Victims of abusive partners display work in effort to break taboo
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Thursday, December 03, 2009
Documentary photographer and women’s rights activist Dalia Khamissy has been working with Layla and nine other women since August to create an exhibition of photographs, “Behind the Doors: Through the Eyes of Women Survivors of Violence.”
For the project, Khamissy partnered with KAFA: Enough Violence and Exploitation, a Lebanese non-governmental organization dedicated to eradicating gender-based violence, child abuse and human trafficking. The 10 participants are among hundreds of survivors of domestic violence who receive social, psychological, legal and other support from KAFA.
Khamissy’s project, funded by the Italian Embassy in Lebanon and the Italian Cooperation Office, opens to the public Thursday afternoon. The exhibition falls during the annual “16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence,” which sees a flurry of activity across the globe toward ending domestic, family and gender-based violence from November 25 to December 10.
Khamissy said she hoped the exhibition would help thrust open the doors on a highly stigmatized topic.
“I hope it will make people more aware about domestic violence and make some women speak out and seek help,” she said.
Reflecting their different experiences, each woman explored a particular theme through their photographs. One woman shot images of her body, the so-called source of all her problems with her partner. Another chose to grimly document the tools of torture used by her husband.
“Dalia taught us how to compose, to adjust the light, and other technical issues about the camera, so we could give photos that reflected our feelings and suffering but that were also good quality,” said Tala (not her real name).
Because of the women’s need to remain anonymous, many of the photographs are dark, blurry, and completely untraceable back to their creator. But despite their somber and often grainy nature, the photographs look professional.
“I’m so proud. These are the pictures by women who never touched a camera before,” Khamissy said. In one striking black and white photograph, a pair of virginal white underpants lies on a stone wall. The caption, written by someone identified only as B.H, reads: “I am in my fifties and this image keeps haunting me.”
In order to produce the photographs, the women involved had to reflect on their experiences, stirring up memories of violence and disgrace they might rather not recall.
“We consider this work as a form of therapy,” said KAFA social worker Rima Abi Nader.
“At the beginning, it wasn’t easy to go deep inside myself and show what was hurting,” said Tala, who took five weeks to start shooting photographs she felt truly represented her feelings. “When you have good memories, you want to remember them. When you have bad memories, you’d rather forget.”
The photographs “represent a visual framework of the pain that [a] few women went through over many years, and of a suffering that remained absent from the social awareness and buried in the maze of the privacies of [the family home] and social taboos,” said KAFA director Zoya Rouhana.
While they reveal the experiences of only 10 women, the exhibition’s photographs bring into relief the experience of many more Lebanese women who have or are living through domestic violence.
Violence against women is the most persistent human-rights abuse in the world yet also the most unpunished.
A third of women across the globe have at some point been coerced into sex, beaten, or otherwise abused, most often by someone known to them, the World Health Organization has said. According to the World Bank, women between the ages of 15 and 44 are more likely to be raped or experience violence than cancer, war or car accidents.
No statistics about domestic violence exist in Lebanon, where domestic violence remains very much a taboo. But legislation clearly favors men: the penal code has no specific laws relating to domestic violence and does not recognize marital rape a crime. Rapists can be pardoned if they propose to their victims and men granted lenient sentences if found to have killed a female family member to preserve the family “honor.”
Khamissy said she hopes the exhibition will highlight the urgency of adopting a family-violence protection bill. A law has been drafted by KAFA, and if introduced, special police stations and courts would be opened to address family violence, and perpetrators of violence would be required to pay all expenses caused by their actions, such as medical care or legal fees.
The draft law is especially urgent, said Nader, because of the legal and social obstacles women encounter when trying to escape abuse. “In our confessional system [where personal matters are governed over by religious courts], it’s rare to give women the right to custody or their right to obtain divorce,” she added.
Many women are also economically dependent on their abusive partner, making it even more difficult for them to leave. Some of the women participating in the exhibition still live with violent husbands.
Still, for Rouhana, the photos are a symbol of “resistance to male power and to the rule of some tyrants empowered by the patriarchal system [which grants them] an almost unrestricted control over the destiny of their wives, daughters, sisters.”
“Before I got married, I thought I was a strong and free person,” said Layla. “After marriage, I was imprisoned.”
Tala agreed: “Everything [you do] is limited – what you are going to wear, where you are going, even your political views he decides.”
“This [exhibition] is a salute to the women who decided to revolt against what others consider an inevitable fate and unchangeable reality, despite the fact that their resistance is still unrecognized, unprotected and unsupported,” said KAFA director Rouhana.
“Behind the Doors” is showing at the Ministry of Tourism in Hamra from 4 p.m Thursday, December 3, to Wednesday, December 9, 2009.
If you or someone you know wants to talk about domestic violence, call KAFA’s confidential, round-the-clock helpline on 03 018 019.