Brave filmmaker shatters silence over sexual assault of Arab women

Abeer Zeibak Haddad’s ‘Duma’ is a groundbreaking, harrowing documentary that skeptics said she’d never be able to make

Actress/educator-turned-filmmaker Abeer Zeibak Haddad is hitting the road with her documentary “Duma” — “dolls” in Arabic — the first film by an Arabic speaker to confront the taboo of sexual violence against Arab women, who are often forced into silence to preserve their family’s honor.
Actress/educator-turned-filmmaker Abeer Zeibak Haddad

The film was screened to a packed room on Saturday at the Arab Hebrew Theater in Jaffa as part of the Hebrew Arab Women’s Festival, and has been brought to cities throughout Israel and to film festivals in Holland, Mumbai and Belgrade.

Duma chronicles four women who experienced sexual abuse as young girls, some victimized by their own family members. Three of the four speak with their backs to the camera or have their faces blurred to prevent recognition, for fear of social and familial repercussions which have in the worst cases been known to lead to murder, or “honor killing.”

The film was supported by the Israeli Authority for TV and Film, the New Foundation for Cinema and TV and the GreenHouse project.

Abeer Zeibak Haddad came to be Israel’s leading advocate for Arab women’s sexual rights essentially out of necessity, when she realized that no one else was willing to challenge the status quo.  The film is her second attempt to bring the issues of sexual abuse in the Arab sector to the foreground.

In 2006, she wrote and produced a puppet theater show, “Chocolate,” telling the story of a young girl who was sexually assaulted. Though the play won four prizes at the 2006 Haifa Children’s Theater Festival, Arab schools and community centers were unwilling to stage a production that dealt with such a loaded subject.

In 2009, Haddad decided to switch her medium to documentary.

“When I started this, every organization and everyone I talked to said I wouldn’t find one woman to participate,” said Haddad.

The women in “Duma” recount the humiliation, pain and confusion of their traumas, and the ways in which their communities encouraged them to swallow their tears for the sake of social harmony.

Because an Arab woman is expected to be a virgin until marriage, any doubts of her sexual past could render her, and perhaps all of her siblings, ineligible for marriage.

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“He told me many times that no one must know, because if someone knew, my parents would get divorced,” says one of the women, who insisted on anonymity. “To keep the unity of the extended family, that’s why I kept silent.  Okay, this way, at least, one is hurt, not everyone.”

Given its implications, the issue remains only vaguely substantiated by NGO research and scantily-funded support centers. According to a 2010 study by Assiwar, an Arab organization in Haifa supporting sexually abused women, 47% of attackers are known to be family members, and at least 89% of victims choose not to file a complaint.

Haddad says that since writing the puppet show in 2006, willingness to talk about sexual abuse has increased in the Arab community.

“Arab society is changing… revolution, progress are on the way!” she exclaimed.

Haddad’s next film will deal with the subject of “honor killings” in Arab society.


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