Palestinian rape victims turn to novel champion

September 15, 2000

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian's apartment is the first stop for many Palestinian women on their way to pray at the nearby Dome of the Rock Mosque in the old city of Jerusalem. Many of them are victims of rape and sexual abuse.

Ten years ago, such victims in the Palestinian community would have faced almost certain death. Even today, the emphasis is on the honour of the victim's family and not on the woman's pain and distress.

In a society where women, and especially Palestinian women, are more likely to be victims than leaders, Dr Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a 39-year-old Haifa-born social worker, criminologist and lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is something of an enigma.

She is a Palestinian woman living in an Armenian enclave in the Old City of Jerusalem with her physician husband and their three daughters; an Arab academic teaching at a Jewish-Israeli university; a "'street girl', since I spend a lot of time on the streets and in refugee camps".

She has taken it upon herself to research the situation of these women, represent them and try to help them, not least by writing and publishing popular and academic articles about their abuse.

Dr Shalhoub-Kevorkian initiated the first hotline in the Middle East for Palestinian women from the West Bank and Gaza in 1992 - in response to a woman who was raped by her fiance.

"It was the only solution to what I saw happening around me," Dr Shalhoub-Kevorkian said. "The welfare of the victim was not the priority, but rather the restoration of family honour or absolving the man. Thus, the 'solution' to a rape might be for the rapist to marry his victim: that way, both problems of family honour and perpetration of a criminal act were solved."

There was another problem:"Rape and sexual abuse cases can bring about a complex clash of the various legal systems - Israeli administrative law, Jordanian law and tribal law. It was obvious that there was a need to create a safe place where women could disclose their victimisation and where they could receive culturally sensitive assistance."

Today, the hotline is part of the Women's Legal Aid and Counselling Centre in East Jerusalem, which serves victims from the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan.

Dr Shalhoub-Kevorkian first came across cases of wife abuse while working with the wives of political prisoners at Bethlehem University as a social worker between 1986-87. "They are imprisoned even though they are considered free. I encountered so many cases of sexual abuse, child abuse - I find so much power working with those victims - it's so hard to know how powerful these women are. It's the failure of the society to hear their voices."

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