Where every day is a woman’s day

BEIT SAHOUR, occupied West Bank (IPS) - We’ve been warned she’s a “harsh case.” Hesitantly she enters, a withdrawn smile hidden behind glasses and a canopy of thick black hair. Impassively, she tells her life story — as if it’s about someone else entirely: she’s 19. Since seven, she’s been sexually assaulted by “an influential family relative.”

He used to tell her what they were doing was “normal between a man and a woman.” She felt secluded from her own family by a vow forced upon her not to reveal their “little secret”: “I didn’t know what to do — he’s so well-known in our community. I couldn’t speak to my dad whom I love so much. My mother was of little comfort. I was afraid.”

Last year, she heard two younger sisters suffered the same ordeal. But, they were now married, whereas she remained at home, alone in her helplessness. Two months ago, she left, “not knowing where to go.”

Finally, she found a haven within the ochre walls of this new complex on a Bethlehem hillside looking down on the rugged Judean desert — the Mehwar Centre for the Protection and the Empowerment of Families and Women. At this center every day is a woman’s day, every week a woman’s week.

Mehwar means “the core” in Arabic. The center shelters Palestinian women and their children seeking refuge from difficult domestic circumstances within the conditions that typify Palestinian reality.

Najmlmolouk Ibrahim, the center’s director, gently caresses the cheek of the woman “with no name.” “They’re referred by the police, by relevant government agencies or NGOs [non-governmental organizations],” she says. “Sometimes, they find us on their own. Shelters are usually secret places. We choose instead to send a strong message: this is an open space, not only for victimized women, but also for their community. Violence should not be a secret. It must be dealt with.”

Mehwar is the first Palestinian center providing integrative answers to domestic violence. At the center they not only protect physically and sexually abused women, they seek “to empower” them to play a defining role in society.

An Italian Cooperation Office trust fund administered by the World Bank, the center has, since its inauguration in 2007, cared for 84 women. The first such Middle East pilot project, Mehwar is open to all women and children in conflict situations. “They come to us from all walks of life and society, from wealthy and poor families, better or less educated, from refugee camps, villages and cities around the West Bank,” says Ibrahim.

The haven’s 35 rooms are arrayed around a peaceful patio, alongside a nursery for children from the local community, a clinic and a discussion hall which doubles as an exhibition space for their home-made products. “We’re a temporary platform — ideally women stay for a year but we’re flexible,” says Ibrahim. She is supported by a staff of qualified social workers, vocational trainers and teachers, a doctor, a psychologist and a family rights lawyer.

A day in the life of Najmlmolouk is a day at Mehwar. She lives nearby with her husband, the Palestinian author Nasser Ibrahim, and their two daughters. Already at work by 7:30am — “after which I haven’t a single free minute” — her day unfolds with emergency meetings, calls to partners, follow-ups with the police, handling threats. “There’s enormous pressure from families for a woman ‘to come home’ before she reveals her story, so we forbid family visits before she’s had a chance to open up.”

A day in the life of the center is a strict regime of activities. To infuse a lost sense of community, domestic responsibilities are shared equitably. There are discussions about social concepts — the meaning of family, violence, honor and prostitution. The most traumatized undergo psychotherapy, “learning to regain self-confidence and self-esteem, to express their needs, to define their skills, their self,” says Ibrahim.

Until recently, before the center felt the global financial downturn, vocational skills — pottery, English and computers — were taught. “We’ve trained hairdressers, medical staff, seamstresses and designers. Some women plan to continue their medical studies; others are employed as secretaries, cooks, or vendors,” says Ibrahim.

Mehwar operates also as an outreach platform. “We aim to infuse the family with serenity, for children to get attention, women their dignity. Students, educators, parents, doctors visit the Centre to teach, and to be taught. We’re trying to develop procedures and policies of community awareness by working with the Ministry of Social Affairs, with police officers and judges.

“Palestinians used to ‘solve’ cases of abuse through contacts with heads of family-based clans. We’re against that patriarchal system. Going public is the best protection. But our laws are archaic. So, we’re pressing for an overall personal legal and penal code against violence, and for its implementation. If not, we’ll be trapped in a vicious circle.”

Still, there are hopeful signs. A national committee charged with increasing the number of shelters and improving laws has been established. Mehwar cooperates with a special police unit for family protection. A girl can only be questioned by a female police officer. But Ibrahim recognizes that determination and patience are needed. “Changing patterns of behavior takes time — perhaps a full generation. And, religious leaders could play a more positive role, simply by instilling moral values that ought to be inherent in family relations.”

Nor is the prosaic test of their journey back to society — setting “wounded” women “free” — without dilemmas. Some are scared to remain alone, and want to marry at any cost to be protected from the risk of being abused again. “We don’t lose touch,” Ibrahim says. “We offer external counseling.”

And the woman who’s agreed to let her wounds speak openly? She’s begun the painful process of filing a legal complaint, but remains consumed by an irresolvable desire to punish the perpetrator of her torments: “He’s not human, I want him dead!”

The center, though, has also given her hope: “Here, I feel secure; here I’m not alone. I can speak out, and I’m heard. Our pain is shared. I want to study, be a doctor. I want to succeed.”

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