West Bank: Victim of indecent assault says government failed her
A Palestinian journalist, who spoke out about experiencing indecent assault at a West Bank hospital, has said that she felt pressured by executive and judicial authorities to drop her complaint against the perpetrator.
Mervat Al-Azzeh, 45, uploaded a 24-minute video to her Facebook profile in April, in which she described how a member of hospital staff touched her breast while taking an X-ray photo of her broken hand following a traffic accident. Al-Azzeh stated that the man exposed her breast without any prior warning, although she did not experience any physical pain in that area.
Mervat Al-Azzeh waived any right to anonymity to speak to Middle East Eye and highlight what had happened to her.
In an interview with MEE, Al-Azzeh expressed her deep disappointment with how the Palestinian Ministry of Health and the Public Prosecution have handled her case.
She said she felt uncomfortable with the choice of location for the investigation, which was conducted at the hospital where the harassment occurred, a place she did not consider neutral. She was also unhappy with the way the investigator questioned her account of the incident.
Al-Azzeh was directed by the Palestinian Public Prosecution to undergo a mental health evaluation after making a complaint. The rationale for the request was that Al-Azzeh had experienced psychological trauma following the assault. However, one of the purposes of the assessment was to ascertain her mental wellness, she said.
“I accepted to undergo the checkup to prove I’m telling the truth, but this request was shocking to me; I needed to be believed and supported, not to be questioned,” she told MEE.
Despite the disappointing response from authorities regarding her situation, Al-Azzeh stated that she received considerable assistance from human rights groups and feminist organisations. Her family is supportive of her, but they face pressure from various individuals due to the sensitivity of sexual harassment in their community, which is “still considered a taboo”.
'I needed to be believed and supported, not to be questioned'
- Mervat Al-Azzeh
The Palestinian Ministry of Health released a press release stating that it does not underestimate this type of complaint and that it considers it "extremely serious".
In 2019, Palestinian Minister of Health Mai Al-Kaileh faced criticism for a statement she made about breast self-examinations. She suggested that women should perform these examinations at home to avoid having men touch their breasts. Such a statement has been widely considered as unprofessional and potentially harmful, as it could be interpreted as encouraging sexual assault by healthcare practitioners.
Al-Azzeh has recently hired a lawyer to handle her case, but was surprised to learn that the Palestinian prosecution had refused to provide her lawyer with her file or any information related to it. “I cannot find a reason for this, I just see them making things harder for me,” she said.
She said that she is refusing to mention publicly the name of the alleged perpetrator or the name of the hospital because she wants to bring attention to the crime of sexual and indecent assault "without personalising the case".
The Palestinian Journalists' Syndicate has called on the Palestinian prosecution to expedite the investigation into the incident and bring the perpetrator to justice. It has also urged Palestinian female journalists to report any similar incidents and assured them of its full support and protection.
Meanwhile, Amal Khrisheh, the head of the Palestinian Working Woman Society for Development, expressed her anger and sadness at the lack of justice for women who are victims of indecent assault in the Palestinian territories. She attributed this to the outdated laws that do not impose adequate punishment on the perpetrators.
Khrisheh condemned the decision to subject Al-Azzeh to a mental health check, stating that it was both shocking and dangerous. "We believe Mervat. Treating her as mentally unstable will discourage other women from reporting similar incidents," she said.
'We believe Mervat. Treating her as mentally unstable will discourage other women from reporting similar incidents'
- Amal Khrisheh, NGO head
In Palestine, there are currently no specific laws that address the punishment for sexual assault. The laws that could potentially be used in such cases are related to defamation, slander, or public indecency. Khrisheh called on the Palestinian legislative authorities to pass a new law criminalising sexual and indecent assault and to make medical facilities safer for women.
Al-Azzeh has received an outpouring of supportive comments from social media users, encouraging her to persist in her campaign until justice is served. However, there are others who have bullied and criticised her, even going so far as to comment on her appearance and age. "I have seen comments from people who dismiss my experiences of sexual harassment because of my age, saying I'm too old to be harassed," Al-Azzeh recounted. Nevertheless, she remains undaunted and asserts that these comments only reinforce the need to combat the toxic attitudes that enable sexual assault to persist.
Despite the obstacles she has faced, Al-Azzeh remains steadfast in her commitment to fight for her rights. She firmly believes that indecent assault should be a criminal offence and refuses to be deterred by the pressure she is currently experiencing. "My fight is not just for myself, but for all women who have been subjected to similar harassment," she declared.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.