Honour killings: a crime in the name of “family honour”
AMMAN - Jordanian high-school dropout Suha was stabbed to death by her teenage brother who suspected she was dating a neighbour.
Suha was one of 23 women killed in Jordan in 2014 in what are widely called “honour crimes”, or killings committed by male relatives against women for being raped, losing their virginity, having a relationship out of wedlock or for simply dating. The crimes are committed, even on the slight suspicion or rumour that the woman knows a man, to “wash the family shame”.
The phenomenon is not limited to Jordan but extends to other male-dominated countries where men have the final say in all family matters. The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 women worldwide are killed annually in domestic violence.
“In our traditional societies, the status of a family depends on the honour of a female member whereby anything that happens to a woman dishonours the whole family,” said Rana Husseini, a journalist whose daring reporting more than a decade ago lifted a taboo on public discussions on the matter.
“Unfortunately, some believe that cleansing the family honour can only be solved by a bullet or a knife,” Husseini told The Arab Weekly.
“Honour killing” is an act of “cleansing the family honour” by eliminating the woman her male relatives believe tarnished the family’s reputation.
State forensic specialist Dr Israa Tawalbeh said autopsies reveal that 99% of honour killing victims are virgins. The remaining 1% may have lost virginity in strenuous sports activities, Tawalbeh told The Arab Weekly. In conservative societies across the Middle East, a woman’s virginity is considered the honour and pride of her father and later a marriage gift to her husband. In Egypt’s tribal communities, wedding celebrations are interrupted as men stand behind the door of the bridal chamber until they are given the sheet from the room with a blood spot on it to show townsmen that the woman was a virgin.
In Jordan, women make up 49% of the population of 7 million. They are empowered in almost all sectors. Women serve as police and traffic officers, judges, air force and commercial airline pilots, lawyers, doctors and engineers. There are five women in the 28-member cabinet and 15 in the 150-seat Chamber of Deputies. But they are either appointed to the cabinet or voted in under a quota imposed by Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Abdullah — a progressive pro- Western Arab leader — and his wife, Queen Rania, fought an uphill battle in Jordan’s predominantly conservative legislature to impose harsher punishments on rapists and those who commit honour killings.
Parliament argued that sentences longer than the prevailing six months in jail would encourage women to commit vice. But the king wanted relevant references in the penal code revamped so that honour killings would be considered the same as other murders, punishable by a minimum of ten years in prison.
It took at least three years to amend the penal code, specifically Article 98, and even then not quite as much as the king had sought. Article 98 uses convoluted terminology and obliges judges to give high regard to extenuating circumstances, such as male fits of rage, when handing down sentences.
Jordanian lawyer Lubna Taweel told The Arab Weekly that the law “is in favour of men, not women”.
“Only men can benefit from Article 98 because a rapist or a perpetrator of an honour crime ends up in jail for three or six months, then he’s out to do it again,” Taweel said.
According to a Thomson Reuters Foundation report on women’s rights in the Arab world, Jordan ranked second-worst, after Egypt, in the category of honour killings. The report said 10 honour crimes were brought before judges in 2012. Additionally, 24 women went into protective police custody to avoid being killed by male relatives.
While 25 honour killings were recorded in the first nine months of 2013 in the Palestinian territories, 99.3% of women in Egypt are subject to sexual harassment, according to the report.
In Lebanon, where official statistics are inaccurate or are not made public, there is no law that prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. The country ranked badly for failing to punish marital rape and there were 66 honour killings from 1999 through 2007, the report said.
The London-based non-governmental organisation Amnesty International (AI) said honour killings breach Article 2 of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which prohibits “engaging in any act or practice of discrimination against women”.
But this means little to the brother who killed his pregnant sister Nida in the northern Jordan city of Jerash last summer. He stabbed her three times in the stomach, pushed her into the street while she was still breathing and ran her over with his vehicle until she died.
Surrendering to police, he told interrogators that he received a call from a friend telling him of his sister’s “bad behaviour and numerous affairs”.
He confessed he “had to clean my family’s honour”.
And, a 60-year-old father from Amman had little regard for laws when he stabbed his 25-year-old divorced daughter Mariam, also last summer, after neighbours told him that she had allegedly delivered a baby out of wedlock.
Husseini said Jordan is becoming aware that honour killings are like all other murders and that “now is the time to put an end to them”.
Honour killings may decrease but are unlikely to stop as long as Arab societies are “dominated by males”, added Husseini, who published a book — Murder in the Name of Honour — dedicated to the slain women in the stories she covered.
Husseini said the phenomenon extends to countries outside the Arab world. “Pakistan has the highest percentage of honour killings because women have no say in a society dominated by men,” she said.
For Husseini, the worst honour killing story she covered was of a 16-year-old schoolgirl who was killed by one of her brothers.
“He killed her because she was raped by another brother.”