"Men can't speak in our names"

The founder of one of the only shelters for battered women in the Arab world talks about her battle to make female voices heard in the Middle East.

Published October 22, 2003 7:24PM (EDT)

Over the past two years, increased U.S. involvement in Middle East politics has also meant a burst of American concern over social issues -- in particular, the condition of women -- in Arab and Muslim countries. When the Bush administration declared war first on the Taliban and then Saddam Hussein, the government's warnings about weapons of mass destruction and terrorism were often followed by condemnations about the lack of women's rights. Laura Bush made the cause of Afghan women her own, justifying military action against the Taliban by saying, "The world is helping Afghan women return to the lives that they once knew."

Aida Touma Suliman is on the front lines of this struggle. Eleven years ago, Suliman -- a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship -- and six other women founded the organization Women Against Violence in her hometown of Nazareth. Suliman, a 39-year-old married mother of two daughters, was raised Christian, but now considers herself atheist. Her shoulder-length curly black hair hangs down to her shoulders, and she dresses in stylish clothes that would look natural on the streets of Paris, New York or London.

Breaking a huge taboo in Arab society, Suliman's group was one of the first to bring the issue of domestic violence into the public eye. In 1993, the organization founded the first -- and still one of the only -- shelters for battered women in the Arab world. The group also founded a halfway house for women trying to rebuild their lives after leaving abusive husbands. To seek out Arab women who are victims of physical and emotional abuse, Women Against Violence operates a telephone hotline; Suliman says it receives an average of 300 calls a year from women all over Israel -- a large number for a society that has traditionally been loath to admit that these problems even exist. Suliman's group has also targeted one of the most infamous practices in Arab society: "honor killings" -- in which the male relations of a woman suspected of sexual impropriety kill her to defend the family name. Women Against Violence is part of a worldwide coalition of groups working to end these killings in Middle Eastern and African nations; an average of eight take place in Israel annually.

Suliman spent the last two weeks in New York and Washington fundraising, meeting with private individuals and international organizations such as the New Israel Fund, a Jewish group that helps finance progressive causes in Israel. A graduate of Haifa University, Suliman also participated in a conference on international women's rights sponsored by Johns Hopkins University. Salon caught up with her between meetings to talk about the state of feminism in the Arab and Muslim world -- and whether Western military and cultural intervention has indeed had a positive impact on women's lives in the Middle East.

What motivated you to organize Women Against Violence 11 years ago?

We were feminists -- psychologists, social workers, lawyers. We faced a lot of situations where we were either witnessing violence, or our clients were victims of violence. And what shocked us was that everyone accepted this. It happened, it was normal, and nobody wanted to speak about it. That drove us from the beginning. We decided we had to act.

You describe yourself as a feminist. Is that a rarity in the Middle East?

There are two levels of feminists. The first level consists of women who are aware of their situation. They are aware of the repression that is practiced against them, and they know it shouldn't be like this. That is very common in the Middle East. Every woman who has faced this [discrimination] knows it, even without relying on international human rights conventions. The second level is women who take that awareness and become active to change the situation. That is not very common in our society.

When I talk to Arab men, a lot of them say things like, "Our wives like their lives the way they are. Feminism is something you're bringing from America and trying to impose on us."

What you are describing is exactly the situation -- that the men think they know better what is good for us. They can't speak in our names, they can't tell what we think and how we should feel. That doesn't mean that all women think the way I think. A lot of women, even if they don't like the rules that society has made for them, consciously were raised to believe that this is their role, that they need to be good wives and mothers to be wonderful women.

Our society has constructed very clear gender roles that we have to live up to. Any woman who tries to break that role has a high price to pay. So it's not easy for women to stand up for themselves. A lot of women don't know how much power they have inside them. They've been told all their lives that they can't do [things on their own], that they need a man in their lives.

What's it been like for you, as someone who's been challenging these notions very publicly?

Of course, there are people who hate my guts. They think that I'm bringing Western values in, that this is not our culture. They think I am influenced by "Western lies" and so on. And there are supportive people as well. Of course, the beginning was very hard for all of us. We were talking about something that nobody wanted to talk about; nobody wanted to admit that [domestic violence] was a problem in our society. But little by little, we gained power for the women who are asking for our support through our hotline and our shelter.

When we started, the suppliers who were working with us thought that women couldn't run a business. Little by little they started to understand that this was not the deal. This is part of the change -- the fact that men are coming to the office to sign a contract with women, and that whenever they need to be paid, they have to talk to a woman, and their work will be supervised by a woman. This is part of accepting a different kind of role model.

What does your husband think of what you do?

I don't know. [Laughs.] This is what I do, and this is who I am, and the fact that he's still living with me, I think that means a lot. [Laughs.]

What kind of reaction have people in the U.S. had to your group and your beliefs?

For the work that we do, of course, I get a very positive reaction. Sometimes people are not so comfortable with the things I say, how I see the personal as political, how I connect our situation as Arab Palestinian women in Israel with the general political atmosphere inside the state and the discrimination against our own people, and occupation against our people. Sometimes people don't like that very much. They would love to see me talking only about the dirty laundry of our society. But this is what I believe in and this is how I see the whole picture. I'm not going to deny any part of my identity in order to be nice to anybody, or in order to get any kind of funds.

Do you feel it's been easier for you to develop this kind of organization because you're in Israel instead of one of the other Middle Eastern nations?

In some ways, it is easier, because the work we do needs an infrastructure of laws. For example, in Jordan, if a man catches a female relative having a sexual relationship, and kills her in an honor killing, the man gets a very light sentence. If you have to work in that context, it is very difficult. We cannot ignore the fact that the legal framework existing in Israel helps -- as much as it wasn't created for our benefit and instead was meant for the majority, the Jewish community.

That doesn't mean that on the political side, it isn't hard for us in Israel. The Or Report documented that Israeli police treat minorities in a hostile way -- that includes Arab women. When an Arab woman is threatened by her husband in Israel, suddenly the police are culturally sensitive, they claim cultural relativism. They suddenly don't want to intervene with our traditions, while the Israeli establishment intervenes in every small detail of our lives, determining our entire educational curriculum, controlling the Arabic-language television and radio in Israel, and many other things.

The fact that we are part of the Palestinian people also makes it difficult for us, because whenever we as women want to talk about our problems, the public discourse is, "It's not time to deal with these issues. We have more important things." The nationalist wing says national issues should come first. We are told that the West is trying to drag our attention to another issue that is not important. We are accused of airing dirty laundry, and [our critics] say that this can be used by the West or by the Israelis against us -- but this is not an excuse at all [for ignoring women's rights].

The American government, to a certain degree, has used women's rights as a pretext for invading Afghanistan. Laura Bush herself said she was very concerned for the women there.

That's why she's bombing them? Because she's very concerned about them? Let her be concerned about her husband first, and the horrible situation he's dragging the world into. They are so concerned about women in the Muslim world? Why don't they talk about the situation in Saudi Arabia? Why don't they talk about Kuwait -- where women cannot vote! What are they doing for the women in Afghanistan now? The Americans forgot all about them. The Afghan women were used in order to justify an unjustifiable war.

But you have no problem asking Western groups for help in funding your group.

We welcome help from foreign governments and peoples, but it must be different from the kind of military intervention we are seeing now.

You went to Haifa University, an Israeli university, and a lot of the ideas of women's rights you're talking about are ideas that perhaps originated with Western thinking.

No. [Laughs.] These kinds of ideas are the result, over the years, of human experience. And human experience did not start 200 years ago when America was founded. So I don't think that one people or one side of the world owns these kinds of values. These are not values owned by the West. And [women's rights] are not just our struggle. It's a struggle all over the world.

By Christopher Farah

Christopher Farah is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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