Jordan: “Honour” Killings pose a serious challenge to the rule of law

"According to police records, every year 20-25 women in Jordan are killed “in the name of honour”, that is, for having an illicit affair."
Omaima was disposed of within minutes of her birth on 4 September in a rubbish bin. The illegitimate baby, however, was saved thanks to a street cleaner who heard her screaming from her makeshift tomb. The incident sent a shockwave throughout the conservative kingdom, with local papers dubbing Omaima "the rubbish bin girl".
Sari Nasir, a sociologist at the University of Jordan, showed no surprise at the chain of events that led to this travesty. "Values are stronger than life in Jordan," he said.

According to police records, every year 20-25 women are killed “in the name of honour”, that is, for having an illicit affair. The killers, and conspirators, get away with murder, after spending a few months in prison.

At least nine women have been killed since the beginning of this year for “honour” reasons, usually resulting from an illicit relationship or adultery or even a suspicion of both, police records show.

In Jordan, any “honour” related incident, is veiled in secrecy and is usually brushed under the carpet before it grabs public attention. The victims are usually women involved, or suspected to be involved, in an affair. “Honour” killings are technically illegal, but tradition and social pressure pose a serious challenge to the rule of law.

Media hype prompts action

But the media hype that surrounded Omaima's case prompted quick action from the authorities, who discovered that the drama involved Omaima's natural parents, her grandmother and two aunts.

It is a classic story. A young man and woman from the middle class fall in love. The girl's family refuses to allow them to marry, leading to a clandestine relationship that leads to pregnancy. Abortion was out of the question, the mother told police during investigations. According to neighbours and the testimonies of the mother and grandmother, delivery took place in a quiet room in the family house, when all the men were away. The grandmother and two sisters of the mother helped in the delivery, ready to send the baby girl straight from womb to tomb.

For now, Omaima, who was named by social workers, lives in a care centre with other children who carry their own heart-wrenching stories. Her parents are to face charges of adultery, which carries a minimum sentence of five years, after the man confessed to his role in the affair. The only way to escape jail is for them to get married, said legal experts.

That is not all. Police also fear Omaima's mother could be killed after leaving prison. "It has happened before with other unmarried mothers or single women who elope and return, and it will happen again," said a police official who preferred anonymity.

Protective custody

Young women involved in relationships not sanctioned by their parents are normally kept in protective custody until their family pledges in an official document not to harm the girl.

Police records in Amman show that every year some 20-25 unmarried women involved in “honour” issues are held in protective custody. Most of these, police officials say, were killed hours or days after their release from custody.

Ironically, killers in the name of “honour” often get six months and a hero's welcome from relatives after they are free.

"Society punishes the baby [Omaima] for the mother's guilt," said Nasir. "The story of the baby is a demonstration of how far society is ready to go to protect its honour. This baby girl is an innocent being, but she ended up the most harmed thanks to archaic habits," said Nasir.

Omaima's grandmother was given a prison sentence for attempted murder, after confessing she took away the baby girl against her mother's wish and threw her to die in the rubbish.

"This is an attempted murder and must be dealt with in a tough manner. We must make an example of these people in order to deter others from taking similar action in future," said Hani Dahleh, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights.

In the past, “honour” crimes were handled discreetly. In some cases the offending women were killed and buried without the knowledge of the authorities.

Taboo issue

Social and religious groups have found a crack in the wall of silence surrounding this taboo issue. Rights activists have been campaigning for years in an attempt to persuade society that life is more important than “honour”. Pressure by local and international human rights groups led to the introduction of a draft amendment to the penal code, which included severe penalties for “honour” killers.

However, the bill was defeated by conservatives and Islamist members of parliament (MP), who said they feared it would destroy morals and encourage adultery.

"It will be a very long time before there is a change in Jordan regarding `honour’ killings," said former MP Mahmoud Kharabsheh, from the conservative city of Salt. Kharabsheh was one of the MPs who lobbied against amending articles related to “honour” killings, because he feared the "harmful influence of Western culture on this nation".

Last week, a 90-year-old man from Abu Nusseir village, 30km west Amman, shot dead his 35-year-old daughter because neighbours saw a man leaving her house. The killer confessed he committed the crime to cleanse the family honour. The victim, Khitam, was divorced and lived with her two daughters and a son near her parent's house.

Rumours are enough to have a young woman killed.

In some cases, autopsies revealed that some victims were virgins, according to Mumen Hadidi, president of the Jordanian Society of Forensic Medicine, who often examines bodies of “honour” crime victims.

But this fact is rarely considered by a court. Dahleh says it is very difficult to separate law in Jordan from the strong grip of social rules.

"As far as the police and the court are concerned, suspicion of an illicit relationship is enough to make one commit an 'honour' crime," said Dahleh.

2 October 2007