to be silent.
Not reflected in this particular episode in your series.
No. But for the first time women are coming forward and telling the story of their loved ones. Need something we'll see before.
Do you think what you told, the stories the women told you, are true?
It is their truth.
It is their truth and I respect it. Look, the audience is just stupid. A woman can tell her story even as her eyes say something completely different.
Where is it that they are not telling the truth, or are they telling a truth of that moment?
When defending the murderer. They do that even when the camera is not turned on.
How do they defend him?
They say she drove him crazy. That she respected him. I stand to hear it.
Is that what they really feel?
Yes. Depending on what they think. That she provoked him. That she went a step too far. Maybe the step her mother dreamed of taking in her time and dare.
So within this terrible pain, they are also being judgmental.
Very much so. I met one mother, both of whose daughters were murdered. In one single night her son slit the throats of both of his sisters. She woke up to see her two daughters lying there with their throats slit. The house is a murder scene. And she talks only about one of the girls, only about one of the victims. She even mentioned the other one. Why? Because the other was more brazen. She challenged her [mother]. She answered back. She would give in.
So she deserved what she said.
Yes, there is a feeling like that. There is this resonance in the mother who, deep inside herself, even after she has paid the dearest price of all, is unable to tell herself the truth.
And then you understand the scale of loneliness. Both of the mother and the victim.
Utter abandonment. You even imagine something like that. Your mother is not there for you. Even when dead.
Excuse the cheap psychology, but could this be your story, too? You are also a woman who draws fire, which is broken by convention. You left home, you chose an "unacceptable" occupation, you married a Jew.
It was going to be my story because I grew up in a home where my mother questioned my father all the time. Even though my parents have a good relationship, I still got freedom. I still got a dose of crazy courage, which I was born with, and which was cultivated. My mother may regret it a little today, but she cultivated it; she tries to stop me, she let me. We might not agree about everything, but she just doesn't stop me. And my father, either. On the contrary. If my mother tried to stop me, my father would let me loose. In most homes, the image of the man is that of the holy of holies. But that wasn't the case in my home.
It is also worth recalling that an “honor killing” is usually a planned murder. Not a crime of passion.
A planned murder. Absolutely. There was one woman whose story I wanted to include in the episode, but in the end it just worked out. Her daughter was murdered by her partner. I was stunned by how well-planned the murder was. He was a butcher. On the day of the murder he left the house and arranged to meet with a friend. He prepared a cover story. He tried to tell his friend to his house, and when he declined, he persuaded him to come. He planned to pin the murder on his friend. He sent the mother a message from her daughter's phone. Every last detail was planned. Another recurring story is the use of hired killers. The husband commits the murder and he goes to hang himself at a gas station. When the police come and want to know where he was, there is visual documentation showing exactly where he was.
You've been dealing with women's murder for more than a decade – enough time to develop a perspective.
You know, I don't think it will go on much longer. I think this episode of the series will also accelerate the process.
What do you expect will happen?
Many of the murdered women are their husbands' second wives. They married a man knowing that he has a history of violence. I think we should see that happening less. They will understand that there is nothing for them to do. That he is not really a lifesaver, but a danger. Women today are daring to escape. They are detecting the threat and daring to run. Daring to pay the social price. There is also greater willingness and greater openness to tell the story. It used to be hard to talk about. Even girls' education, which they like to believe, is changing. I am very optimistic after this series.
I thought Arab society was just stuck behind. That the women had given up. But I discovered that just the opposite. I'm discovering secularity, which is something I had really hoped for. A kind of new, inner secularity of women who understand that neither the sheikh nor the qadi nor God can decide that their whole life is meant to serve the man. They no longer believe men. They no longer believe all that nonsense of religion. When they said “inshallah” [God willing] – I could spot the wink. Something is moving. It will take time before it emerges into the open, but moving.