Jordanian survivor of domestic violence says outdated traditions prolonged her suffering

Thirty-seven per cent of women in the Arab world have fallen victim to violence, UN research shows

The story of a woman who suffered decades of domestic violence at the hands of her former husband, before he blinded her, has caused outrage in Jordan.

Fatima Abu Akleek’s husband gouged her right eye out with charcoal tongs, typically used in shisha pipe preparation, and destroyed the nerves in her left eye.

We want to show perpetrators that this is not acceptable and we want to tell authorities that they should do more to protect victims
Eva Abu Halaweh, lawyer and activist

The mother of three says she regrets staying silent and encourages other women to learn from her situation.

Fatima, 38, says her suffering was prolonged by societal pressure to “keep the peace” at home, and refrain from approaching authorities about her abuse.

“There are laws in place to protect us. But do women resort to the law at the right time?” she says, from her parent’s home in Jerash where she currently resides.

“I was beaten every day,” she says.

“Our traditions make it shameful for a woman to file a complaint against her husband. People question how a woman is supposed to return to her husband's home afterwards."

An October 14 verdict by Jordan’s highest court upheld the maximum prison sentence of life for her husband, or 30 years for attempted murder, overturning an appeal by the defendant’s lawyer arguing that his client's actions had disabled Fatima but were not part of a plot to kill her.

Local papers at the time reported that Fatima's husband had raised a knife at her on the night of the crime.

According to the UN organisation for women's empowerment, UN Women, 37 per cent of Arab women have been subjected to a form of violence in their lifetime.

“There are indicators that the percentage might be higher,” UN Women says.

More than six in 10 women who have survived violence also refrain from asking for protection or support, research by UN Women shows.

Fatima thinks about the pain that her family feels when they see her.

“My father says that if I had been killed, my family would have mourned me for a period of time. But with me here in front of them every day, the pain remains alive and is renewed in their hearts every time they see me.”

She also says her ability to perform duties as a mother has been drastically affected.

“I was the main person in my children’s lives," she says.

"I cleaned their clothes, I tutored them. They used to rely on me.”

Fatima's youngest child is 4.

"I cannot remember what she looks like. I cannot remember," she says.

Preventing domestic abuse

Fatima’s lawyer, Eva Abu Halaweh says the publicity her client’s case received has served as a warning for other abusers. The lengthy sentence her former husband received will also discourage other people from committing similar crimes, she says.

“We started hearing of instances where men threatened to give their wives the same fate that Fatima suffered,” Ms Abu Halaweh, who founded the Mizan Law Group for Human Rights in Jordan, tells The National.

“We want to show perpetrators that this is not acceptable and we want to tell authorities that they should do more to protect victims.”

In 2017, Jordan’s parliament amended several laws that affect women, most notably repealing a penal code article that absolves perpetrators of sexual violence if they marry their victims.

A similar law was repealed in Morocco in 2014 after a rape victim who was forced to marry her aggressor committed suicide, Human Rights Watch says.

In 2019, the year that Fatima took her case to court, Jordan's state news agency Petra said the country dealt with 10,000 complaints of domestic violence in the first eight months of that year.

While rights defenders have praised Jordan’s court decision in Fatima’s case, they say that there is much left to do for victims of domestic violence.

"Tens of cases of murder and violence against Jordanian women and girls are stuck in the mazes of the justice system. We don't know their names or whether justice was served for them," says women's rights activist Banan Abuzaineddin.

Although Fatima says she is satisfied with the verdict against her aggressor, she also wishes there was a way to get her sight back.

"I would agree to his release if that means I get my sight back," she says.

"That way he would have to pray for me to be able to see again."

Updated: November 16, 2021, 1:12 PM