In Murder in the Name of Honor (Oneworld), Jordanian journalist Rana Husseini describes how she became a leading voice against so-called honor killings, first, investigating the issue for the Jordan Times newspaper and, then, helping to found a grassroots movement seeking to end the practice. Robert S. Eshelman spoke with Husseini during her recent North American book tour.
Robert S. Eshelman (Rail): What are so-called honor killings and how prevalent is the practice in Jordan, across the Middle East, and in other parts of the world?
Rana HUSSEINI: So-called honor killings occur when a family member of a female relative believes that she has tarnished the image or reputation of the family and they kill her. Usually, this is because the woman went out with a strange man or became pregnant out of wedlock, was a victim of suspicion or rumor, or was raped. Sometimes, a woman might be killed for going out with a man of her own choosing or even going missing for a period of time. Other times it is for financial reasons—for inheritance. So the family finds no solution but to kill her to reclaim their family honor. Now, in Jordan, there are about 20 to 25 cases a year. But this is a global problem; it is not a problem that is restricted to one country, religion, or class. The killing of women occurs all over the world. These so-called “honor killings” have occurred in several countries, among Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Hindus, and Sikhs.
RAIL: How did you begin to investigate this issue?
HUSSEINI: I was working as a reporter for the Jordan Times. In 1993, six months into my journalism career, I came across a very sad story of a 16-year old school girl, who was killed by her family because she was raped by one of her brothers. Now this was not a typical story that one came across every day. I discovered that her brother threatened to kill her if she told anyone about the rape. She had to tell her family because she became pregnant. Then she underwent a secret abortion and was married to a man who was 34 years older than her. Then six months later this man divorced her. The day he divorced her, her family killed her and blamed her for the rape. When I went to discuss the issue with her relatives, they basically blamed her for the rape and said that she seduced her brother to sleep with her. This story really shocked me and I reported it for the Jordan Times. The following day, we received a phone call from a prominent female intellectual, who was screaming at my editors because of my reporting of these crimes, saying this is not part of our society. At the time, the issue was taboo and no one wanted to talk about it. So I said that I was going to document each and every case in the hopes that someone would hear me. Then, I went to the courts and found that men who commit these crimes get away with very lenient sentences—three months, six months, a year—for taking a woman’s life. No one was writing about this. Finally, I went to the prison and found that the women who somehow survived attempts on their lives were put in prison, supposedly for their own safety. Some of them had been there for a very long time, locked up for indefinite periods without charge. The only people that can secure their release are their families and usually when they do this it is in order to kill them.
RAIL: In your book, as much as you discuss the particular murders that you covered for the Jordan Times, you also discuss the incredible grassroots movement that emerged as a result of your reporting. Describe that campaign and what impact it has had in Jordan.
HUSSEINI: Of course, readers of the Jordan Times started writing letters expressing their objection to these crimes. In 1998, I won the Rebook Human Rights Award, which put a lot of focus on Jordan because there were a lot of television stations that produced documentaries about so-called honor killings. When I returned to Jordan, a group of young men and women approached me and said: let’s do something on the grassroots level. So we formed an organization called the Jordanian National Committee to Eliminate So-called Crimes of Honor. We were seven women and four men, meeting on a weekly basis, trying to figure out what we needed to do. So we decided that we would collect 50,000 signatures for a petition that we would present to Parliament demanding that they change the laws concerning crimes. At the same time, we handed out pamphlets and talked to people about the issue. Of course our activities were heavily discussed in the newspapers—debates ensued—people opposing us, people supporting us. It was really an exciting time because we were able to break two social taboos. The first was the taboo of this subject of so-called honor killings and the second taboo was signing petitions, being politically active. For the longest time people were skeptical or worried about signing a petition, fearing that security forces might arrest them. So we were able, as citizens, to express our demands and our desires by signing a petition. And this was something very important I think. We’re seeing some results now. In 2000, the British government backed a five-year project to train judges, prosecutors, police, forensics experts—basically everyone dealing with domestic violence issues—on how to how to detect a suicide or accidental death and how to tell when it is a murder. We’re seeing a big change of attitude and they are taking the murder of women much more seriously. Recently the criminal court sentenced a man to 15 years for killing a relative, which is the most severe sentence ever given in Jordan. So change has happened, but we are always looking for more. The number of women being killed has remained the same but awareness is increasing of these crimes and the penalties are increasing.
RAIL: Just in the past few weeks there was another killing in Jordan, which was widely reported. Can you discuss this incident?
HUSSEINI: I read about this while in the U.S. a man killed his daughter using a sword for reasons related to family honor. There have been 19 cases this year. A sociologist I spoke with believes the number of killings will go up before they go down because women are going out much more then they used to; social norms are changing. This has caused a lot of suspicion on the part of male relatives, who seemed to be monitoring women’s movements much more closely. Again though I think the most important thing to pay attention to is the change of attitudes. Even the government is now admitting there is a problem. Everyone is trying to make a difference on this issue. I think things will pay off later on. When I started, really, no one was talking about the issue. People either ignored it or didn’t want to discuss it. They considered it taboo or a family problem. So I think things will change in the future.
RAIL: The issue of women’s rights has been used, in part, in the U.S. to legitimize the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq as well as, more generally, attack Arab and Muslim culture. In what ways do you think someone can support the struggle of women in the Middle East without unwittingly becoming an accomplice to these anti-Arab and anti-Muslim attacks?
HUSSEINI: I believe organizations, governments, anyone concerned about domestic violence should address the issue from a global perspective. I think it is unwise to pinpoint a particular nation or religion as the culprit. If you want to fight domestic violence it has to be global. Women are being killed all over the world. They are being killed by their husbands, by their fathers, by their brothers, and other male family members. So this is really not a problem pertaining to one society or religion. If certain governments or non-governmental organizations keep pinpointing this problem as happening in only one particular country or among one specific religious group, then that shows that they are politicizing the issue. So that is why we have to be very careful, very sensitive, in addressing the issue if we want to see change. It is a global problem. There are some countries where people are really struggling with this issue—women in Jordan, in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine. People think that these countries have the highest rates of these murders, when they really don’t.
RAIL: One aspect of your book that seems especially important is that your present Jordanian women not solely as victims of these crimes but also as agents for change. Yes, many women are killed by their relatives or husbands but thousands of women are breaking the taboo, as you say, by beginning to discuss the issue openly and fight to change social mores and the laws that perpetuate this violence.
HUSSEINI: In my book I document the struggles of these people because I think it is important for readers to understand how each society handles the issue of so-called honor killings—the successes in fighting these crimes and the horrors of each woman’s story. I want readers who seek to work on the issue of ending violence against women to understand this issue, to learn from other’s experiences, to know that there is work going on around the world and change could happen, and will happen, actually.
ContributorRobert S. Eshelman
ROBERT S. ESHELMAN is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Nation, and In These Times.