International: Women victims of honor killing

Yemen Observer
It is estimated by the United Nations Population Fund that as many as 5000 women and girls are murdered by family members each year in so-called “honor killings” around the world.
In Yemen, with an estimated population of 16 million, Mohammed Ba Obaid, who heads the department of Women’s Studies in Sana’a University, said his surveys found that more than 400 women were killed for reasons of “honor” in 1997.
A report prepared by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) in 2002 states that there is very little information concerning the prevalence of ‘honor crimes’ in Yemeni society, and while some local non-governmental organizations have reportedly stated that the phenomenon is not widespread, other organizations assert that honor crimes do occur, but that they currently lack evidence to substantiate this claim. In one reported case from 1997, two Yemeni men allegedly bludgeoned their mother to death and threw her body onto a roadside embankment for “practicing immoral acts”. It is unknown whether the men were arrested or prosecuted for the murder. Honor killing, as defined by United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF, is an ancient practice in which men kill female relatives in the name of family ‘honor’ for forced or suspected sexual activity outside marriage, even when they have been victims of rape.

These killings have been reported in Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon, Egypt and West Bank. The killings are also known in Syria, Iraq and other Persian Gulf countries and among Arabs in Israel. Honor killings are not exclusively an Arab phenomenon. The United Nations says such killings have been reported in Bangladesh, Turkey and Uganda. Afghanistan, where the practice was condoned under the rule of the fundamentalist Taliban movement, can be added to the list, along with Iran. Such killings have also occurred in Italy, Britain, Norway, Italy, Brazil, Ecuador, Sweden, Peru and Venezuela. At least one case has been reported in the US, but these crimes are labeled “crimes of passion” instead of “honor” crimes. However, some argue they should also be seen as honor killings.

“They are the same thing with a different name” some rights advocates say. In India, for example, more than 5,000 brides die each year because their dowries are considered insufficient, according to UNICEF. According to the Human Rights Commission, the total number of honor killings is much higher than reports indicate, as data from some provinces and some remote regions is not available. Information from UNICEF for 1997 states that around 1,000 girls and women are murdered each year in Pakistan. More than two-thirds of all murders in Gaza Strip and West Bank are honor killings. In Jordan, an average of twenty-five to thirty women are killed each year in the name of honor. In Lebanon, around 36 honor killings are reported each year, while in Egypt, some 52 honor killings reported every year.

Estimating the scale of the phenomenon is made more difficult not only by the problems of data collection in predominantly rural countries, but by the extent to which community members and political authorities collaborate in covering up the atrocities. In some countries such as Jordan, Morocco and Syria, “honor crimes” are also legally sanctioned and defense of the family honor is considered a mitigating factor. Legislation in various countries awards lesser punishment in cases where the victim is considered to have “provoked” the crime by violating cultural norms. Article 232 of the Penal Code of Yemen stat that “if a man kills his wife or her alleged lover in the act of committing adultery or attacking them causing disability, he may be fined or sentenced to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year.”

That rule is also applied on a man who surprised a “direct or subsidiary relation or sister” in the act of committing adultery. But in many countries activists and human-rights groups say that most killers receive light punishment, when they are prosecuted at all. Arab judges, who are almost always male, are generally allowed great latitude in sentencing, and most tend to see honor as a circumstance akin to self-defense. Nabil Al-Mohamedi, a lawyer who participated in the session discussing honor killing organized by the Sisters Arab Forum last year in Yemen, said that the article stated that the man should be surprised by his relative committing adultery. If he previously had suspicions about it happening then the law did not apply, he argued. “The relative must be in the act of committing adultery and not be, for example, only in a shameful position or naked” Al-Mohamedi, said.

The concepts of women as property and honor are so deeply entrenched in the social, political and economic fabric of society that the government, for the most part, ignores the daily occurrences of women being killed and maimed by their families. Frequently, women murdered in “honor” killings are recorded as having committed suicide or died in accidents. “We do not consider this as murder,” Wafik Abu Abseh, a 22-year-old Jordanian woodcutter is reported to have said about ‘honor’ killing, as his mother, brother and sisters nodded in agreement. “It was like cutting off a finger.” Honor killings of women reflect longstanding patriarchal-tribal traditions, which cast the male as the sole protector of the female, and so he must have total control of her. f his protection is violated, he loses honor because either he failed to protect her or he failed to bring her up correctly. The unwritten law argues 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. Marzouk Abdel Rahim, a Cairo tile maker, stabbed his 25-year-old daughter to death at her boyfriend’s house in 1997, and then chopped off her head. He said he had no regrets. “Honor is more precious than my own flesh and blood,” said Abdel Rahim, who was released after two months. The typical “honor” killer is a man, usually the father, husband, or brother of the victim. Frequently teenage brothers are selected by their family or community to be the executioners, because their sentences will generally be lighter than those handed down to adults. While the victims of “honor” killings are overwhelmingly female, tradition dictates that males involved in the “crimes” should face death as well.

But the accused women are normally killed first, giving men a chance to flee retribution. According to Amnesty International, targeted men in Pakistan can escape death by paying compensation to the family of the female victim, leading to an “’honor killing industry’ involving tribespeople, police and tribal mediators,” which “provides many opportunities to make money, [or] obtain a woman in compensation”. Although most honor crimes occur in Muslim societies, Islam does not sanction such killings. “On the contrary, what’s there in the Qur’an, is against it,” said Mohammed Serag, a professor of Islamic studies at the American University in Cairo. “In the eyes of Islam, those people (who kill in the name of honor) are criminals.”

Islam, which emphasizes chastity for men and women, prescribes 100 lashes each for anyone who violates the Muslim code for behavior. But nothing in the Qur’an, supports the death punishment for honor-related transgressions. Serag said men who believe Islam approves of honor crimes may have misinterpreted the Qur’an, verse that allows husbands to beat their wives. Islam is clear on its prohibition of sexual relationships outside of marriage. This prohibition does not distinguish between men and women, even though, in some countries, women are uniformly singled out for punishment of sexual crimes while the men, even rapists, may be treated with impunity.

In order for a case to even be brought before a Muslim court, several strict criteria must be met. The most important is that any accusation of illicit sexual behavior must have been seen by four witnesses; and they must have been witness to the act of sexual intercourse itself. Other forms of intimacy do not constitute ‘zina’ and therefore are not subject to any legal consequences even though they are not appropriate and are considered sinful. On the other hand, a woman falsely accused of zina has in her support the Qur’an, which spells out harsh consequences for those accusers who are unable to support their allegations with four witnesses.

The Prophet Muhammad was known for his clemency, even if the accusations met the criteria, for he recognized the seriousness of the matter. In addition, there is no evidence whatsoever that he condoned any form of retribution that singled out women and he was swift to ensure that those accused of any crime received due process to guarantee justice.

By Elham Hassan
Jan 28, 2006 - Vol. IX Issue 03
Copyright Yemen Observer Newspaper