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As order slides, Palestinian women face honor killings

Rights activists say such murders have increased as a result of the worsened security situation, and press for a new law.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 2007



QALQILYA, WEST BANK

All the women in the family say Wafa Wahdan was wonderful.

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But her sisters-in-law add that they noticed a few little things. She had changed the way she dressed in the past year to a less conservative style and she sometimes went out for a drive without saying where she was going.

A few weeks ago, the body of the young mother of four was found in a garbage dump east of town. Police arrested two of the woman's male cousins for having trapped Ms. Wahdan and shot her to death, committing the third "honor killing" in Qalqilya last month.

Wahdan's brutal murder devastated her husband and immediate family, who say that the rumor mill's tales of Wahdan having an affair were untrue. But regardless of their veracity, suspicion alone can be enough to get a woman killed by distant relatives looking to "cleanse" the family honor when there is talk of an illicit relationship.

According to local organizations, such murders have risen in the Palestinian territories to nearly 50 this year – a fact that many here blame on the absence of any true law and order, which allows individuals to enforce their own version of justice. Palestinians here say the image of an ever-weaker Palestinian Authority has increased after Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in June, making this local vigilantism harder to combat.

Particularly galling to many here is the fact that a man who admits to murdering a female relative for reasons of honor can be sentenced to as little as six months in jail. Palestinians say that policy is based on an old Jordanian law, which still holds in the West Bank: Article 341 considers murder a legitimate act of defense when the killer acts "in defense of his life or his honor."

Saed Taha, dean of Qalqilya's College of Islamic Law, says that honor killings in the Palestinian territories are never carried out according to proper Muslim stipulations and thus are unacceptable according to sharia, or Islamic law. In Islam, an unmarried woman found guilty of having an affair can be sentenced to 100 lashes; for a married woman, the sentence is death by stoning. But first, four witnesses must say they saw the illicit act with their own eyes.

"When the sentence is only six months, the consequence is that [perpetrators] encourage others to do the same," says Dr. Taha. "Islam does not allow anyone to take the law into his own hands. And for a woman to be sentenced [for illicit affairs], it would have to take place in a system that operates under Islamic law, which we don't have right now."

Tribal traditions are often a motive

But ancient tribal mores, not Islam, are usually what drive family members to demand that their honor be restored. In this case, according to several of Wahdan's relatives interviewed for this story, the men of the family met and came to a joint decision that Ms. Wahdan should be killed.

"These men have no fear of God," says Wahdan's mother, Umm el-Walid. She pulls out of a photograph of her daughter, big-eyed and pretty, sitting with some of Mrs. Walid's now-motherless grandchildren.

"Had my daughter had an extramarital relationship, her husband would have been the first to notice and do something," says Wahdan's mother, stopping to squint out tears. "They charged her, sentenced her, and executed her all in one fell swoop."

Her children harassed in school

Hala Wahdan, a sister-in-law, says the other women in the family, who are now trying to take care of the late woman's children, are devastated. The oldest kids, aged 9 and 12, are being harassed in school.

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