By Diana Rabbani
In the Middle East and South Asia, many families practice ‘honor killing,’ or murdering a daughter or wife for a perceived dishonor she has committed. Examples of these ‘dishonors’ include seeking divorce or losing virginity out of wedlock, even through rape. The issue of honor killing is important because these killings violate human rights by discriminating against women and taking away the security of their person. These killings deny the rights of women and treat them as second class citizens, thus requiring investigation of this issue. Furthermore, local law enforcement turns a blind eye to the murder of these women as many societies prize family honor, therefore condoning this practice according to Amnesty International. Honor killing violates Article 2d of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which prohibits “engaging in any act or practice of discrimination against women and to ensure that public authorities and institutions shall act in conformity with this obligation.” This article will consider the definition of honor killings and then discuss the history of honor killings as well as the current context of honor killings in Jordan and outside the Middle East. It will critique past approaches to ending honor killings and then conclude with new proposals to end this crime.
Origin of the Problem and Current Context
The roots of honor killing come from a complex code of honor that is ingrained in many Middle Eastern societies. Family status depends upon honor, which in turn depends upon the respectability of the daughters and wife of the family. According to the code of honor, these daughters and wives can damage family honor irreparably by a “misuse” of their sexuality, such as sexual relations before marriage or even being the victim of rape . According to Sharif Kanaana, a professor of anthropology at Birzeit University in the West Bank, honor killings derive from the pre-Islamic era when the patriarchal and patrilineal society was interested in maintaining control over “designated familial power structures.” Men from the family, clans, and tribes wanted to control reproductive power since women were seen as ‘“factories’” for producing men. Currently, family is the foundation of many Middle Eastern societies, including Jordan. Family status depends upon honor, which in turn depends on a woman’s virginity. A woman’s virginity is seen first as the property of her father and later as a gift for her husband. Thus, a woman’s honor must be guarded by her family. On the outside, a woman is guarded by her behavior and clothing, and on the inside she is guarded by her hymen . Honor killings are difficult to prosecute though. For example, in Jordanian law, Article 341 defines murder as an act of defense if “the act of killing another or harming another was committed as an act in defense of his life, or his honor, or somebody else’s life or honor” . If honor killings are classified as defense, they are difficult to prosecute as a criminal action.
The entire legal system of many Middle Eastern countries is based upon a patriarchy, reflecting the social, economic, and political atmosphere of such countries. Communities ostracize single mothers, and as a result these mothers have no role in the legal system. Without a husband, single mothers do not have access to social welfare or economic support . Thus, honor killings further strengthen the patriarchal society which places women beneath the power of men. In all aspects of such a society, women must submit to the control of men and are politically isolated if they do not have a husband to handle their affairs .
In the patriarchal societies that practice honor killings, punishments for such crimes are reduced or are even absent due to the defense that the male perpetrator was provoked sufficiently to warrant punitive action. Such provocation includes a woman’s sexual encounters outside of wedlock or adultery that brings shame upon the family . The honor killing defense justifies and clears the man of any criminal responsibility or punishment . Religion plays a major role in the justification of honor killings. Islamic law states that a wife must obey her husband and failure to do so permits physical punishment and even killing. This defense is permitted in more than twenty Middle Eastern countries, and Jordan has the highest rate of honor killings in the world . Islamic law requires sufficient and high quality evidence for such serious accusations though. However, some men who have committed an honor killing state that tradition is stronger than religion. If rumors begin to spread about a girl, then the family feels forced by social pressure to end the potential embarrassment, even without the evidence that Islamic law requires . The United Nations Population Fund estimates that about five thousand women die from honor killings every year, but this data is not as accurate as possible due to the vast number of honor killings that are not reported .
While honor killings are prominent in the Middle East, there are cases of such killings occurring in western countries such as the case of Noor Almaleki in the United States. Noor Almaleki and her friend, Amal Khalaf, were both struck by a car driven by Noor’s father. Amal survived but Noor later died and her father was convicted of killing his daughter. Cases such as this show that honor killings do not remain in one region of the world, but can follow the immigration of people into different parts of the world. Simply living in another part of the world does not necessarily change the thinking ingrained into a certain culture. Thus, change, education, and legislation must be implemented at the source of a culture within its own region to stop the spread of the practice into outside regions. In Noor’s case, the United States does not make an exception for murder because of family honor. However, in many Middle Eastern countries, authorities do not prosecute for honor killings as family honor is ingrained into the society.
Critique of Policy Options
Since honor killings are ingrained into the society of practicing countries, many of the crimes are unreported or ignored by local law enforcement. As a result reliable statistics do not exist. The Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling (WCLAC) is preparing a study entitled “Legal Victimization of Women in the Arab World – a Palestinian Case Study” to catalogue honor killing cases for reliable statistics. The Palestinian Women’s Working Society is also trying to lobby police to publish statistics, since the police are the only ones who know the actual number of honor killings that occur. While creating reliable statistics is a good start, it does not stop the honor killings from occurring. It simply documents the killings. The Women’s Empowerment Project provides emergency assistance for women who have violated honor codes through counseling and referrals for hymen-repair operations. The employees of Women’s Empowerment Project receive telephone threats as a result and are accused of rebelling against tradition and corrupting society. These NGOs also fight for the availability of abortion for women who become pregnant through rape . While these NGOs do provide help for women, their efforts simply protect women from persecution, rather than trying to stop persecution altogether. Counseling and hymen-repair operations do not allow women to embrace and control their own sexuality. These efforts allow women to hide any sexual encounters from their male family, but the male family members still clearly have control if these women are going to these NGOs to cover up their actions. These efforts do protect women in need and offer them assistance. However, these NGOs do not take action far enough.
In order to stop honor killings, legislation must be changed, authorities need to prosecute for these crimes instead of turning away, and sanctions must be imposed on countries that still engage and promote this form of inequality and murder. One group of Jordanians started off in the right direction by forming the Campaign to Eliminate So-Called Crimes of Honor in early 1999. They gathered over 15,000 signatures by November 1999 in an attempt to repeal Article 340 of the Jordanian Penal Code which allows for reduced penalties for men convicted of committing honor crimes .
The Campaign to Eliminate So-Called Crimes of Honor can be seen as a starting point for the proposal of ending honor killings. The Campaign faced difficulties that when corrected can lead to success. Local grassroots organizations in Jordan are carefully controlled by the state, thus making it difficult to fight against Jordanian legislation. The Jordanian government eventually took over the Campaign to Eliminate So-Called Crimes of Honor . In addition, this Campaign focused only upon eliminating Article 340 even though this article has only been applied once in the thirty-five years it has been part of Jordanian law. The focus should instead have been placed upon Article 98. Jordanian law reduces the punishment of offenders through Article 98 which states that a man who commits a crime in a “fit of fury” caused by an “unrightful act on the part of the victim” will have reduced penalty . Furthermore, the Campaign did not accept any outside funds in order to preserve the integrity of the organization as well as avoid usurpation by another group .
In addition to misdirected focus, the Campaign chose not to register with the Ministry of Interior in Jordan, as local groups are required to do. The Campaign wanted to avoid co-optation, but this plan eventually failed regardless. Since they did not register, they were not permitted to rent office space and they could not find printing houses to print their materials. The only printing house that agreed to print their materials insisted on approval from the Ministry of Interior. Newspapers did not want to print their press releases, which forced the Campaign to buy a commercial ad . When the issue was finally called to a vote in the Jordanian Parliament in early 2000, the Upper House approved the cancelation of Article 340, but the Lower House did not agree. Since the two houses could not agree, a joint session has to be called between the government and Parliament. However, there is no time limit for a joint session to be called, so the people of Jordan today are still demanding the cancelation of Article 340 .
The efforts of this particular grassroots organization ultimately did not succeed in their goal, but success can be achieved through the cooperation of the United Nations Human Rights Council and an international human rights group, such as Amnesty International, with local grassroots organizations. With international support, local grassroots organizations could have more influence upon Parliament, thus being able to sway both houses. The UN Human Rights Council and Amnesty International would not change the integrity of these local grassroots organizations, making them more likely to accept funding for the printing of their materials as well as ad spaces in newspapers. With the support of Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Council, a local grassroots organization such as this would not be weakened by not gaining the approval of the Ministry of Interior. Gaining approval from the Ministry of Interior means that the Jordanian government would have a hand in influencing the actions of the group. However, without the approval of the Ministry of Interior and with the support of the UN and Amnesty International, local organizations have the strength to succeed without influence from the violating government.
In addition to monetary support from the Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Council, the focus of the local grassroots organization should be expanded. Instead of just focusing on Article 340, local organizations should focus on Article 98 as well, since that is the Article most used to decrease or completely deny punishment to honor crime offenders. If the Campaign succeeds in repealing Article 98, then the majority of defenses for honor crimes cannot be used.
Expanding the focus of local grassroots organizations will have farther reaching affects, but countries such as Jordan will not be swayed without sanctions. By imposing sanctions on violating countries such as Jordan, this pressure will steer them toward legislative change. The political and economic challenges will most likely deal with trade, as much of Jordan’s economy depends upon trade, especially of minerals. Jordan has Free Trade Agreements with the United States, the European Union, Canada, and many other countries. If trade sanctions are put in place with Jordan, then this would pressure Jordan to change. Another difficulty in this proposal is simply the history and culture of honor killings that are ingrained into society. No international body can tell people in a country that their culture is wrong. Thus, the approach that must be taken should not be an approach telling Jordanians that their culture is wrong for placing family honor upon a girl’s virginity. Rather, education about democracy and human rights must be implemented through local grassroots organizations that are from the violating country and thus are part of the culture. No foreign body can enter into a country and try to force change. Change must come from within and this can only be achieved through local organizations. This policy will be determined a success once Article 340 and Article 98 are repealed. While legislation can be changed, full success will not be reached until Jordan acts upon its new legislation by imposing strict punishments for those who commit honor killings.
This policy recommendation aims to end the human rights violation of honor killing that is practiced by many countries mainly in the Middle East, including Jordan. Family honor rests upon a girl’s virginity and is highly prized in these countries. Jordan has the highest rate of honor killings, and thus intervention and change must be implemented to stop this crime. By funding and supporting local grassroots organizations, change can come from within, overcoming the obstacle of a foreign body trying to change the culture that has been ingrained into a society for centuries. This policy recommendation is in agreement with past attempts at policy change, but suggests a broader focus, funding, and sanctions against the violating country. The goal of ending honor crimes is still the same. Honor crimes violate the basic human rights of women, but societies continue to practice this crime. To spare the lives of women who are under the control of a patriarchal society, efforts to create change must be refined and implemented now.
Image by Roba Al-Assi