Jordan: Women challenge 'honor' killings

The Christian Science Monitor
A widespread campaign aims to help Jordan's forgotten victims.
AMMAN, JORDAN – Six months ago, Mona fled her home. Her husband had married a second wife, as Islamic law allows, and Mona - defying his demands to return to her mother's house, where he could call upon her at any time - sought refuge in a cheap and run-down hotel. Alone and frightened, she waited, fearing her husband would find and kill her.
By fleeing, Mona had tarnished the family's honor, which tribal custom dictated could be cleansed only by her death.

So-called "honor" killings - the murder of a woman who is accused of tainting family honor - account for one-third of all violent deaths in Jordan, a country which otherwise has low crime rates. Until recently, honor killings received little or no attention. Most Jordanians preferred not to speak of the brutal killings - which are illegal though often prosecuted leniently. Often, the slayings gain no attention, and the women who are killed simply become Jordan's forgotten victims.

Now in the care of the Jordanian Women's Union, however, Mona (not her real name) is neither forgotten nor a victim, thanks to a widespread campaign, organized and orchestrated by various activists, to rid the country of these notorious murders.

"Before I came here, I used to cry all the time," says Mona, a slight woman in her mid-twenties who, after hiding from her husband for two days in a city outside her native Amman, found sanctuary in the Union, where she now works as a cook.

"But now, I laugh and I smile. I feel safe here, and I feel stronger than ever. All I want to do now is work and get custody of my children after the court grants me a divorce from my husband. I have great hope for the future."

The Jordanian Women's Union is run by Nadia Shamroukh, an outspoken and determined activist who believes that empowering women through education and legal awareness are the best ways to fight discrimination and social oppression.

"You can't separate social, political, and economic issues for women, because we believe women's rights are part of human rights," says Ms. Shamroukh, speaking from her main office in Amman.

There are 10 branches of the Union throughout Jordan, in both rural areas and in the Palestinian refugee camps. The group works to teach women to read and write, and to help them understand their legal rights. In addition, it campaigns to change the laws that discriminate against women, particularly those that permit leniency toward honor crimes.

Shamroukh is particularly proud of the fact that her organization plays an active role in the lives of potential victims.

"If a woman calls our hot line and asks for protection, to come and stay in our shelter, and can't come in by herself, then we will go to her house and take the woman from there," she says. "This is what we do. None of the other organizations does this kind of thing. Only us."

The Union, a nongovernmental organization initially established in 1945 to educate and liberate Jordanian women, has worked in recent years to draw more attention to honor killings. However, one particular Jordanian woman is most often credited with bringing the subject to light.

Rana Husseini was barely four months into her new job as a crime reporter for the country's only English-language daily, The Jordan Times, when she came across a shocking incident involving the death of a 16-year-old girl at the hands of her 31-year-old brother.

"It was May 1994, and I was at the beginning of my career," says Ms. Husseini, speaking of the story that propelled her to take an active interest in the issue. The young woman was killed by one brother because she had been raped by another brother.

Unable to understand the logic behind such an attack, and unwilling to ignore the gravity of the issue, Husseini began a relentless public-awareness campaign, writing about the subject, attending court proceedings, and analyzing the manner in which women were treated by the judicial system.

"I discovered these killers were getting away with very lenient sentences," says Husseini, whose work has earned her several human rights awards.

"And then I also discovered that women who survived these attacks were being put in prison [at the women's correctional facility in Amman] for their own protection. I was outraged."

Husseini sees the abolition of Article 98 of the Jordanian Penal Code as the key to eradicating honor killings, which, according to official figures, claim at least 25 lives each year. That is one of the highest per capita rates in the world, in this country of 4.8 million.

"Article 98, which allows for a reduction in penalty if a man kills in a fit of fury, is used in all honor-crime cases," says Husseini, a native Jordanian who earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in the United States at Oklahoma City University.

"And because of its elasticity, killers are still ... only getting sentences from three months to two years. But we have to be patient, and I'm encouraged by the social awareness that now exists in Jordan, compared to 10 years ago."

Despite their occurrence in Jordan and other Muslim nations, honor killings are a pre-Islamic, tribal custom, condoned neither by Islam nor by any other major world religion, analysts say.

The number of honor crimes throughout the world is virtually impossible to measure, although the United Nations Population Fund has estimated that there are some 5,000 a year. Brazil, Ecuador, Italy, Sweden, and Britain have all reported such crimes.

Jordan, despite some encouraging signs, is still far from treating such crimes with the severity that activists insist they deserve. The Pakistani government, for instance, recently adopted a law to execute killers convicted of honor crimes, but Jordan shows no signs of following that example.

"If the government was serious about changing the law and eliminating honor crimes, then they would have done something to demonstrate this," says Inaam Asha, a social worker and lawyer who works on women's issues. "In fact, when you still have some members of the Jordanian public condemning social workers like myself, who are fighting against this issue, then you're facing a very difficult situation.

"Some people say, 'Why are you concentrating on a crime that only kills a small number of people each year, when you should be trying to focus on people getting killed in road accidents?' "

Honor killings have a devastating effect on all concerned, says Ms. Asha. "The killer is a victim, too."

The battle against honor killings is not an easy one, she says, and it cannot be fought solely in the courts.

"No matter how much we change the law, it is much easier than changing the mentality," says Asha. "Changing the mentality requires persistence. We all know we have to change. We all know that we will change. But we have to start now."

By Alasdair Soussi, Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor
Originally published on 2 March 2005