Inside the November issue of Vogue Arabia, three women share their stories of domestic violence. The issue is out now.
If you follow trends on social media, you’ll have noticed #MeToo and #SpeakUp at the top of the list. The former was created after the abuse allegations made against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein by a multitude of A-list women as well as female members of his staff. #SpeakUp, which started trending in October for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, is reemerging as we approach the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25.
Although these trending hashtags signal that the subject is being discussed, talking is not enough. In fact, in this region, the hashtags have been met with as much criticism as they have praise, with some claiming that women are using them just to get attention. The backlash is a further example of the lack of empathy toward the abuse suffered at the hands of men. Regardless of income, age, class, or education, women across the globe are subject to physical, psychological, and economic violence every day. Worldwide, as many as 35% have experienced physical violence at some point in their lives*. Violence against women and girls is a human rights violation. To better understand the gravitas of the problem, three women share their stories.
Since she was a little girl, helping people has been a huge part of Afra Al Basti’s personality. It’s a trait that has followed her into adulthood as the director-general of the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children in the UAE. The organization offers shelter and social services to victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking, as well as to children affected by maltreatment.
“I feel blessed being able to do what I do, in spite of the sad tales I hear every day. It’s heartbreaking. We don’t just hear their accounts, we live them every day as we try to help the victims and gain their trust. You can imagine the impact that these stories have on each one of us. But when the women succeed in rebuilding their lives, it’s all worth it. One critical case I can mention is a story about some girls who had been sold in their own countries, and again from city to city. Eventually they were trafficked to this region, where they were forced to give illegal services to others. When they came to us, we couldn’t find their roots. The consulate couldn’t help because they didn’t have their country papers and the girls didn’t know where they were from as they were kidnapped when they were young. We worked hard with the UN Refugee Agency in Abu Dhabi to find a place where we could resettle them. Some of them went to Australia, some to Canada and Sweden. It’s been four years since they left and we still communicate and follow up with them.
These successes are the reason we established the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children (DFWAC) in 2007. The first service we give is immediate sheltering. We never say no. We never turn people away. Then the women go through a screening process with a social worker to determine their needs. It can range from legal or medical services to psychiatric care and education. We have many private partners like L’Oréal and Benefit that make meeting their needs possible.
Over the years, I’ve realized that most of the women who come to us, who have experienced a form of violence, go through the same cycle. It always starts with verbal abuse, but they dismiss it as a behavioral problem – ‘It happened a few times but it won’t happen again.’ However, it often manifests into physical abuse and, unfortunately, sometimes death. We’re here to try to stop this. Women seek our help through our partners: Dubai Police, Dubai Courts, emergency rooms at hospitals and clinics, embassies, mosques, and churches. We have even started putting our brochures in female restrooms – often a woman abused is never left alone. This way she can slip a brochure in her pocket in private.
When we started, no one knew about us so we established a hotline – 800 111 – which is open 24/7. The staff speak Arabic, English, Urdu, Farsi, and Russian. Once we started sharing news that we were supporting victims of domestic violence and providing shelter, people started to come to us directly rather than going through some of our partners. When we launched, the first caller was a man asking for help to control his anger. As a result, we now offer anger management classes, which is an important process to help men recognize the effects of their actions.
It’s hard to say how many women are suffering from violence in the region. While we have our own statistics on victims of abuse, the number only refers to women who come forward. There are many more who are still too afraid to talk. My advice to women suffering any form of domestic abuse is to speak up, otherwise no one will hear and no one can help. There’s nothing to be ashamed of; you’re the victim. Speak up and we can help.” Dfwac.ae
When TV presenter and journalist Diala Makki turned to social media to make a powerful statement about violence against women, she never expected the post to go viral. Now, utilizing her star power, she’s determined to help eliminate abuse and give victims a voice.
“A few months ago, I was filming for an upcoming beauty documentary. The show looked at the beauty industry and the stories of how women use makeup throughout the different stages of their lives. In one part, we looked at a woman covering her bruises with makeup. It gave me goose bumps. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Even though it was an acted scene, what it represented – the reality that many women who are victims of violence cover their pain with makeup – was so depressing. For days after I couldn’t eat or sleep. I felt powerless and wanted to do something to help.
I decided to get in touch with my good friend Samira Olfat, a famous makeup artist. I said I wanted to do a campaign to raise awareness about violence against women. I wanted to post a picture that would get everyone talking. She applied makeup to my face, and her own, to make it look like we had been beaten up. We took a photo and I shared the image on Instagram, asking my audience: ‘How would you react if this was not makeup?’
It was so simple yet so powerful, and the reaction was phenomenal. Women across the Middle East started getting in touch and shared their stories with me about the abuse they were suffering. Even people I knew told me about their
own experiences as victims of violence and abuse.The reaction made me want to do more.
I decided to use the weight of my public profile and my platform as a journalist to help make a difference in my community. I wanted to give back by helping those who needed a voice. The first thing I did was contact a few organizations, such as the DFWAC, to find out how we could work together. As well as raising awareness, I wanted to help women in a practical manner.
One project I’m working on is a major fashion event, which I will be hosting at the end of this year. I’m teaming up with a big international designer and we will sell accessories and highend pieces, with the proceeds distributed across various cases as assessed by us and the foundation. I want to collaborate with brands that are keen to also give back to the community. That’s why I’m working on a new documentary series for Dubai TV, talking to victims of violence and telling their stories. The aim is to inspire other women to speak up, to act, and to reach out for help.
Sadly, I think there’s not one single woman who hasn’t suffered some form of abuse in her life. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship myself for seven years. I managed to break free from it by educating myself and making myself realize that I was destined for something better. However, I’m still coming to terms with it – sometimes the psychological abuse scars us more than the physical. Often people blame economic circumstances and social background for abuse, but that’s not the case, and I’m an example of that. I’m highly educated, I’m from an erudite and stable family – my parents are still very much in love with each other – nevertheless, I was a victim.
It’s so important for victims of violence and abuse to voice their opinions to the right people. I received counseling and sought help from experts. Organizations like Ewaa Shelter (Shwc.ae) and DFWAC offer great support systems that are there to help you. Don’t be afraid to reach out.”
After ending an emotionally abusive marriage, Salma Ismail worked hard to regain her life and confidence. She rebuilt her career as a fitness instructor and co-founded GetFitChick, a leading women’s only fitness program in the UAE.
“I was in an emotionally abusive relationship that lasted three years, until I finally decided the constant feeling of anxiety was too much – enough was enough. I was manipulated into feeling that the relationship was the best situation I could ever expect from life. Whenever I thought about leaving him, I felt terrified that my life would be a disaster.
The relationship started when I was very young. I was impressionable and not fully aware of what a healthy partnership looked like. At times, I felt very unhappy but I couldn’t place why. One of the most startling things about emotional abuse is that it’s hard to identify. It took me years to realize my situation was not a loving and supportive environment, but rather one of criticism and contempt. My partner would praise me and give me compliments but then at the drop of a hat he would criticize my every move. I was on an emotional rollercoaster, which made me reliant on his opinion and love, when he showed it. One minute I was in his good graces and the next I was being rejected. He made me feel like I was to blame – I was the problem and there was nothing I could do to fix it, no matter how hard I tried.
When we were in public, he was the most loving and caring person you could ever meet. People who didn’t know him found him to be charismatic and charming, which reinforced the idea that it was my fault, not his. He would paint this perfect picture of his love for me to strangers and acquaintances, which became a show that I felt I had to uphold in public. However, behind my back he complained about me to our friends. He portrayed me in such a negative light that people formed a false opinion of me. I felt so isolated and the turmoil showed in my physical appearance – my body language was introverted, my shoulders drooped, and my face was always unhappy.
The abuse affected my personality, too. I was a confident woman who never doubted myself or my abilities. I was popular and friendly and had a very relaxed view of life. Yet during our time together I became weary of people and started becoming more insecure. I felt lonely and scared of what was on the other side of the relationship. He used to tell me, ‘No one will support you’ and ‘I’m responsible for your career.’ He made me feel like I was nothing without him.
There were times when I felt ugly and unattractive because he would withhold affection as punishment. It was a loveless relationship that was held together by the control he had over me. I spoke to my friends and family about the abuse but I would hold back most of the details as I was embarrassed. After some years, though, people started to realize it was a toxic environment.
The toughest part of the abuse came after I had finally left him. There was a lot of public humiliation and bullying on social media and in person. He would beg me to go back to him and apologize for his behavior, but when I finally decided to stick to my guns, he made it his daily mission to put me down for the whole world to see. It took time for me to regain my confidence and rebuild my life, but now I’m stronger than ever. Just over a year ago I launched GetFitChick with my business partner, Kirsteen Thain. While it’s predominately a fitness program, its purpose is to help women love themselves first and foremost.
For anyone going through any form of abuse, please speak out. Don’t think you’re alone. Surround yourself with positive energy and people who want to help so you don’t feel isolated. If you feel something is wrong, listen to your instinct and seek help.”