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ISRAEL: Arabic radio station campaigns against killing of women

July 25, 2011 |  6:00 am

Ashams

A young woman turns up dead. Her husband is held for a few days, then released. Police have no other suspects. Murmurs of "family honor" are heard -- and the news races on, reluctant to deal with a painful issue: the killing of women in Arab society.

Until now.

A few years ago, Duah Fares was within reach of a dream as a finalist in a local beauty pageant. Not everyone was proud of the groundbreaking model who changed her name to the less ethnically conspicuous "Angelina." As the swimsuit stage of the competition neared, displeasure over the break from tradition became heavy pressure and Fares withdrew from the competition when it became clear that her life was in danger.

Her younger sister, Jamila, was also an aspiring beauty pageant contestant; she too changed her name to the more cosmopolitan "Maya" before taking a safer path of marriage and a job in a shop. It wasn't safer. Maya, 21, is the last statistic in a grim tally.

Most of the 35 women murdered in Israel since the beginning of 2010 were killed by close relatives. Sixteen of them were Arab women, sadly over-represented given that their community makes up 20% of Israeli society.

"What is happening in Arab society with regard to murdering women is real terrorism", said Ibtisam Mara'ana, a director whose 2009 documentary, Lady Kul el-Arab, put her friend Angelina's story on film.

In an angry newspaper interview last week, Mara'ana -- still a friend of the Fares family -- fiercely criticized tradition, leadership and lenient law enforcement for condoning what is still called "honor killing." The term must be wiped out of everyone's lexicon, she said, including the courts and the law enforcement system. But outside solutions aren't enough and Arab women must unite, says the opinionated filmmaker, who said she is mulling over the idea of a sex strike.

Suhel Karram is tackling the issue from a different direction. Karram is the chief executive of Radio Ashams, an 8-year old Arabic-language radio station with a strong stand on social issues. The radio station has launched a petition campaign to battle these killings, forcing public debate on a topic long swept under the carpet. "Killing women is not acceptable in the 21st century," Karram said, "not for so-called family honor or any other reason."   Suhel

With one eye on changes in the Arab world and the other on the drive for socioeconomic change in Tel Aviv, Karram said he believes Arab citizens of Israel are, and must be, part of the evolving changes. "We cannot afford to sit on the side, lament the problems and do nothing," he said.

Like others, Karram criticizes the establishment for being quick to dismiss any murder of an Arab woman as being related to "family honor" issues. "This isn't a 'cultural thing' or a 'mentality' issue," he stressed, adding that "no religion condones murder of any kind." But lax police treatment, lenient sentencing and social forgiveness perpetuate the killing of women as an acceptable phenomenon, Karram said. The police say cultural issues often inhibit investigating domestic-violence complaints.

(In the Palestinian territories, change is also underway, after a recent case roiled the public and prompted a change in legislation.)

More than half the Arab university students in Israel are women. As time goes on, they will likely have more resources and push a positive ripple effect on society. But many are doubly challenged, hitting two glass ceilings as a minority within a minority, noted Karram, a former social worker.

It's not only tradition that leads to the death of women, Karram said, it's the overall situation. Years of budgetary neglect and insufficient infrastructure have bred poverty and violence among Arab Israelis; half the population is poor, communities are desperate for housing and violence is spilling over. With tremendous amounts of weapons floating around, "Arab villages have become one huge weapons cache, and personal safety is at rock bottom," Karram said. Women are the first to pay the price, he said, but he noted that about 100 young Arab men were killed in violent incidents over the last year.  

Karram hopes for 100,000 petition signatures within a month. A week into the campaign, 5,000 have given their support.

"But it's not about the numbers, it's about putting the issue on the table and on the public agenda," he said.

Though some disapprove, the campaign is getting support, including from clerics of all religions. No one has the right to take a life, Amin Kanaan, a Druze religious leader whose daughter was murdered by her husband two years ago, said in a recent radio interview. "If you no longer want your wife, return her to her parents," he said, adding "God gave us a way out of a marriage that doesn't work -- divorce."  

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.  

Upper photo: A campaign banner for "Ashams battles the killing of women." Credit: Radio Ashams

Lower photo: Suhel Karram. Credit: Radio Ashams

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