The quintessential symbol of Palestinian culture and identity is—of course—the olive tree, with its roots that run deep (safe from the trampling feet of invading armies and occupying forces), a strong body capable of withstanding even the harshest environments, rich fruit to sustain generations, and its ability to come back—and flourish—even after suffering what ought to have been a fatal season. To be Palestinian is to survive and remain steadfastness in dark times.
So perhaps that is why it when I read about Rasha Abu Arra, a 32 year-old Palestinian mother of six in Aqaba who was hung from an olive tree in an ‘honor killing’, I was so deeply affected. It was as if her murderers were saying that killing women to protect family honor is who we are as Palestinians. They took a national symbol of survival and pride and turned it into a tool for murder and shame. Of course, the more than a dozen other cases that have been reported this year alone—besides those women who have had ‘accidents’, been disappeared or ‘committed suicide’—are no less tragic and unacceptable.
It isn’t just that Palestinian media outlets are reporting these cases oxymoronically dubbed ‘honor killings’ more—which they are—it is because femicide and violence against women is on the rise. It may seem counterintuitive at a time when Palestinian women are entering the workforce in larger numbers, obtaining higher education, marrying later, taking leadership roles in the political sphere and in business, and now sitting as judges in the Sharia Court, but the advancement of women and regressive trends such as femicide tend to go hand-in-hand—if there isn’t a strong social, cultural and legal response.
So what has been the response? Family members of the victims of femicide, women’s rights activists and women’s organizations, political figures and even religious leaders have come out to demand that perpetrators be held to account and to end the impunity that has existed. Chief Justice Yousef Ideis of the Palestinian Higher Judicial Council has stated that femicide under the pretext of so-called family honor is a breach of Islamic law. And last month, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas finally amended a grossly antiquated Palestinian criminal code that had permitted judges to mete out lighter sentences for those claiming to have killed for honor.
With the Palestinian National Consensus Government sworn in only yesterday, it remains to be seen whether the West Bank and Gaza will also be united under one law, one that respects women as equal members of society and protects their right to live free from violence. History tells us that if there are compromises to be made in politics it isn’t usually to the benefit of women. Those forces that helped to move the President to abolish the mitigating factor of ‘honor’ from femicide cases must be even more vigilant now with unity. It isn’t just about preventing the loss of one life, or the destruction of one family, or not letting impunity reign in one village. Palestinians must take back the concept of ‘honor’ and, like the olive tree, make the treatment of women a national symbol of pride. That symbol shouldn’t be one defaced by the tacit acceptance of violence against women.