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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 September, 2003, 11:59 GMT 12:59 UK
Jordan's dilemma over 'honour killings'
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

"A woman is like an olive tree. When its branch catches woodworm, it has to be chopped off so that society stays clean and pure."

So declared one tribal leader when pressed on the issue of "honour killings" in Jordan, where approximately every two weeks a woman is killed by a male relative because of the shame she has brought upon her family by an alleged sexual transgression - "sins" which include being raped.

Her killer will, on average, receive a sentence of some six months' imprisonment.

Latest efforts to impose a harsher penalty on men who kill their daughters and sisters suffered a fresh setback in parliament this week, after deputies refused to sanction an amendment to the penal code.

The day after parliament sat, three brothers hacked to death their two sisters with axes "to cleanse the family honour".

Parliament's failure to approve the amendment is likely to be a disappointment for Jordan's King Abdullah, who is keen to present his country to the outside world as a pioneering model for reform and a beacon of moderate Islam.

It is widely agreed that the root and cause of honour killing is a complex, historical phenomenon which has no justification in Islam's holy book, the Koran, and which has also been known to occur elsewhere in the world and among other religions.

Nonetheless, it is the insistence within Islamic culture of the need to preserve women's purity - and the disgrace that any stain on this purity may bring upon the family - that appears to be making it so tough in Jordan to stamp out the crime and to bring their perpetrators to court on murder charges.

Identity issues

The issue was poignantly brought to international attention earlier this year with the publication of the book Forbidden Love by Norma Khouri, who wrote a tribute to her best friend Dalia - killed by her father in Amman after she started an affair with a Christian boy.

Dalia's case may have focused minds, but since her death dozens of other women have been killed at the hands of fathers and brothers.

Those found guilty of such killings rarely receive sentences longer than one year, and many serve terms of one month. They tend to be sentenced under legislation which reduces sentences for crimes committed in a "fit of rage" sparked by an "unlawful action" on the part of the victim.

According to campaigning journalist Rana Husseini, actions such as leaving the family home for a period, or uttering words such as "This is my life. I am free to do as I choose" were all considered unlawful acts in verdicts on honour killings issued last year.

The killer is a victim as much as the victim herself - it is so hard to understand the extent of the social, cultural and traditional pressures on these men
Rana Husseini
For the deputies who rejected the amendments, invoking harsher punishments against the perpetrators threatens the very fabric of conservative Jordanian society. Lenient sentencing, they argue, dissuades women from committing "sin" in the first place.

"It's also a question of culture and identity," says Adab Saoud, one of six female deputies who holds her seat thanks to a royal-imposed quota and one of the MPs who voted against the bill.

"Obviously these killings are wrong and against our religion. But the notion of honour is a very important one in our society. And we need to accept that."

Ms Husseini agrees that Jordan's cultural identity is proving a sticking point in the campaign to change the law.

"One of the main problems with the debate over the past few years are the terms which were set. It was suggested parliament should look at this because Jordan was being criticised by the West.

"It was the wrong way to present it, because it seemed as though the West was being allowed to impose itself on our sovereign affairs. And that got people's backs up. "


Curiously, when it comes to determining who is ultimately to blame for the killing of young women by their male relatives, there is reluctance to point the finger at the men themselves.

"I know it would be much simpler and easier if there were certain types of men who did this," said Norma Khouri shortly after her book was published. "But Dalia's father was not a cruel monster - in many ways, he was a typical Arab man, just like my dad."

Ms Husseini goes as far as talking about the men as being themselves "victims".

"It is so hard to understand the extent of the social, cultural and traditional pressures on these men. They are constantly told the family honour is at stake, they are virtually blackmailed."

Female relatives also play a role in the murder of their daughters, sisters and nieces.

Many do so because they are scared they will be tarred with the same brush if they refuse to co-operate, others because they too believe the family honour has been disgraced.

Rania Arafat, who lived in Amman, might have turned 27 this year if her two aunts had not turned up at her door one morning to say they had arranged a secret meeting with her boyfriend, with whom she had been conducting an illicit affair.

When the three arrived at the supposed rendezvous point, the aunts stepped aside and Rania was shot in the head by her brother.

'Honour killings' law blocked
08 Sep 03  |  Middle East
Amman 'honour killer' gets one year
01 Jun 03  |  Middle East
Jordanian women fight 'honour killings'
23 Jan 02  |  Middle East
Country profile: Jordan
17 Jul 03  |  Country profiles

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