One woman tackles 'honor' crimes in Jordan

A middle-aged man named Ghazi recently stumbled into Asma Khader's law offices here with a horrible tale to tell: His wife, Huweida, had been murdered by her own brother, Nidal.

In April, less than a year after Ghazi and Huweida had wed, Nidal shot his young sister to death.

Nidal says he was obliged to murder Huweida because she had sullied her family's honor - some of Nidal's friends had raped her more than four years before, when she was only 16.

It was a story that has become all too familiar to Ms. Khader, who finds many of Jordan's "honor killing" cases - about 25 a year - landing on her doorstep. But she says this one, in some small, sad way, indicates progress: It's not only women seeking justice, but men as well.

"The positive thing is that the husband is defending her, and he swears he won't drop the charges against her brother," says Khader, whose neat blue business suit and Hillary Clinton haircut stand out among the long, shapeless robes and headscarves worn by most employees in her office.

"Ghazi said, 'Now I understand what you've been talking about, about this injustice, because I lost someone whom I love,' " recalls Khader, who says the last names of the parties must be withheld because the case has not yet gone to trial.

Crime and punishment

Even if convicted, Huweida's brother can expect to be out of prison in two years or less. Some men convicted of honor crimes serve less than three months in jail, says Khader. According to article 340 of Jordan's penal code, judges should consider reduced sentences for any man who kills a female relative who has injured her family's honor by engaging in premarital or extramarital sex - even if it is against her will.

Khader is a driving force behind the intense battle to abolish article 340 and other laws that discriminate between men and women here.

Moreover, the local and international media have focused more attention on Jordan's de facto sanctioning of such extrajudicial killing, making it even more sensitive here.

Such crimes are committed in other Arab countries, too, though it is difficult to say how frequently. Most countries don't keep separate statistics for honor killings. Some here say the idea of murder as a way to cleanse the family honor is more common in Jordan and among some Palestinians because it is rooted in ethnic Bedouin mores. Others complain that Jordan has merely paid a price for its willingness to recognize the problem - an undeserved reputation as the chief offender in honor killings.

A new campaign launched by a coalition of women's and human rights groups to change popular attitudes about honor killings has thrust the subject - until recently taboo - onto the public agenda.

But when liberal politicians brought a bill to annul article 340 before the Jordanian parliament in January, it was rejected. Conservatives trounced it, saying it was a danger to family values and would encourage promiscuity.

A driving force

Khader, however, will not give up her cause. She is driven in part by a woman she was unable to help some 20 years ago.

During her first year as a lawyer, Khader listened in court as a judge gave a man a six-month sentence for murder. Afterward, the man's wife approached Khader for help. She wanted to leave her husband because he had killed one of their teenage daughters, who was pregnant and unmarried. Khader responded that, unfortunately, her daughter had clearly broken the rules.

"[The wife] said, 'You don't understand. He is the one who got her pregnant,' " recalls Khader.

Divorce, as the woman saw it, was not an option. Her husband would have been awarded custody of their remaining five children, and she would have been required to return to her family, at the risk that one of them might in turn consider her divorce a stain on the family honor.

"I found myself in a difficult situation, and I was young. I said, 'Go home now, and I'll think about it.' So she went with tears in her eyes, and she never came back," Khader says.

Pace for change picks up

Khader's limited ability to help still haunts her. "There are tens of cases of women who are still alive and threatened, and sometimes I feel guilty because I don't know what to do for them," she says.

"We do see more men who are asking for protection for their wives," she says. "Members of the family have started rejecting these traditions and not giving total support to the killers, as they did in the past."

Police officers, others here say, have grown less likely to let reported "suicides" go unquestioned or to accept the "honor killing" defense for what is sometimes a pretext for murdering a woman whose virtue was never actually in question.

Although the law hasn't changed, opposition has grown. In the wake of the increased attention to honor killings, the late King Hussein made reference to the problem in his address to parliament in 1997. It was the first public recognition by any Arab leader to date.

After the bill to change the penal code was defeated in January, some 5,000 protesters - led by two princes from the royal family - marched on parliament in February to demand the law be abolished.

"At first there were a few women trying to change the situation," says Khader, "and now there are hundreds of thousands trying to change it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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