Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian makes a formidable opponent to anyone she takes on, whether they're government officials, judges, police officers, clergy, or angry fathers. Tall, articulate, and intense, Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a Palestinian activist and professor, is a tireless advocate for female victims of gender-related violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"I'm a crazy person when it comes to my cases," says Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a member of the Women's Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC) and a professor of criminology and social work at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "I'll stop at nothing to help the women that come to me for assistance."
That's not hard to believe. As Shalhoub-Kevorkian describes her days helping girls and women who are victims of so-called honour crimes, the force of her sense of outrage and dedication becomes apparent. "Honour crimes" are acts of violence, including murder, against girls and women who are thought to have shamed their families as victims of rape, sexual abuse, incest, or alleged adultery.
Shalhoub-Kevorkian calls this "femicide," a term she has broadened to include not just murder, but any abuse that puts women in a state of "living death."
"In this work, I've learned that death is the inability to live, that is, society is making these women dead inside by forcing them to marry their rapist or abuser in an attempt to cleanse the family's shame. Others are imprisoned at home, just to safeguard the so-called family honour. This, to me, is a kind of death," she says.
The deaths of women from these crimes are often not reported or properly documented, which makes advocating for these women and other potential victims very difficult, Shalhoub-Kevorkian says. "We realized we needed to map and get a landscape of femicide in the Palestinian areas and study not only the victims but also the larger problems contributing to the violence, such as attitudes and beliefs. Only this way could we establish a comprehensive intervention strategy," she says.
This is where UNIFEM's Trust Fund in Support of Actions to Eliminate Violence against Women comes in. The grant provided by UNIFEM has helped WCLAC study, in depth, cases that have come to WCLAC's attention. "There's a lot of hidden information that has never been studied comprehensively," Shalhoub-Kevorkian points out. She sought out tribal heads, religious leaders, and the police, searching for background information on cases and how they were dealt with. "We interviewed all the police officers in the West Bank and what we found was amazing — the gender bias, stereotypes, the degrading way they treated women. It really opened my eyes," she says.
The UNIFEM grant helped Shalhoub-Kevorkian and WCLAC examine difficult cases such as that of Laila, a 14-year-old girl who was raped by her 35-year-old cousin and was being forced by her family to marry him. Shalhoub-Kevorkian remembers the girl's father saying that his first thought upon hearing about the rape was to kill his daughter. Marriage was the next best way to deal with the catastrophe that she brought to this family, he said. The girl's mother said that she wished Laila had died.
"Laila was sitting and looking at me, very sad, but never said a word," Shalhoub-Kevorkian said. "But I read her eyes, the fear, grief, and pain. I tried to talk with her, but how could I talk with someone who had been muted for years? How could I make her speak out or voice what she needed?" Six months after her marriage and several suicide attempts, Laila came back. "She told me that she felt as if they had all raped her," Shalhoub-Kevorkian says. "She said she had become a slave to the one who had raped her and death was nothing compared to her life now. But at least she had me to come to."
Working with girls and young women like Laila strikes close to home for Shalhoub-Kevorkian. "I was a victim of rape when I was 10 years old," she admits, quietly. "I had no words or ways of explaining what happened to me and it took me so many painful and hard years to voice it. Everything I do today is trying to help those who are voiceless and powerless. By this I try to reduce, as much as I can, other girls' and women's pain and agonies."
She first became involved in women's issues as a community worker in East Jerusalem, but became more intensely involved during the Intifada, when she saw women suffer not only from political violence, but also domestic violence at the hands of family members. She began her current work when, as a professor, one of her students brought her a case about the rape of an 18-year-old in a refugee camp. She hasn't stopped since. In 1994, she started the first hotline in the Middle East for abused women and those fearing violence or abuse.
"When I talk to victims, I feel that I can't fail them. They're not a story to me, but a person that needs help. If I'm listening, I'm responsible. I'll do anything not to let them down. I'll never stop doing this even if I have to do it alone."
The battle against femicide is just beginning, she says, but significant progress has been made. "People are talking about it more and it's more visible, so I think that's the first step. Gender training for judges and other officials is the next important step," she says. "Collecting women's stories through grants like the Trust Fund is vital to bringing femicide out into the open, getting society to acknowledge what's happening, and to open up a national dialogue. It's only then that we can empower women to speak out and help themselves."
Professor of criminology and social work at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and founder of the Women's Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC), Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian fights for the rights of women victims of gender-related violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. WCLAC received a grant in 1998 from the Trust Fund in Support of Actions to Eliminate Violence against Women for the project titled "Legal Victimization of Women in the Arab World: The Palestinian Case Study."
(Story Date: 24 November 2000)