A woman’s honor is her safety

I cannot help but wonder what caused retired prison guard Eliyahu Yihya who is described as a perfectly normal man, to draw a gun last week, shoot his wife along with her son, and then end his own life. What causes men like Eliyahu to turn the home, a place which is meant to be safe haven of warmth, love, peace and protection – into hell on earth?

Violence against women is a global epidemic, which is spreading rapidly and threatening the wellbeing and lives of women worldwide, from gender-selective abortions, to sexual abuse of young girls, to husbands’ systematic physical abuse against their wives; not to mention “honor” killings and female circumcisions which are all too prevalent in our region. Studies show that between 25% to 50% of women worldwide have experienced physical violence during their lives, and according to international statistics: some 55% of women murdered worldwide are murdered by their partner.

Unfortunately, many people attempt to justify violence against women in cultural terms. Earlier this year, in a document submitted to the Knesset, MK Nissim Zeev (Shas) wrote that “tough legislation that seeks to impose minimum sentences on domestic violence offenders, particularly affects Sephardic Jewish families who may be unaware of the significance of their actions because it’s considered culturally acceptable.” In Zeev’s document, he made it clear the he was not referring to “stabbing with a knife or severe violence,” but rather “a slap or an isolated incident of violence under difficult circumstances, for example, when the head of the family is unemployed.”

Firstly, myths of that nature are inconsistent with empirical studies which consistently reveal that domestic violence occurs in all cultural, religious and socio-economic groups. Secondly, if I was of Sephardic heritage, I would be very angry with MK Nissim Ze’ev. None of my Sephardic friends beat their wives, and I was certainly unaware of this “tradition”.  If I were a woman married to a Sephardic man, I would be twice as angry at MK Zeev.  As far as I am concerned, he is not reinforcing existing stereotypes. Rather, he is creating them. According to Zeev, Ashkenazi men must refrain from beating their wives, but when it comes to Sephardic men – what else can you expect?

We live in a world that turns women into objects. We see this portrayed every day in the movies, on television and in advertisements. And what do we do with objects?  We buy, sell and trade them, and once an object is no longer needed, we get rid of it.

It doesn’t matter anymore what exactly caused Eliyahu Yihya’s violent outburst resulting in the murder of his wife.  This tragic and irreversible story is a result of a process which likely began long ago deep in his consciousness. Perhaps it began the day when Eliyahu began to believe that women are the exclusive property of their husbands, and therefore, he is entitled do whatever he pleases with his wife. For men like Eliyahu, these ideas and notions of women are only further reinforced by the society around them.

Prostitution is a clear example of the denigration of women by society. Women serve as nothing less than a sexual object designed to meet the needs of men. Today, approximately 15,000 women in Israel work in prostitution, of which a third are minors (the vast majority of women enter prostitution at around age 14). This enormous industry facilitates more than 1,000,000 visits to prostitutes per month and an annual turnover of $3.5 billion a year.  Roughly 90 percent of women involved in prostitution were subject to violence and sexual abuse as young girls (particularly from family members) and the chances of early death due to violence and murder among prostitutes are 40 times higher than among the general population.  In addition, evidence shows that a married man who regularly purchases sexual services from prostitutes becomes more violent at home, since he is used to getting his sexual needs met on command; and God help the woman who does not obey him.

We must call upon our leaders to take heed. It is necessary for Israeli authorities – legislative bodies, law enforcement agencies, and judicial systems alike, to deal more severely with incidents of violence against women. Moreover, the education system must educate our children regarding the issues of sexual exploitation and dangers of pedophilia which lurk beyond every street corner and online chat-room.

A legislative bill which calls for the criminalization of clients of prostitution passed its first reading in the Knesset in April 2012. It seems that this initiative is currently buried somewhere in a pile of bills that never went on to a second or third reading. While the shocking case of Eliyahu Yihya is still very fresh in our collective conscience, I hope that this bill reaches its second and third readings in the Knesset, becomes law, and ultimately restores a measure of dignity to women, while significantly reducing violence against women in Israel.