Palestine: Femicide highlights need for domestic violence law

Zena al-Tahhan

Al-Jazeera  /  November 29, 2021 

The killing of a 30-year-old mother in occupied Ramallah by her husband has caused an uproar among Palestinians.

Ramallah, Occupied West Bank In the early hours of November 22, Sabreen Yasser Khweira, 30, was allegedly stabbed to death by her husband in a small Palestinian village on the outskirts of occupied Ramallah.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) police found Khweira’s body inside her home in the village of Kufr Ni’ma.

Her husband also attacked his own mother, 75, who suffered injuries and was transferred to the nearest hospital in Ramallah. She sustained injuries, but is in stable condition.

The suspect, identified as Amer Rabee, fled the scene but was arrested later that same morning, while Khweira’s body was transferred for a forensic medical examination as part of an investigation into the killing.

The Khweira family are now calling on authorities to execute Rabee as a punishment for the gruesome killing – a demand also backed by Rabee’s family.

Khweira’s murder came as the world marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25 and launched a 16-day global campaign demanding an end to gender-based violence (GBV), including in Palestine where awareness activities are being held.

The killing has caused an uproar among Palestinians about the persistence of domestic violence and patriarchal norms in Palestinian society.

So far in 2021, more than 20 women have been killed in the occupied Palestinian territories in domestic violence, while at least 15 other Palestinian women were killed inside Israel.

The Khweira family has said that her husband had been violent throughout their 12-year marriage and that the mother of four had left the house multiple times.

Jumaa Tayeh, Khweira’s uncle and the family’s elected media spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that her husband spent a month in prison earlier this year after she filed a complaint with the police for one incident in which he beat her with cables.

“She was severely bruised – she had marks all over her body. I was with her when we filed a complaint to the police’s Family Protection Units. There were several court hearings, and he spent a month before he was released,” Tayeh said.

Al Jazeera reached out to the media officer for the PA’s Public Prosecution regarding pre-existing domestic violence cases filed by Khweira, but was told that this information could not be disclosed at this stage due to the ongoing investigation.

Tayeh said Rabee was released five days before the killing after spending 40 days in jail for a drug-related case. “She spent one night with him after his release, and then he started threatening to hurt her, so she went back to her father’s house,” her uncle said.

“The night she was killed, he had threatened to hurt her 11-year-old son who was at his grandmother’s house next door, so she would come home. When she returned, he killed her.”

Vicious cycle

Tayeh said that Khweira had begun to file for divorce several months earlier, but was going through difficult times, particularly with the loss of her 33-year-old brother, Saif, to cancer this year.

Her uncle himself was released from Israeli prisons only a year and a half ago after 25 years, and her father lives in Jordan because Israel has prohibited his return.

“She would escape from his oppression and stay at her father’s house, and her family would support her every time and tell her to divorce him, but she was fearful for her children’s future and she kept going back to him in hopes that he would change and take on responsibility,” said Tayeh.

He said Khweira mentioned being afraid of societal stigma surrounding divorced women and their children. “She would say, ‘I want to bear this burden for my kids. Tomorrow, they will grow up and protect and defend me against their dad.’”

“I consider Sabreen [Khweira] someone who sacrificed her life for her children,” added Tayeh.

Khweira was a mother to three boys – the eldest of whom is 11, while her fourth is a baby girl under two years old. The children are now staying with their maternal grandmother.

“Sabreen [Khweira] loved life, her heart was as beautiful as her face, and she loved her children,” her uncle said, adding that she had a degree in business administration.

The 30-year-old previously worked for four years at the Kufr Ni’ma local council in the land settlement unit. She was working at a clothes store in the village when she was killed.

“We live in a society that oppresses women, a wrong culture that lowers the status of women – when she is honoured in Islamic teachings, and our laws do not provide women with justice in some of the most basic of rights,” said Tayeh.

No domestic violence law

Khweira is the 26th Palestinian woman to be killed in a case of femicide so far in 2021 in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Ramallah-based Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC) told Al Jazeera.

Women’s civil society groups have long condemned the absence of a Palestinian law to protect women from domestic violence.

The Ramallah-based Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, which Israel recently designated among the six civil society institutions a “terror organization”, condemned the killing.

“At a time when Palestinian women face the crimes of the Zionist occupation, including killings, arrests, settlements, wars, and destruction of homes, and its decisions to designate institutions defending women’s rights as’ terrorist organizations’, another hand has touched a Palestinian woman, in a horrific knife stabbing crime,” the union said in a statement.

The union called for the rapid adoption of a much-delayed domestic violence law, known as the Family Protection Law, “in light of the increase in murders, violence and all kinds of violations against women and children”.

A draft of the domestic violence law has been stalled since at least 2016, though it was written more than a decade ago.

“Violence occurs because we don’t have deterrence laws or protection laws. There needs to be laws to protect these women from violence and these laws have to deter those who carry out violence,” Amal Abu Srour, director of programs at WCLAC, told Al-Jazeera.

“The reason is that, until now, we do not have the political will to issue them. At a time when we’re noticing there are many laws being passed with presidential decree, such as the electronic crimes law or the laws that are related to journalism and expression, restricting freedom of expression. What should be a priority is issuing laws that are related to social rights,” said Abu Srour.

She explained that WCLAC, along with other women’s civil society organizations, has been working in cooperation with PA governments on a domestic violence law since 2004.

Under former PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s government, the draft reached President Mahmoud Abbas’s office for signing, said Srour, but it was sent for review once again under current Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh’s government.

“We have no idea where the draft is now,” said Abu Srour.

Al Jazeera reached out to the Minister of Women’s Affairs but did not receive a response at the time of publication.

The Ministry said in a statement that “the Family Protection Law against violence is an urgent social, national and humanitarian need to maintain the cohesion of the family and society,” adding that its enactment “must be expedited”.

Worsening conditions under COVID-19

According to a 2019 survey on domestic violence by the PA’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 29 percent of current or ever-married women in Palestine reported experiencing some form of violence, including physical, sexual or psychological, at least once by their husbands.

In the occupied West Bank, the rate stood at 24 percent, with the Gaza Strip at a higher rate of 38 percent.

In August 2019, the case of Israa Ghrayeb in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem caught widespread local and even international attention when she was killed by her brother and other male family members at her home.

Abu Srour said three main things could be attributed to the persistence of domestic violence against women in Palestine: an inherited patriarchal culture, discriminatory laws against women and lack of protections, and the Israeli occupation.

During the COVID pandemic, domestic violence rose, according to the WCLAC. In 2020, WCLAC recorded the killing of at least 37 Palestinian women in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The centre handled more than 700 cases of women requiring assistance on their free gender-based violence helpline – a 160 percent increase from 2019.

Several other women’s rights groups reported an increase in requests for consultations.

So far in 2021, WCLAC has received calls about more than 300 new cases.

“Women were forced to spend long periods of time at home side by side with their aggressors,” said Abu Srour, explaining that with everyone at home due to quarantine or closures, women faced the added burden of taking care of the whole family.

“Whenever there are crisis or emergency situations, there is an increase in violence directed at the weakest segments in the family – the women and children,” she added.

Zena al-Tahhan is Al-Jazeera English’s digital correspondent in Jerusalem