To kill for honor: the case of Femicide in Jordan by Chryssoula Katsikoudi

JordanWomenViolence against women in the Arab world has not reached a stage of debate, yet, solely because women in the Middle Eastern culture are occupants of the domestic, and patriarchal system in which Western theories are not applicable. Violence can be inflicted either physically, or verbally, but in any cases physical violence has become part of an institutionalized patriarchal system in which Arab women have become victims. Most violence against women usually take place in the home. In Jordan, for example, like in many other Arab countries, the majority of adult Jordanian women live with either their spouses or their paternal families. Most of them do not go beyond secondary education as the majority get married at a young age and become economically depended on the male members of the family. Therefore, their dependency makes them more vulnerable to violence within their own home.

One of the most extreme types of violence seen amongst Jordanian women in households are honor killings. Despite Jordan having the reputation of a democratic, progressive country in the Middle East, it has become difficult to rely on data and research, especially conducted by feminists, who challenge the traditional views and morals of Jordanian society. First, most of the statistics on violence and crime in Jordan are recorded by men who are not familiar with gender related issues, and furthermore, there is the problem of lack of reports by the victims of violence. When women file a police report, most of the time they are left neglected by the very system that is supposed to protect them. This neglect leaves them not only discouraged but hopeless to file reports at all, therefore these acts of violence go undocumented and unreported.

Jordanian society in particular has been classified by feminists as a “Neo-patriarchal” society where relationships are influenced not only by gender, but by class, and loyalty to the regime. Jordan is a small country in the Middle East, bordering Israel, and limited natural resources. Since the 1960s, Jordan has been exposed and characterized by Western influences. As a result of these influences, Jordan has undergone a social and economic transformation. There was a sudden spread of equalization amongst the two sexes, and Jordanian women were entering the job market as well as expanding in the field of education. Yet, how come a society so Westernized, is lacking the fundamental basics of women’s rights?

Unlike Syria or Iraq, Jordan is a fairly middle-income country – despite its budget crisis – with a strong and respectable military. Its state legitimacy and the people of Jordan interacting allows the country to invest in jobs, medical care, and most importantly education. However, many women’s rights activists argue there is still a lot to be done. Ever since Jordan’s independence from Britain in 1946, women’s movement have fueled the engine of gender-inequality in the country. Educated women were granted suffrage by 1955, but it was not until 1974 where all women were granted the right to vote. In 1993, the first female candidate was elected in the lower house of Parliament soon after following the first women appointed to the upper house of Parliament. Despite its past and recent turmoil, as a unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy, Jordan seems to be the most “democratic” government in the Arab world today. A country exposed to conflict in the North and financial crisis, it is the least corrupt. Or so it seems;

In Jordan, murder is punishable by death, but so called “honor killings” which are still happening on many occasions, the courts have the right to commute or reduce the sentence, particularly if the victims family is asking for leniency. Why is it that men are not fully prosecuted for murdering female relatives over honor-crimes? How can a country who represented to the international community as a legitimate, and prosperous state, by celebrity Queens such a Noor and Rania, to be so patriarchal; at the same time when current Queen Rania is portrayed as a symbol for female equality by her people?

As previously mentioned before, although the Jordanian culture has undergone a tremendous change due to globalization and Western influences, the basic family structures have remained the same. The idea of honor and shame in Jordanian society, in this case family honor, is expressed most importantly through sexual purity; the virginity of the daughter, sister, and fidelity of the wife or mother. Reputation and rumor play an active role in instigating honor killings. In the Arab culture, when one speaks of the reputation of a woman they embark her sexual behavior, therefore, a Jordanian woman’s reputation ultimately decides her fate.

Ahmad Ghashmary, a unique and rare male feminist, has been a passionate advocate to stop social and legal acceptance of men murdering female relatives to honor-crimes. In 2006, the Jordanian Supreme Court suspended Fatima Habib from her position as a trial judge because she had sentenced Saleh Radwan to death for killing his younger sister, Dana, when he discovered that she was having an affair with a male friend of his. Saleh went on saying that his sister has “dishonored the family.”1 Outraged by the sentence, some of the male judges wanted to sign a petition to appoint a male judge to the Supreme Court to give “proper justice to the dishonored man.”2 And so they succeeded; Habib was believed to be in favor of women and that was a good enough reason to welcome the Courts decision to replace her. Judge Habib said in one of her statements that the Supreme Court decision to reverse her sentence was “barbaric.” She went on saying, “It will take us ages to convince people here that women are human beings, that they are as wise as men if not wiser sometimes.”3

This case was only a sheer example of how extremists spread propaganda claiming that women’s emancipation is a Western plot designed to eliminate Islamic morals. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a Professor of Law at the University of California in Los Angeles, and a Muslim, argues in his book “The Great Theft” that Jihad and the treatment of women in Islam are the two most controversial and misunderstood topics about the Islamic faith; the issue of women in Islam, as well as Jihad, invokes the images of oppression and cruelty against women. However, the sole problem does not lie with Islam as a religion itself, but the fact that ultraconservative and extremists have adopted the truth about the Islamic faith and formed Islam’s image into a dominant role to be misunderstood by the world, especially the West. This patriarchal society lead by supremacy has turned honor killings justifiable, when in reality it has absolutely nothing to do with Islam.

In Jordan, more than 92% of the population are Sunni Muslims, and as in many Islamic countries, religion is strict on what is permitted (halal) and prohibited (haram). According to the sharia law, adultery or sex out of wedlock (zina) is punishable by either one hundred lashes in public or stoning. So how, when, and why did honor killings become such a common crime justifying the zina in Islamic law? Islamic law is strict when it comes to prove that there was adultery or sex out of wedlock committed, and it always favored the discretion in its case. Therefore, it would be impossible for the brother, husband, or father to actually witness this act. However, Islamic law is not always followed faithfully. Saudia Arabia and Qatar follow the sharia law strictly, but it is not always implied as it should, or rather consistently. For example, in 1977, Saudi Princess Mish’al was sentenced to death and beheaded, because she fell in love with a Lebanese man wanting to marry him. She had not engaged in any sexual activity with the young man. If sharia law would have been applied according to emphasis of the Qur’an the Hadith, she would have been alive today.4

What exactly is Sharia law? We know that it is the Islamic law and the basis of every Muslim’s demand they make in their society; for example, when Muslim women wear a headscarf that is the equivalent of obeying the sharia law, which derives from the Qur’an – the word of Allah. But the Qur’an only consists about 14% of the total “words of Allah,” or the doctrine of Islam. The Sunna, which consists of the Sira and the Hadith (Muhammad’s teachings and traditions), sums up about 86% of the Islamic doctrine. Therefore, to understand sharia law one must understand content of the Qur’an and the Sunna. As the evolution of sharia law evolved since the times of Prophet Muhammad, it has been interpreted by Islam’s finest scholars. When it comes to women, Islamic scholars claim that Islam was one of the first civilizations that guaranteed women’s rights. Muhammad described women as treasures that must be protected.5 However, if women are to be protected by Islam, does that “protection” equal to women being vulnerable to violence and being subjected to the rule of the patriarch system? Are honor killings justifiable as “protection” to maintain family honor?

Honor killing is not included in the sharia doctrine.6 As mentioned before, the Qur’an does state that punishment for adultery or sex out of wedlock are one hundred lashes public, or sometimes even stoning. Could it be that stoning has been interpreted as a justifiable reason that honor killings can be performed without disobeying sharia law? In this case, honor killings are committed by family members because they are convinced of themselves that killing the sister or daughter is the will of God (Allah). They believe that God wants them to kill their sister or daughter, who has been believed to have fornicated with a lover. In reality, it is not them convincing themselves but their own anger and shame which are driving their actions. Assuming  the brother or husband is a religious man, rather than thinking of God as merciful, forgiving, and compassionate, God is imagined to be angry and vengeful. Therefore, God has been transformed into an entirely different image and exploited into a narcissist.

Since women, in most Arab countries, are seen as inferior to men, domestic violence is foreseen as “allowed” because it establishes rule of the male in the household. Honor killings are not, in any way, accorded as legal, however, there is no penalty for killing an adulterer. Some would argue that the penalties for adultery and sex outside of wedlock are equal, however, men have far more legal ways to have sex outside marriage, while women are limited to their husband’s alone and therefore more vulnerable to be a victim of honor killings.
During pre-Islamic period, honor killings and the burying of young girls was abolished. It seems as centuries passed, honor killings have emerged to be common again, and the protection of honor has become a priority over Islamic teachings.

To conclude, in the midst of all the struggle for women’s equality in Jordan, Ahmad Ghashmary believes there is hope. In 2007, he has launched a new group called “LAHA” which means “For Her” in Arabic to encourage activism for women’s rights. He believes changes must come for women if they are not to lose half of their society. However, as much as we love to hope this fine activist will succeed to get his massage through, the real problem is not only social attitudes in families but with the “government” itself, or more so the Courts.

This attitude of understanding the motives for killing relatives as an excuse to reduce or pardon the sentence will guarantee the social collapse of Jordan; if murder is punishable by death, then so shall honor killings be. A country cannot prosper “democratically” is distinctions like that are made. Unfortunately, despite the changes made in pre-Islamic era regarding adultery and sex out of wedlock, the value of honor has survived and prevailed over Islamic law, creating a new system of political ideologies. This new system of value of honor is ultimately what decided the fate of so many Arab women in the Middle East today.

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