Friday, June 02, 1995

T-shirt clothesline allows women to air the dirty laundry of abuse

T-shirt clothesline allows women to air the dirty laundry of abuse
By Lesley Pearl 
Jewish Bulletin of Northern California - June 2, 1995

"I survived attempted gang rape. I was 14 years old then. I'm now 45 years old and I can still see their faces. Still see them coming towards me. Still remember the fear. I survived that attempt. For 31 years I've been surviving it. My fear has turned to rage!...Today I live in Israel and the violence is the same."

A red Henley T-shirt carries the words, scrawled in black permanent marker. It hangs from two clothespins, surrounded by thousands of others declaring the pain of sexual abuse.

One is embroidered with rainbows, clouds and the Hebrew words for guilt, shame and fear of death. Another demands "Let The Woman Out" in red, green, blue and yellow, with black lines resembling prison bars overlapping the words.

The messages of these women -- 35,000 strong and from eight countries -- make up The Clothesline Project.

Begun in 1990 as a way to "raise awareness, express wounds and take out the dirty laundry," the Clothesline Project is a touring testament to survival.

A sample of shirts, about 6,000, came to Washington, D.C., earlier this year via garment bags and assistance from the Global Fund for Women. Nili Nimrod, director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, discussed the project in a talk last month at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Nimrod and the crisis center association go a long way toward dispelling fallacies about sexual abuse in both Israel and the United States -- among them, that "nice Jewish boys don't..."

"The myth that good Jews don't rape -- I can refute that right away," Nimrod said. "Most of the calls we get are from Jewish women who have been assaulted by Jewish men -- fathers, brothers, lawyers, bus drivers. The minority [of offenders are from] the Arab population.

"It's a global myth that assault [tends to] come from outside of your ethnic group."

What sets Israel apart from other countries, Nimrod said, is the way it handles sexual violence.

Like in America, it is rare for an offender to serve a full sentence, and government funding for education and services is limited at best. However, Israeli grass- roots efforts are making inroads in a relatively short amount of time.

In 1990, the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel was established as the umbrella organization for seven organizations that provide crisis intervention, raise public awareness and lobby for improved law and policy.

The Clothesline Project is one of the ways the association educates about the problems of sexual abuse. Israel's government has responded favorably, Nimrod said, displaying the shirts at the Knesset in Jerusalem.

Other projects aimed at bringing sexual violence to the fore, and funded in part by the Global Fund for Women, include a documentary about incest, Yet a Child I Never Was.

Production, however, has stalled. Five women and one man were scheduled to tell their stories on film. Tragically, the man who had been assaulted by both his father and uncle in his youth committed suicide before filming began.

Nimrod pointed to this example as the value of the rape association for both men and women. Last year, Tel Aviv's newly created male victim hotline received more than 400 calls.

"The shame and guilt is the same for men as it is for women," Nimrod said. "But for men it becomes a question of sexual identity too. Did they provoke it? Are they gay? [they often wonder]"

According to Nimrod, 30 percent of last year's 5,000 calls logged were from incest survivors -- male and female. Determining whether sexual violence in Israel is on the rise or the decline, however, is more difficult.

"Every time there's an article about this or a well-publicized rape case we get an increase in calls. Part of this is greater awareness," Nimrod said.

"But we know that Israel is becoming a more violent society too," since the average age of offenders is dropping, she added.

"Most of the survivors we work with are Jewish women. But this isn't a Jewish problem or a women's problem. It's a social problem and a type of violence we need to end."

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