Special report on honour killings

It was the case of a 16-year-old Jordanian girl in 1994, killed at the hands of her brother because she had been raped by another brother, which led Rana Husseini to campaign actively for the prevention of honour killings.

Honour killings are the murder of a woman or girl accused of tainting family honour.

Husseini, a journalist, has been calling on the government to implement stricter laws and punishments for those who commit these crimes. She has written extensively on the subject and attends court proceedings to follow up on cases.

“[My work involves] exposing these crimes for what they really are, cold-blooded and senseless murders, and struggling with the law to restore dignity to women and consider them full human beings,” she told IRIN in the capital Amman.

“The problem of honour crimes is not restricted to any particular class of Jordanian society or certain regions,” she added.

SCALE OF THE PROBLEM

There are no accurate statistics on the number of honour crimes committed in Jordan annually, but according to a report by the Christian Science Monitor in March 2005, honour crimes account for one-third of all violent deaths in Jordan.

This runs counter to the perception of Jordan as one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East, where gender discrimination is officially minimal; women have voting rights, are present in parliament and government and hold influential positions in other sections of society.

Statistics on the number of honour crimes that occur in Jordan vary from one source to another and there is a problem in collecting data because of fear of retaliation by family members.

The Ministry of Interior’s official statistics on honour killings throw little light on the extent of the practice. There were 15 honour killings out of a total of 125 murders in the country in 2002.

However, the Jordan Times newspaper reported higher numbers than the government; 19 in 2001 and 22 in 2002.

According to Husseini, almost 70 percent of murdered women in honour killings are virgins.

Husseini states that there is often no account of the female’s side of the story and no solid evidence. “It is sufficient to state that it was done ‘to cleanse one’s honour,” she explained.

REASONS BEHIND THE KILLINGS

The crime occurs as a result of embedded perceptions of discrimination between the sexes in customs, traditions, and social values, the campaigner explained.

According to a paper by the Jordanian author and university professor, Fadia Faqir, the majority of men and women in Jordanian society believe that “an unchaste woman destroys not only her own reputation, but also the name and honour of all her family.”

Ghazi Bin Talal, the Jordanian king’s adviser on tribal affairs, further explains in his book ‘The tribes of Jordan at the beginning of the 21st century’, that while Jordan continues to prosper, we see “changes caused by modernization. The erosion of much of the traditional tribal lifestyle has entrenched all the rigidity and conservatism of the old tribal ‘shame culture’ while denuding it of its old chivalric instincts”.

Experts say other reasons for honour crimes include, rape, to cover up for incest, adultery, unlawful or undesired pregnancies and for inheritance purposes.

Furthermore, men are brainwashed by their families at a young age about the notion of family honour and the importance of preserving it, cultural experts say.

In addition, the minimal punishment for the crime further exacerbates the problem, according to Husseini.

RELIGION

Although most honour crimes occur in Muslim societies, Islam does not sanction such killings. Sheikh Atiyyah Saqr, former head of the al-Azhar University in Amman told IRIN it was a cultural practice that falsely interprets religion to allow murder to be justified.

However, some Jordanian MPs oppose repeal of the law on honour crimes.

“Women adulterers cause a great threat to our society because they are the main reason that such acts take place,” said Mohammed Kharabsheh, a Jordanian parliamentarian said. “If men do not find women with whom to commit adultery, then they will become good on their own.”

THE LAW

The law as it stands appears to condone the practice of honour killings.

Article 340 of the Jordanian Penal Code states that “he who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery with another, and he kills, wounds or injures one or both of them, is exempt from any penalty”.

It adds that “he who discovers his wife, or one of his female ascendants or descendants or sisters with another in an unlawful bed and he kills, wounds or injures one or both of them, benefits from a reduction of penalty.”

Yet this article contradicts Article 6 of the Jordanian Constitution that guarantees the rights of all Jordanian citizens regardless of their gender.

Article 98 is almost always cited alongside Article 340 in cases of honour killings. It has been a further deterrent for potential perpetrators. Article 98 stipulates that a reduced sentence is applied to a person who kills another person in a “fit of fury”.

In addition, many families entrust their sons under the age of 18 to kill female relatives in the name of family honour. ”The juvenile law commits minors to a juvenile centre which releases them back into society with a clear criminal record at the age of 18 after receiving an education or vocational training,” Husseini explained.

According to legal experts, these articles simply create legal loopholes, which allows such heinous crimes to continue unchecked in Jordan.

“Under the existing law, people found guilty of committing honour killings often receive sentences as light as six months in prison. Moreover, courts may further halve the sentence if the victim’s family “waives” its right to file a complaint of the crime,” Husseini said.

Media reports and past cases show such cruel acts are often legally put down to a fit of fury.

In one such case a man killed his unmarried cousin a month after learning she was pregnant. The court found “losing his temper” was justified because she had “brought disgrace to her family”.

PREVENTION EFFORTS

Women lawyers in Jordan first began to draw attention to honour killings in the 1980s. By 1994 the Jordanian Women’s Union (JWU) established the first domestic violence hotline.

In 1999, a grassroots campaign against honour killings gathered some 15,000 signatures on a petition for repeal of Article 340. The campaign cut across the usual family, tribal, and communal divisions within society.

Spurred by local activists and international attention, in 1999, King Abdullah established a special committee to review and amend gender-discriminatory laws.

After the committee recommended the repeal of Article 340, and the cabinet approved the recommendation, the measure was presented to parliament twice, in November 1999 and January 2000 and in both cases, though approved by the upper house, it failed to pass the elected lower house.

A march was held in 2000, drawing in 5,000 people in Amman to appeal against the lower house decision, but to no avail.

In mid-2001, while the lower house of parliament was temporarily suspended, the cabinet passed a number of temporary laws, subject to parliamentary ratification, once the new legislature convened.

Among them was an amendment: husbands would no longer be exonerated for murdering unfaithful wives, but instead the circumstances would be considered as evidence for mitigating punishment.

In an effort to make this law gender-neutral, a second clause was added in 2001 granting female perpetrators the same reduction in penalty.

In September 2003, parliament went into session with the amended Article 340 on its agenda for ratification. The upper house twice approved the proposals, which were again rejected by the lower house. To date, amendments to Articles 340 and 98 remain pending.

SUPPORT FOR SURVIVORS

Women faced with the threat of murder as an honour killing have few options, given the lack of protective social services.

"These women have no other chance. Over 40 women live in prisons together with serious offenders for this very reason," Husseini explained.

Some women have lived under these circumstances for more than 10 years, she added.

The journalist insisted that the creation of more women's refuges was the crux of the solution. "Only state protection can be effective here," she maintained.

Several attempts have been made to provide such facilities. The family protection unit was established in 1998 as part of the public security directorate to protect women and children from domestic violence. However, officials decided after only two months of operation, to exclude cases of physical abuse of adult women by a family member from the unit.

In addition, the JWU runs a crisis hotline and a small, six-bed shelter in Amman, but staff say they cannot meet the pressing needs of women who are victims of domestic violence, including those threatened by an honour killing.

Husseini pointed out that one reason for the delay for this much-needed shelter, was constant changes in the leadership of the Ministry of Social Development in recent years.

“The drafting of the law that will make the first shelter a reality has gone through many hands, but has yet to bear fruit,” she explained.

In terms of services for victims, the department of social services offers counselling for family reconciliation. For many, this can only translate as marriage. If the man linked to the illicit behaviour can and will marry the woman, the problem may be regarded as solved.

Counsellors may also try to find someone in the family to diffuse the threat and work toward a solution short of marriage. But reconciliation is rarely successful.

SOLUTIONS

Husseini maintains that there needs to be zero tolerance of honour crimes, by eliminating articles of the Jordanian penal code which excuse the crime or reduce the punishment of those convicted.

In addition, the police need to conduct serious investigations pertaining to such crimes, she said.

On another front, Husseini said religious leaders had a major role in educating people about the horror of honour killings and in severing the alleged link between the crime and Islam.

“The media should play a fundamental role in exposing honour crimes, raising public awareness and education people on past mistakes and future obligations,” she explained.

"We have to be patient, and I'm encouraged by the social awareness that now exists in Jordan, compared to 10 years ago," Husseini added.