Occupied East Jerusalem – Soon after she was married, Nisreen bought her sister-in-law a handbag as a wedding gift.
When she went to give it to her, she accidentally dropped it in the process. “My sister-in-law told me my value ‘had gone down’ now and refused the gift,” Nisreen A, 54, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, told Al Jazeera.
After this incident, Nisreen’s husband came back to their East Jerusalem home and hit her so hard he knocked her unconscious.
“He called my brother and said ‘come take your sister’,” Nisreen explained. “When my brother arrived he just shouted at me because of what I had done,” she said.
Nisreen’s story of abuse, which started only six months into her marriage, is one of many, Palestinian health workers told Al Jazeera, particularly in occupied East Jerusalem, where she resides.
A recent report by Palestinian NGO Juzoor states that 55 percent of women living in East Jerusalem have experienced domestic violence.
The report, titled Empowering Women in Marginalised East Jerusalem Communities, outlined that 50 percent of these women had their first exposure to domestic violence by age 15 or younger.
Talking to Israeli authorities
As East Jerusalem has been occupied by Israel since 1967, the duty of providing public services, including counselling centres and shelters, falls on the occupying state. However, for East Jerusalem Palestinians, turning to Israeli police or social workers is an absolute last resort.
Juzoor’s spokesperson Majd Hardan said talking to Israeli service providers is being considered by the Palestinian community as betrayal, or as abandoning family structures.
“Family, in-laws, neighbours and friends believe the woman is asking the enemy for help,” Hardan told Al Jazeera. “She should take the pain and be silent,” she said, explaining the mentality in East Jerusalem.
Living in Jerusalem’s Old City, Nisreen never thought of going to the Israeli police.
“An Israeli social affairs officer came to the hospital when I was there. I said I had fallen on the ground,” she explained, adding she couldn’t say what her husband had done.
“I won’t talk to them because of the stigma and for fear of losing custody of my sons.”
Occupation increases violence
Hardan from Juzoor also stressed that the continual presence of Israeli soldiers and settlers in East Jerusalem has an effect on gender-based violence in the city.
“A lot of families don’t accept women to leave the house, they’re afraid if they take the bus or transportation someone will hit on them or violate their freedom,” Hardan said.
“This is a form of domestic violence; you can’t keep them prisoner in the house… just because you don’t want them to go out and see soldiers and settlers.”
Nisreen has stayed married for 32 years and, even after having three sons, the abuse never ceased. She said that as they grew up, they started to abuse her as well, adopting their father’s traits.
“They forbid me to leave the house. I have to lie to get out; I say that I’m going to the doctor or have a meeting somewhere,” Nisreen explained.
“I’m constantly scared because they threaten me by [for example] throwing a chair right next to me, which makes my heart race.”
The issue of domestic violence transcends the boundaries of East Jerusalem and, just as Nisreen found no support from her brother when she was abused, women in other areas of the occupied West Bank face similar concerns.
The village of Fasa’il, 14km north of Jericho in the Jordan Valley, has the highest recorded rate of sexual harassment in the West Bank, according to the Palestine Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).
Farida, a 40-year-old mother of six, was married at the young age of 17. She requested her name to be changed for safety concerns.
“I didn’t know anything about married life,” Farida told Al Jazeera while sitting out of sight of her children. “My family said my new father-in-law would be like a father to me, and my mother-in-law like a new mother.”
Farida still lives in Fasa’il, though in the home behind her husband and his second wife. She recalled the time three days after her marriage when her father-in-law sexually abused her.
“He would touch me in inappropriate places, so I told my aunt and my husband’s brother about the situation. They said maybe it was by accident, that he didn’t mean to touch me.”
After delivering her first child two years later, she received guests in the family home for a celebration. After everyone had left, her father-in-law repeated the abuse.
“He grabbed me from my hand and led me to the kitchen. He wanted to rape me, he was touching me in inappropriate places. I was lucky I could run,” Farida said, breathing heavily to hold back tears as she spoke.
“I cannot forget what happened that day, and I can’t remember why I didn’t scream.”
When Farida told the rest of the family about the incident, she was called a liar, a title she has borne to this day. “You can’t argue with this kind of community, they won’t confess they did anything wrong.”
Instead, her husband’s family threatened to take her son from her and stopped providing her with money she needed to live comfortably.
Entrenched patriarchal norms
YWCA Jericho coordinator Aman Hammad points to entrenched patriarchal family structures in the Palestinian territories as a major factor in the levels of domestic abuse.
Particularly in Fasa’il, girls are not allowed to leave the village for work or educational opportunities from a young age, subsequently leaving them powerless and financially dependent.
“If they move around a lot, it means she’s a bad girl and she won’t have an opportunity to be married afterwards,” Hammad told Al Jazeera.
“The community starts to think they’ve experienced things or are prone to many factors that could harm her or affect her reputation.”
Jericho Governorate Gender Unit Manager Samah Salman mentioned that girls are raised to serve men.
“It reinforces the stereotype of men being better, in all aspects of life. They take control of decision-making, inheritances go to men, land can only be registered in men’s names and even at home, men should eat first,” Salman told Al Jazeera.