By Dylann N
Sexual Harassment and Violence against Palestinian Women in Israeli Prisons
Sexual harassment and sexual violence have long been tactics used by Israeli soldiers against imprisoned Palestinians. While men and children are subjected to such treatments, women generally face the brunt of this systematic mistreatment. Khitam Saafin, the leader of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, who spent three months in administrative detention without ever being charged, and who accused Israeli soldiers of taking photos of her on their cell phones and strip-searching her, said “It’s not something that’s done by an individual soldier who decided to humiliate or mistreat [the prisoners], it’s part of the process, part of the policy, in order to affect the entire society and put it under pressure… because they are aware that [gender] is a sensitive subject in Palestinian society.” As Saafin suggests, the practice of sexual harassment and violence specifically targets gender as a means to destabilize and break down the entire Palestinian society. We see this in the systematic and pervasive oppression and violence against women that occurs at every level of life, suggesting that hindering the well being of the next generation of Palestinians is imperative to the Israeli project. This sexual harassment and violence against Palestinian women is tactically used as institutionalized maltreatment by the Israeli regime. Although women face the brunt of this systematic treatment, Palestinian men are similarly humiliated in a sexualized way in efforts to break up and traumatize families. While their humiliation and torture may not always be of a sexual nature, it always serves as a component in practices of domination, interrogation, and torture.
Interrogations are considered one of the most violent parts of detention for many women as sexual harassment and torture are often used as a means of intimidation and coercion to confess. Physical/psychological torture tactics include stress positions, sleep deprivation, beatings, shouting sexual words, insults, and questions about her husband. Sexual violence occurs to most women, and may include beatings, threats, sexually explicit harassment, threats of rape (including threats of rape of family members), and body searches. These routine body searches include almost all clothing being forcibly ripped off, sometimes including undergarments. The women are often asked to squat while naked and are frequently subjected to intrusive internal body searches. Strip searches generally occur to/from court hearings, where younger women are generally targeted, but may occur during night as a punitive measure, and often times may escalate to torture. In spite of its latter occurrence, strip searches violate obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law, including the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Sexual harassment and violence against Palestinian women are a common/systematic form of racial and gender based state violence and a fundamental aspect of their prison experience.
During interrogations of women, a female Israeli officer must be present. However, she often acts as both mask for and proof of unlawful illicit behavior. Female officers are no less violent than their male counterparts, using violent methods of control against both men and women to gain respect and recognition from male soldiers or superiors. The leaked clips of young Palestinian Activist Ahed Tamimi’s interrogations revealed some scenarios of sexual harassment. Tamimi, who was 16 at the time of her arrest and now 17, was arrested during a night raid for kicking and slapping an Israeli soldier on film who critically injured her cousin on their property. In Tamimi’s trial, a female interrogator was not present, allowing her to be illegally interrogated by two men. One of the men is on film using verbal sexual harassment and physical intimidation. Sadly, Ahed Tamimi’s story is not unique, as many Palestinian women, especially younger ones, are subjected to various forms of sexual harassment and violence while being detained under Israeli control.
The violence and harassment that these women are forced to endure is deemed acceptable under Israeli national security, as it is justified as a vital method of protection for the state. The insecurities and abuses that Palestinian women face are intrinsically connected to the Palestinian national discourse that claims their bodies as an imagined national body, thus leaving their bodies vulnerable to weaponization. This term “weaponization” refers to the use of women’s bodies as weapons under patriarchal forces in their conflicts. The term isqat, which translates directly as downfall, clarifies how women’s bodies have been used as weapons against the Palestinian national struggle, done so by attacking particular women victims and targeting gender relations in Palestinian society. Isqat encompasses sexual abuse of Palestinian women as a means to collect “security information.” The term does not acknowledge the human rights or experience of these victimized women, but rather is meant to reveal how military powers use patriarchal perceptions of sexuality and honor to breakdown individual women and their families personally, socially, and politically. Thus, Palestinian women’s bodies are used as a weapon against them, positioning them against the struggle for nationhood and resistance.
The weaponization of Palestinian women’s bodies strengthens patriarchal views of isqat. The sexual assault of these women has been viewed as a national security threat, making it difficult for them to discuss their attack and seek post-assault support. There were countless rapes in the 1948 Nakba by IDF soldiers, however this entire history has been suppressed by victims themselves due to the terrible stigma rape has in Palestinian society. Speaking up about these issues is seen as going against the national struggle and accepting the intent of outside forces seeking to destroy Palestine. Given this narrative, a woman’s body becomes not only her own, but preserves authentic Palestinian culture, thus belonging to the nation, and the national narrative. Consequently, not only are imprisoned women subjected to gender discriminatory treatment, but they also carry the burden of weaponizing their own bodies as a means of protecting themselves, and their national narrative. Sexual harassment and violence in Israeli prisons are only a portion of the gender discriminatory treatment that Palestinian women face. The struggle endured by these women is continually sexualized by the Israeli project in order to degrade them and to destroy their familial relations and connections to the land. This sexualized immorality adds a new layer of trauma imposed on these Palestinian bodies and its society living in the occupied Palestinian Territories and within the borders of historic Palestine.
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