Breaking the silence on sexual violence

Haifa, Israel (NI) – A new initiative is providing Arab women and girls a safe space to share experiences of sexual assault and harassment. The website, Tusukteesh (Arabic for ‘don’t remain silent’), was founded by Reem Jaramna, a volunteer at the Kayan Feminist Center and Khulud Khamis, an author, feminist activist and member of Isha L’Isha – Haifa Feminist Center.

‘The initiative started as a way to break the silence that exists in Arab society,’ says Khulud. ‘We believe that Arab women today have no safe space in which to share their experiences, and Tuskutish provides that space. Now a woman can tell her personal story while maintaining anonymity.’

The idea came about following an event organized by Kayan in the beginning of December, as part of 16 days of activism dedicated to the issue of violence against women. Khamis describes the emotional toll facing the participants, especially in the wake of the recent murders of Arab women in Israel.

‘Many topics came up as part of their activities, sexual violence being one of them. I noticed that women don’t share their experiences. We speak about the issue in a general way, but there is no sharing of personal experiences.’

The story of the initiative reflects the revolutionary moment that brings about real, feminist changes in society: a moment where women meet and talk. ‘I met Reem a year ago through my work at Kayan. We became good friends, and after the event we spoke at length. The idea came up as a response to the feeling of helplessness vis-à-vis the issue of sexual assault in our society, where there is no platform that allows us to break the silence in a safe and protected way.’

Image Source: rana ossama, Flickr, Creative Commons her eyes

Image Source: rana ossama, Flickr, Creative Commons
her eyes

What kind of responses are you receiving from women, men, and other organizations?
‘We opened the website at 2am, and the following morning we were surprised to find that we had received a message of praise from the head of one of the local feminist organizations, who even proposed that we co-operate and that her organization can give us all the support we need. This surprised me, and only then did I realize how revolutionary this page is, and just how strongly we adhere to this silence in our community. At this stage it is important to remain independent and not work under any organization or body. We want the freedom to act, and we are also the voices from the field.

‘Moreover, we did not expect to receive stories so quickly. I personally thought it would take at least a week until we got our first story, and it took less than a day to arrive. For us, that is a huge success. But we are taking a deep breath and continuing with our work. It will take some time until women work up the courage to speak out anonymously at this point.

‘We also had the idea of calling on women to share their stories using art: poetry, paintings, photography, because of the difficulty of putting these stories into words.’

How can others help and show solidarity?
‘To all the Arab speakers, I call on every woman and teenage girl to join our website and help break the silence. It is important to me to emphasize that your identity will remain a secret, but we will enforce the law that forces us to report any claims by minors who are presently being harmed.

‘We would love for anyone to share our website among Arab speakers. We have an information page that can be printed and posted in public spaces such as universities, NGOs, and public institutions.’

Inna Michaeli is a feminist activist and a PhD student of Sociology at the Humboldt University of Berlin. This article was crossposted with permission from 972mag.com.

Khulud Khamis is the author of Haifa Fragments (New Internationalist, 2015).  This report prepared by Inna Michaeli for New Internationalist.