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.
QALQILYA, WEST BANK — All the women in the family say Wafa Wahdan was wonderful.
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.
"Her children are extremely affected by this, especially with people gossiping and saying things that aren't true," she says. "They tell her 9-year-old girl, Noura, 'You're the daughter whose mother was killed because of honor.' And to the 12-year-old son, 'Your mother was killed because she was messing around.' "
Just days after Wahdan's murder, two other young women – sisters Sima and Eman el-Adel – were killed. Under questioning, police say, their brother confessed to having killed both of them in defense of the family honor. The word around this town of 60,000, however, is that they were having an inheritance dispute.
Women's rights activists say that nearly any perpetrator of a female relative's murder can make an "honor killing" claim, when in fact quite different motives may be present.
"We consider the law here to be permitting these crimes, and whoever commits these crimes knows that he will only be punished with six months in jail," says Margaret Ir-Rai, spokeswoman for Qalqilya's Jafra Center for Women. "Therefore, our battle is with the law, which we need to change. Many people ... hide behind the killing by saying it had an 'honor motive,' and [are] exonerated."
Ms. Ir-Rai says that while it is possible for victims' survivors to press charges in a civil court, they rarely do so because of the fear it will unleash a cycle of continued vengeance-taking and bloodshed.
The Jafra Center has launched a new awareness campaign on this issue and holds workshops throughout the West Bank for women, who often contribute to the phenomena. They place ultrastrict expectations on other women and accuse others of unchaste behavior, sometimes assisting in and even committing honor crimes as well. That's why the law needs to push ahead, she says, pulling societal norms with it.
"The only way for women here to get their rights is through a change in the law, not through societal pressure," she says. "We started a petition all over the West Bank to have people condemn this." The women's groups are also lobbying members of the Palestinian Legislative Council to pass legislation that would carry much heavier sentences for men who commit honor crimes. "Unfortunately, the political situation is not helping us to make this happen," Ir-Rai says.
The Palestinian parliament rarely meets these days, its functionality cast into doubt since the violent Fatah-Hamas split over the summer. She points to the ensuing uncertainty as a reason for the increase in honor killings.
Call to religious leaders: speak out
Jafra counts 21 such murders in the West Bank so far this year. There have been 25 honor killings in Gaza since the beginning of the year, says Maryam Abu Daqqa, the head of the Union of Women's Committees.
"During these hard times Gaza is going through, it is difficult for women's organizations to do anything more than condemn," she says. "And with a lack of clear judiciary oversight, with the confusion created by Hamas and Fatah, people are taking the law into their own hands and directing their anger against the weak link: women."
Other women here complain that religious leaders should be more vocal about Islam's view on the matter.
"We haven't heard anyone from any group go to the mosque and condemn it. If you ask people on the street, you'll find they support it, and that the families are happy when they've cleansed the family honor," says another women's activist who asked not to be named. "I cannot go to the street and condemn this based on women's rights. They'll say whoever is defending her is just like her."