17 January 2016

Palestinian women breaking the silence surrounding sexual violence - #تسكتيش

Tuskuteesh #تسكتيش is a new initiative born out of the dire need to break the silence about sexual violence within the Palestinian society in Israel, inviting Arab women to share their experiences and personal testimonies of sexual violence. It’s a Facebook page that I initiated together with my friend, Reem Jaramneh. The thought behind it was that women don’t share their personal stories because most of the sexual violence happens within the family – the attacker being a male family member, a cousin, an uncle, or a close family friend. The fact that there is no safe space for women to share these experiences has been on my mind for a long time, and I considered doing something about it: as a writer, I wanted to bring these women’s voices out in the form of some kind of a narrative, but didn’t know how to go about it. When we came up with the idea of a Facebook page, it seemed the perfect platform: to let the women tell their stories, unmediated, in their own words and language, and yet in a safe environment. The idea came following an event organized by Kayan, a feminist organization working for the advancement and empowerment of Palestinian women citizens of Israel, at the beginning of December, as part of a 16 days of activism campaign dedicated to the eradication of violence against women.

At this event, held in Haifa, Palestinian women participants discussed various types of violence committed against women, such as economic, social, cultural, sexual violence, and the gender-based murder of women. The atmosphere was filled with difficult feelings and anger, especially in light of the large number of Palestinian women being murdered each year, when in most cases the murderers are not caught.

After the event, Reem and I spent hours talking and discussing the issue of sexual violence and the oppressive silence surrounding it. Talking about personal experiences of sexual violence is perceived taboo in our society, and isn’t discussed even among close friends or in intimate settings, unlike my experience among Jewish women, where many of them do share their experience with friends.

We opened the page at 2 a.m. on December 7, and decided to name the page Tuskuteesh, which in Arabic means don’t remain silent. It’s a call to action for women to break the silence and speak up. The following morning we were surprised to find that we had received a message of support from the head of one of the local feminist organizations, who even proposed cooperation and any support that we might need. This surprised me, and only then did I realize how revolutionary this page is, and just how strong the silence in our society is. Because of the difficulty in sharing stories of sexual violence in words, we offer women to share their stories also in forms of art: photography, painting, poetry, or other types of art.
Within two weeks, the page grew to more than 3,000 participants, mostly Palestinian women, but also some men. So far, about month into the project, we received some 20 stories of sexual violence – among them harassment over the internet, harassment in the street, and also some difficult stories of sexual abuse by close family members and close family friends. What surprised us that we began to receive stories from other countries in the Arab world – from Syria and Morocco, and we received messages of support from Egypt as well. Our initiative succeeded, in a very short period of time, to break not only the silence, but also to break other barriers: barriers of occupation and geographical barriers. A Palestinian woman from Ramallah has designed the Tuskuteesh logo and cover photo, as well as stickers and bookmarks, and some stories are coming from the West Bank. I’m personally in touch with several women from the West Bank and together we are thinking of how we can promote the page there as well and how we can cooperate further. This achievement of cooperation with Palestinian women activists from the West Bank is no less important in its significance, due to the multiple barriers – both physical and otherwise – that the state of Israel is imposing on us.
I’d like to note that Tuskuteesh is a completely independent project, led by volunteers. This is one of the reasons I think it has been able to reach so many people – the fact that it comes from the field and is a grassroots initiative. At this stage it is important for us to remain independent and not work under any organization or body. We want the freedom to act, and we are the grassroots voices from the field.
Most of the responses we’ve been receiving have been positive and supportive so far. Women are expressing their support both on the page as well as in private messages to me and my partner Reem. For example, one woman sent me a message telling me that she had wanted to share her story in the Hebrew-language page called “One in One,” which also publishes stories of sexual violence, but she didn’t feel comfortable for various reasons, and is happy now that there is a page in Arabic. Another woman posted to our page that this is the first page in Arabic that provides this important platform for women. A teacher from the Galilee sent me a private message of support, but she apologized that she couldn’t share the page on her own timeline, or even like the page. This is one example of how strong the silence barrier is. Many women are even afraid of commenting or liking the page, for various reasons.

Alongside the support, there has been a bit of a backlash, but not on a large scale. The backlash comes in private messages to me and to my partner. I, for example, received a message from a man, asking me why we are attacking the Arab men, and that sexual violence occurs in the West as well. My response to him was that yes, I am well aware that sexual violence is not restricted to the Palestinian society or the Arab world, but that it occurs in every society around the world. However, me being a Palestinian, my responsibility is first and foremost to the women of my own society. We are doing this not because we want to merely attack men, but in order to lead change that would ultimately create a safe world for us and for our daughters.

I’d also like to note the partnership with Jewish feminist friends. As already mentioned, there is a Hebrew page called “One in One,” but it doesn’t meet the unique needs of Palestinian women, nor is it accessible to us in terms of language. When we first started the page, I turned to all my contacts, among them of course the women of my feminist community Isha L’Isha, to assist in disseminating the page among their Palestinian friends. This is only one example of how Palestinian-Jewish partnership can work. Sometimes working together for a cause, while at other times supporting from the side.

Last but not least, I must say that within the last year or two, we’ve witnessed an increase in violence against Palestinian women, including murder. However, we are also seeing an increased movement of grassroots women who are taking to the streets and crying out against these atrocious crimes, and are engaged in awareness-raising activities. Tuskuteesh, not remaining silent, speaking out – is only the first stage towards a safe future for us and for our daughters.

This article originally appeared in German in the Kultur section of Die Welt on 17 January 2016.

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