Well before #MeToo, women public housing residents in Israel came out with their shocking stories
The women’s faces – beautiful, etched with life experience – look directly, unashamedly at you. They are simultaneously strong and vulnerable. They are women who live in public housing and each has a story to tell of sexual abuse or harassment on the part of housing officials and others in positions of power.
The testimony of Rikki Kohan Benlulu, a single mother of five:
“I was nine when one morning a policeman as a repossessions agent came to arrest my mother, a public housing resident, for failing to meet her payments. My mother was shocked and opposed it and begged him to leave and not arrest her. He took advantage of her situation and used her sexually for years and when he was finished with her he turned to me and raped me…”
Each story seems more shocking than the next. After a successful run at Israel’s Knesset, the powerful photo exhibit “Lionesses” which includes Ben Lulu’s photo and testimony, along with eight others, will open next week (September 27) at the Arab-Jewish Theater in Jaffa. The brainchild of Shatil, the exhibit is produced and curated by artist and photographer Carmen Elmakiyes-Amos, a social activist and leading member of Shatil’s Public Housing Forum.
“Lionesses are women who succeeded in conquering their fear, in telling their personal stories, and in so doing to shine a light on the painful truth,” says Elmakiyes-Amos herself. “The collection of testimonies point to a phenomenon that these brave women seek to denounce and stop. They represent many more women who understandably are afraid to speak up.”
Actually, Shatil and the women of the Public Housing Forum brought this issue to light when the women testified in the Knesset about their experiences in May 2017, five months before the #MeToo movement burst on the scene. As a result, the Ministry of Housing published preventive guidelines. Shatil continues to work to ensure the dignity of women in public housing by monitoring the guidelines and training women on how to advocate for easements in criteria for single mothers to receive public housing and to protect their rights vis a vis the housing companies.
The July 10th cover of Yediot Ahronot’s “24 Hours” magazine featured the Knesset exhibit with large photos of three of the women and additional photos inside. The headline: “”It’ll be worth your while to sleep with me.”
State-owned housing company Amidar field coordinators, police, state renovation contractors, apartment owners and doctors are among those in power who take advantage of Israeli’s most vulnerable women by harassing, attacking or making critical decisions dependent on sexual favors.
The awareness-raising mobile exhibit will soon be displayed in additional venues throughout the country.