Spotlight on Killing of Women for 'Family Honor'

Jordanian journalist Rana Husseini broke a job barrier to probe a deadly tradition.

Rana Husseini didn't set out to be a reporter with a cause.

When she landed her first job in 1994 at the Jordan Times, the country's only English-language daily, she asked to take the crime beat. Sure, said her editors, but we don't have much crime here.

True, there are only about 100 murders in Jordan each year. But one-third of them are "crimes of honor" - women murdered by their own relatives to "cleanse" the family name. Telling their stories became Ms. Husseini's inadvertent crusade.

"I came across a very sad story," recalls Husseini in an interview. "A 16-year-old schoolgirl had been killed by her older brother because her younger brother raped her."

Traditionally, such a story would not have circulated past the girl's neighborhood or village, or it might have been reported as a suicide or accidental death.

But in this case and in many others in recent years, the perpetrator turned himself in to police, saying he was proud to "restore the family honor." He said that he had strapped his sister Kifaya to a chair, told her to recite a verse from the Koran, then killed her with a knife.

Husseini, a native Jordanian who earned her bachelor's degree in Oklahoma, decided to investigate.

"I said, 'Why did you kill her?' And the brothers said she seduced him. Then they turned to me and said, 'Why did you come here? Why are you dressed like that? Why aren't you married yet?' " recounts Husseini, who favors jeans and shirts over the traditional dress code of Jordanian women, which includes conservative dresses or long skirts and head scarves.

"After that, I started investigating every [honor] crime and writing about it," she says. It would not be the first time Husseini's questions were met with disdain. Sometimes, she would arrive in small villages and be told that it would be in her best interest to leave. Even the police and prosecutors would ask her why she was bothering with minor stories.

They said, "Why do you care? It's no big deal. I'll bring you the big cases."

A new awareness

Today, the police no longer ask Rana Husseini why she cares. And few in Jordan would say that honor killings are no big deal. Last year, King Hussein made an indirect mention of the problem in his address to the opening session of parliament, warning of "dangerous phenomena that remain a source of women's suffering, and which, unfortunately, constitute an inhumane violation of their basic rights."

Many here say that Husseini's reporting put honor killings and violence against women on the agenda.

While Arabic-language papers stayed away from the taboo subject Husseini had broached, foreign diplomats, officials, intellectuals - as well as the Hashemite Kingdom's royal family - began taking notice.

She was recognized for her work earlier this year when she was presented with the Reebok Human Rights Award in New York, an honor given out annually by the US-based company to people in the forefront of social change.

At home, some were less impressed. "I got accused of tarnishing the image of the country or trying to show that Jordan is unsafe," recalls Husseini, a tall woman who likes making use of her height on the basketball court, where she dominates the national women's team.

A day with her is a whirlwind from one end of Amman to another, from the newsroom to basketball practice to a stop at an American-style fast-food joint for burgers.

Husseini resents suggestions among her critics that she picked up "foreign" ideas about women in America, but she says that her college years in the heartland were a time of growth for her.

"I took advantage of a lot of opportunities that I wouldn't have been able to take here," she says, "like working."

A browse through Husseini's work shows that her stories rarely are moralizing or even particularly feministic.

She simply reports the details of the murders, and keeps her own tally of the number of honor crimes that have been documented each year. Then she follows up on what kind of sentence, if any, judges give the perpetrator.

Therein, however, lies much of the controversy.

'Legitimate' killing

Jordanian courts treat the defense of family honor as a mitigating circumstance in a crime. The law stipulates that a man's punishment for murder will be reduced if he has found his wife or any blood relative engaged in an adulterous act, and kills her or attempts to kill her.

Kifaya's older brother, for example, was sentenced to seven years in prison, even though Jordanian law treats murder as punishable by life in prison or a death sentence. The brother convicted of her rape was sentenced to 13 years. In the case of honor crimes, judges often reduce the sentence by half, and perpetrators can serve as little as two years or no time at all.

Several reformers say that foremost in the battle against honor crimes is changing the courts' legitimization of them.

"We have to change the law so that we deal with that kind of murder as a general crime, like any other murder," says Mohammed Kheir Mamser, Jordan's Minister of Social Development.

Dr. Mamser has also given his ministry's support for the construction of a women's shelter, which appears to be the first of its kind in the Arab world.

The project, funded by a grant from UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women), would provide a safe haven for battered women, and for women who are held in prison under "protective custody" to prevent them from becoming victims of honor killings.

At the women's prison in Amman, more than 50 of the 190 inmates have been incarcerated to keep them away from brothers, fathers, and uncles who have threatened to kill them.

"It's a start," says Husseini.

Not just changing laws

The barriers to change, however, run deep. Family honor, or sharaf, is a cherished concept that stretches back over many centuries. It was long the bedrock of Jordanian society, particularly for the original inhabitants of Bedouin descent.

The unwritten law said that if someone is wronged, the perpetrator's family must make amends - often with gifts or livestock - to avoid an injury to family honor that could end in a feud.

Restoring a woman's honor, however, is a more complicated matter. If she's believed to have had an affair, the only way to clear her name, if at all, is for her to be married to the man in question - or to be killed.

The practice also occurs in some other parts of the Arab world, but analysts say it has its roots in local custom, not Islam. According to the Koran, an adulterer can be put to death - but four witnesses must first testify to the deed in court.

In most honor killings here, however, members of the family - including women - will privately decide on a woman's guilt or innocence, sometimes acting on little more than rumor.

"The concept here is that the woman is blamed for whatever happens," says Husseini. "I'm trying to tell people that the laws are wrong, that the traditions are wrong, and something needs to be done about it."

Stephanie Genkin, an American journalist who worked at the Jordan Times when Husseini first joined the paper, says her colleague carved out a niche for herself in an area once considered untouchable.

"It was uncovered territory before she came, and people kind of laughed at first that she was going to cover crime stories," says Genkin, who spent several years reporting and studying in Jordan. "It was a cross between 'it couldn't be done' and 'it wasn't Jordanian.' But it was something she felt passionate about exposing and she's very respected now. It's no small thing for a woman."

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