Jordan: Interview with Rana Husseini, author of "Murder in the Name of Honor"

Thirteen women are murdered in "honour killings" by their own relatives every day, according to Rana Husseini, a human rights advocate and journalist who has devoted her career to fighting the barbaric and widespread practice. "I'm documenting the cases of women, their stories, the fact that they lived on this earth and that someone deprived them the right to live," Husseini told IPS. An honour killing occurs when a family feels that their female relative has tarnished their reputation, according to Husseini, author of the recently released book "Murder in the Name of Honor".

"The person chosen by the family to carry out the murder (usually male: a brother, father, cousin, paternal uncle or husband) brutally ends their female relative's life to cleanse the family of the 'shame' she brought upon them," she writes in her book.

The Jordan Times journalist has heard stories of women around the world being killed for chewing gum, laughing at a joke in the street, and wearing makeup. According to Husseini, reports submitted to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights indicate that honour crimes occur in Jordan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, Britain, the Palestinian Territories, India, Israel, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, Yemen, Uganda and the United States, among others.

Not only did Husseini's hard-hitting reports raise local awareness, but in 2008, she helped form the National Jordanian Committee to Eliminate so-called Crimes of Honour. Her ultimate goal is to change Jordanian law by demanding tougher punishments for the perpetrators of these crimes.

In an interview with IPS correspondent Chryso D'Angelo, Husseini spoke about the challenges of halting honour killings in her country. Excerpts follow.

Q: Has there been any progress in stopping honour killings?

A: Jordan is a very good example of progress. If I look back to where I started to today, there have been tremendous changes. For example, in 2009 there was the first ever special tribunal to try men who kill in family honour. For the first time the court refused the family's request to drop charges. The man got 15 years. This is a major change. Civil society has been active and the government is talking about changing some laws.

Q: In what way has the Jordanian government stepped in?

A: In Jordan, work has been done on all levels, starting with the royal family and at the grassroots level. Queen Rania has been outspoken. Even King Hussein has been active in addressing the issue of domestic violence and women and children. When you have a leader of a country talking about this issue, it's important - and something you don't see in many countries.

Q: Do you see any changes in the attitudes of men?

A: In the past when I lectured, men would raise their hands and say, 'I would kill my sister; so what? She did something wrong.' But now men are more open to being involved in talking about the issue. There is a group in Jordan which has been doing a traveling play for about five years. Some characters are men. The play involves honour killing and they stop and ask people what they think. It's important for men to be involved.

Q: Honour killings are not solely carried out by men. For example, you wrote about an honour killing that took place in St. Louis in 1989, which recounts a mother/father team. The mother held down the daughter while the father stabbed her to death. Her crime was being too "Westernised." What role do women play in honour killings?

A: Women are usually divided into two parts. First, there are those who don't have a say in the issue. If they stand up and speak, they might get killed themselves. That's how they wind up as accomplices. Others really believe that the woman should be punished and that it will be a lesson to others in the family.

Q: Have you ever come across a situation in which a female intervened to help another woman?

A: No, I have never seen anyone intervene.

Q: Are there any social ramifications for a man or woman who commits an honour killing?

A: There is hypocrisy among the people that push others into killing. I interviewed several killers who said they were promised things like money if they committed the murder and then their families turned their backs on them.

Q: You mentioned in a PBS interview that honour killings are not a religious issue, but a cultural one.

A: Unfortunately, a lot of people think these murders are related to Islam. These crimes happen in all religions. I have reported stories of women killed by family members in Jordan who were Christian. In Italy, there are men who kill their family members in the name of honour. It happens in the Hindi faith, too.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: I want it to be a credible reference and resource book for anybody who wants information on this topic. I also want to put forth solutions for people who might want to know what they can do to help.

Chryso D'Angelo

NEW YORK, Mar 23, 2010 (IPS)