Back in December 2011, gender-based violence hit the headlines in the Arab world whensoldiers brutally attacked a hijab-wearing Egyptian protester. Following the incident, there was widespread outrage that a woman would be treated in such a violent manner. And rightly so. However, it got me thinking whether there would have been such a public display of anger if that kind of abuse was happening in someone’s home. By someone’s brother or husband.
The answer to that question is an obvious one. And it reflects back not only on the politics and timing of the incident in Egypt but also on the state of Arab/Muslim society. It seems that public violence between strangers is just not acceptable whilst abuse that occurs behind closed doors between a wife and husband or even a daughter and father is a different beast altogether.
I want to make clear that this problem isn’t something unique to the Arab/Muslim region. It something I see all time in the UK where I live, and it’s something that frightens me. What also trouble me are the statistics about the level of violence and abuse that occurs inside our homes, not only in the Middle East but the world over. It’s our job to change that – to deal with the messy, troubling, disempowering and gut-wrenching issue of domestic violence and sexual abuse wherever we are.
Samar Hazboun, a Jerusalem-born photographer is doing just that. She has released a documentary called Hush, which exposes the harsh realities of life in a women’s shelter in Palestine. You can watch the short film here (and embedded below); please be warned that it contains explicit descriptions of domestic violence and sexual violence.
Hush has been exhibited in Ramallah and London, and promoted by the UN as part of their gender equality work. It also came second place in the “I Have Something To Say 2012” competition in Palestine. I spoke to Samar about her experience filming in the shelter, the role of the occupation and finding ways to improve the women’s integration with the rest of society.
Arwa Aburawa: Tell us a little about yourself, where you’re from, where you grew up, your studies and why photography is important to you.
Samar Hazboun: I was born and raised in Palestine and photography has always been a self-expression tool for me. It started on a personal level and then it grew to documenting other people’s struggles. The visual side to everything is very important. Photography is what allows me to bring the message as close to people as possible. Nowadays people don’t read as much as they used to and so it is easier to deliver a message through a photograph as it catches people’s attention faster than something that is written.
What drew you towards exploring the topic of gender-based violence and sexual abuse?
I guess what I am interested in is letting people face the truth. Seeing what is happening behind closed doors and getting a specific social class out of their comfort zone as these things happen all around them. I have always been interested in human rights but I noticed the lack of exposure or even willingness to discuss this matter. Whenever this topic is brought up people tend to ”Hush” each other – thus the title of my project.
When I started doing my research it was hard to find the real numbers and percentage of sexual abuse against women in the Middle East. A lot of the time these stories are denied or the women are killed which leads us back to square one of not really knowing what is going on. Some stories of violation don’t come until years and years of suffering.
Was it difficult to gain the women’s trust and permission to film in the shelter?
Yes. It took me more than a year to get permission to enter the shelter and I was actually the first person to be let in to document their life there. I struggled at first and faced rejection because to these women I was an outsider who was interested in covering a story and then leaving. Which wasn’t true. It was never a ”product” to me but an in depth project which will hopefully raise awareness and shed light on these stories… I worked with these girls for a period of two months during the first month I never took my camera with me to the shelter. I prepared workshops for them where we got to know each other better. I mean, just the fact that these women spoke about their abuse means a lot to me. There is a first step to everything.
Can you describe to us what a typical day in the shelter would be like?