This post was written by guest contributor Arwa Aburawa.
Back in December 2011, gender-based violence hit the headlines in the Arab world when soldiers brutally attacked a hijab-wearing Egyptian protester. Following the incident, there was widespread outrage that a woman would be treated in such a violent manner. And rightly so. However, it got me thinking whether there would have been such a public display of anger if that kind of abuse was happening in someone’s home. By someone’s brother or husband.
The answer to that question is an obvious one. And it reflects back not only on the politics and timing of the incident in Egypt but also on the state of Arab/Muslim society. It seems that public violence between strangers is just not acceptable whilst abuse that occurs behind closed doors between a wife and husband or even a daughter and father is a different beast altogether.
I want to make clear that this problem isn’t something unique to the Arab/Muslim region. It something I see all time in the UK where I live, and it’s something that frightens me. What also trouble me are the statistics about the level of violence and abuse that occurs inside our homes, not only in the Middle East but the world over. It’s our job to change that – to deal with the messy, troubling, disempowering and gut-wrenching issue of domestic violence and sexual abuse wherever we are.
Samar Hazboun, a Jerusalem-born photographer is doing just that. She has released a documentary called Hush, which exposes the harsh realities of life in a women’s shelter in Palestine. You can watch the short film here (and embedded below); please be warned that it contains explicit descriptions of domestic violence and sexual violence.
Hush has been exhibited in Ramallah and London, and promoted by the UN as part of their gender equality work. It also came second place in the “I Have Something To Say 2012” competition in Palestine. I spoke to Samar about her experience filming in the shelter, the role of the occupation and finding ways to improve the women’s integration with the rest of society.
Arwa Aburawa: Tell us a little about yourself, where you’re from, where you grew up, your studies and why photography is important to you.
Samar Hazboun: I was born and raised in Palestine and photography has always been a self-expression tool for me. It started on a personal level and then it grew to documenting other people’s struggles. The visual side to everything is very important. Photography is what allows me to bring the message as close to people as possible. Nowadays people don’t read as much as they used to and so it is easier to deliver a message through a photograph as it catches people’s attention faster than something that is written.
What drew you towards exploring the topic of gender-based violence and sexual abuse?
I guess what I am interested in is letting people face the truth. Seeing what is happening behind closed doors and getting a specific social class out of their comfort zone as these things happen all around them. I have always been interested in human rights but I noticed the lack of exposure or even willingness to discuss this matter. Whenever this topic is brought up people tend to ”Hush” each other – thus the title of my project.
When I started doing my research it was hard to find the real numbers and percentage of sexual abuse against women in the Middle East. A lot of the time these stories are denied or the women are killed which leads us back to square one of not really knowing what is going on. Some stories of violation don’t come until years and years of suffering.
Was it difficult to gain the women’s trust and permission to film in the shelter?
Yes. It took me more than a year to get permission to enter the shelter and I was actually the first person to be let in to document their life there. I struggled at first and faced rejection because to these women I was an outsider who was interested in covering a story and then leaving. Which wasn’t true. It was never a ”product” to me but an in depth project which will hopefully raise awareness and shed light on these stories… I worked with these girls for a period of two months during the first month I never took my camera with me to the shelter. I prepared workshops for them where we got to know each other better. I mean, just the fact that these women spoke about their abuse means a lot to me. There is a first step to everything.
Can you describe to us what a typical day in the shelter would be like?
As you can imagine, the shelter is a closed space. People tend to react to being in closed spaces by either becoming depressed, aggressive, sad, hurting themselves, having too much time to think about what had happened and that is mainly due to the lack of activity inside.
The girls/women in the shelter have a daily program which more or less consists of their role as house wives. The majority of them spend the morning cleaning, washing, cooking etc. Only three of the women at the shelter were able to leave the shelter during the day to go to ”work”. Meanwhile the others had a 60 minute sessions with their supervisors and employees of the shelter. In this sessions the girls would talk to their supervisors about how they feel and what the plan for them is. Nevertheless, the girls always felt that there wasn’t enough going on in the shelter. Sometimes that would cause fights among the girls. Other girls tried escaping.
Was it challenging – professionally and emotionally – to film the subjects and hear their stories?It was heart breaking to hear their stories. They would come to me and say: “Samar, I want to talk to you”. I never had to ask them to tell me and I think that was the outcome of the workshops which I held for them and the time we spent together… However, spending so much time with the girls was draining because you had to give all of them the same amount of attention and love in such a short time which wasn’t easy. I think the worst part was the brutality which these women faced and the cruelty of the stories they told me. Sometimes I would leave the shelter, go home sit on my bed and stare at empty walls for hours. Other times I would burst out in tears and feel helpless.
Once the project was done I fell into a depression. I didn’t feel like talking about the project anymore…You kind of know that these things happen but once you see the face of the person who has suffered it everything changes. It no longer is another story.
It must have been really hard to stay professional in some aspects and not to really worry about them and develop a close bond.
The biggest surprise to me was the love and honesty these girls offered me. If I were able to create good relationships with them then I think the majority of people would. It’s all about giving chances and not being judgemental. I must say I became really close with a couple of them.
As you know, their stories are not the kind of stories you want to re-tell over and over again. But I remember one girl very well who came up to me after the workshop – as I was giving them semi-therapy workshops – and held my hand. She said : ‘Samar, thank you. I wanted to scream and cry today. I was so frustrated. But after the workshop I feel calm. I feel much better.’ She was holding my hand throughout the workshop.
But obviously the main stories of these women are their sufferings. For example, one of the girls was locked in a basement for 6 years. She never got out and her father used to rape her every now and then. He then started bringing other men to have sex with her. Not only would he sexually abuse her but he would beat her, spill chemicals on her body and burn her. It was really sad. It’s hard to believe she survived all of this.
What happened to the girl? Did she get to leave the shelter?
No, she stayed at the shelter. She had already been there for more than 4 years when I interviewed her. Her father does not want her back and her mother and sister come to visit her secretly every couple of months. She did not press any charges against her father thus he is free and has not been prosecuted. It’s really complicated as the majority of the girls end up dropping these charges against their family out of fear of revenge and fear of being even more excluded within the society.
They don’t understand their rights and the way they were raised plays a major role in this matter. They always put first what the society and other people will think and say.
I think one of the problems you capture well in Hush is that the shelter is actually a prison for the women – it is about keeping these women away from the rest of society. Was this revelation a shock to you?
It’s a tricky situation really because we do need women’s shelters but we need a different approach to them. On one hand it’s a great thing because it offers protection to some of the women, on the other hand the shelter does not have the proper means to provide education, therapy and the needed support to these women.
I think what struck me the most was the fact that people think that the women inside the shelter are prostitutes or have committed ”disrespectful crimes”. I heard a lot of rumours about the shelter and it made me sad to see how people make these women’s lives even harder than they already are. It is one of the reasons why I chose to talk about this project because again the society would rather deny its existence.
The women seemed to face complete alienation from the rest of society. What are some of the solutions that you think could tackle this?
I think the whole system needs to be looked into and radical changes implemented. I am not a professional in that area but I would say that the staff at the shelter need to be professionally trained. The women inside the shelter need to be given more and better chances. They need to interact more with the outside world. The outside world needs to know that these women are equal human beings and not just ”shelter girls” or bad people.
Education is really important as these women need to grow. Physical activity is also important as being the whole day in the shelter with the same people every single day can have a negative impact on you especially if you’ve been at the shelter for 3 years already. Economical stability is another issue as these women need to have some sort of income which they can keep to themselves. They need to be able to stand on their own two feet, be it outside the shelter or inside it. They also need access to internet and the outside world. Being in the shelter does give them protection on one hand but deprives them for experiencing real life.
What have the reactions to Hush been like?
People react differently to Hush. Some think it’s unfair to expose this side of Palestine as we are dealing with occupation and political issues; others think that Hush is unique and very bold. I think that people need to look at the bigger picture, the occupation is one of the main human violators in the area but it’s not the only one.
What do you hope that Hush will achieve?
I hope that Hush will break the silence. I hope that it will motivate people and mainly women to stand up and speak up. I hope that Hush will be a starting point to a revolution against gender based violence. But what matters to me more than what Hush will achieve is what Arab women will achieve.