Syria: Publicizing "honour" crimes in Syria

NY Times
The murder of 16-year-old Zahra al-Azzo prompts rights activists, lawyers and the media to speak out against so-called crimes of honour.
Fawaz later recalled that his wife, Zahra, was sleeping soundly on her side and curled slightly against the pillow when he rose at dawn and readied himself for work at his construction job on the outskirts of Damascus. It was a rainy Sunday morning in January and very cold; as he left, Fawaz turned back one last time to tuck the blanket more snugly around his 16-year-old wife. Zahra slept on without stirring, and her husband locked the door of their tiny apartment carefully behind him.
Zahra was most likely still sleeping when her older brother, Fayyez, entered the apartment a short time later, using a stolen key and carrying a dagger. His sister lay on the carpeted floor, on the thin, foam mattress she shared with her husband, so Fayyez must have had to kneel next to Zahra as he raised the dagger and stabbed her five times in the head and back: brutal, tearing thrusts that shattered the base of her skull and nearly severed her spinal column. Leaving the door open, Fayyez walked downstairs and out to the local police station. There, he reportedly turned himself in, telling the officers on duty that he had killed his sister in order to remove the dishonor she had brought on the family by losing her virginity out of wedlock nearly 10 months earlier.

“Fayyez told the police, ‘It is my right to correct this error,’ ” Maha Ali, a Syrian lawyer who knew Zahra and now works pro bono for her husband, told me not long ago. “He said, ‘It’s true that my sister is married now, but we never washed away the shame.’ ”

By now, almost anyone in Syria who follows the news can supply certain basic details about Zahra al-Azzo’s life and death: how the girl, then only 15, was kidnapped in the spring of 2006 near her home in northern Syria, taken to Damascus by her abductor and raped; how the police who discovered her feared that her family, as commonly happens in Syria, would blame Zahra for the rape and kill her; how these authorities then placed Zahra in a prison for girls, believing it the only way to protect her from her relatives. And then in December, how a cousin of Zahra’s, 27-year-old Fawaz, agreed to marry her in order to secure her release and also, he hoped, restore her reputation in the eyes of her family; how, just a month after her wedding to Fawaz, Zahra’s 25-year-old brother, Fayyez, stabbed her as she slept.

Zahra died from her wounds at the hospital the following morning, one of about 300 girls and women who die each year in Syria in so-called honor killings, according to estimates by women’s rights advocates there. In Syria and other Arab countries, many men are brought up to believe in an idea of personal honor that regards defending the chastity of their sisters, their daughters and other women in the family as a primary social obligation. Honor crimes tend to occur, activists say, when men feel pressed by their communities to demonstrate that they are sufficiently protective of their female relatives’ virtue. Pairs of lovers are sometimes killed together, but most frequently only the women are singled out for punishment. Sometimes women are killed for the mere suspicion of an affair, or on account of a false accusation, or because they were sexually abused, or because, like Zahra, they were raped.

In speaking with the police, Zahra’s brother used a colloquial expression, ghasalat al arr (washing away the shame), which means the killing of a woman or girl whose very life has come to be seen as an unbearable stain on the honor of her male relatives. Once this kind of familial sexual shame has been “washed,” the killing is traditionally forgotten as quickly as possible. Under Syrian law, an honor killing is not murder, and the man who commits it is not a murderer. As in many other Arab countries, even if the killer is convicted on the lesser charge of a “crime of honor,” he is usually set free within months. Mentioning the killing — or even the name of the victim — generally becomes taboo.

That this has not happened with Zahra’s story — that her case, far from being ignored, has become something of a cause célèbre, a rallying point for lawyers, Islamic scholars and Syrian officials hoping to change the laws that protect the perpetrators of honor crimes — is a result of a peculiar confluence of circumstances. It is due in part to the efforts of a group of women’s rights activists and in part to the specifics of her story, which has galvanized public sympathy in a way previously unseen in Syria. But at heart it is because of Zahra’s young widower, Fawaz, who had spoken to his bride only once before they became engaged. Now, defying his tribe and their traditions, he has brought a civil lawsuit against Zahra’s killer and is refusing to let her case be forgotten.

Nashweh, where Zahra al-Azzo was born in 1990, is the sort of Syrian town that seems literally to crumble at its edges — its squat cinder-block houses giving way to heaps of decaying construction materials, then to stubbly wheat fields strewn with garbage. The quantities of laundry drying on wires strung above the houses suggest vast extended families. Nashweh is small enough and remote enough that if a stranger steps out of a car, it is a matter of seconds before a troupe of small boys wearing dirty galabias circles round and begins shouting invitations home for tea. Before last year Zahra had spent her entire life there, but recently, when asked if they had known her, a half-dozen town women — uniformly dressed in head scarves and thin velour house dresses, most over 40 with blue Bedouin facial tattoos — simply looked away.

By local standards, the circumstances of Zahra’s life in Nashweh were perfectly ordinary. In her early childhood the family earned a good living raising Arabian horses, but the Azzos had lately fallen on hard times, and Zahra’s father, according to social workers who talked to Zahra in prison, was rumored to be having an affair.

According to the lawyer Maha Ali, who met Zahra in prison, Zahra first heard the rumors from a friend of her father’s. The man threatened Zahra, telling her that he would reveal the scandal if she didn’t join him outside her house, itself a grave transgression in her conservative society. That Zahra did so, disobeying her family and going out with a man unaccompanied, even under duress, is so scandalous to many Syrians that advocates working on Zahra’s case have tried to obscure this fact, preferring to describe what took place as a simple kidnapping. They also say that at 15 she was naïve in the extreme, so young for her age that she took a teddy bear to bed every night in prison.

Zahra was frightened by the man but apparently believed that if she came out with him, briefly, she could ensure her family’s reputation and safety. Instead, says Yumin Abu al-Hosn, a social worker at the prison, she was taken to Damascus, held in an apartment and raped. Terrified, in a strange and crowded city she had never visited, Zahra didn’t try to run away. She was in the capital with the man for about a week when a tip from a neighbor took the police to the door. The man was taken to jail, where he now awaits trial for kidnapping and rape. Zahra, meanwhile, was taken to a police station for a so-called virginity exam, the hymen examination that, however unreliable at establishing virginity, is standard procedure in Syria in rape cases and common when women are taken into police custody.

In the United States, a whitewashed, heavily guarded building like the one where Zahra was then sent for her protection would probably be called a juvenile-detention center, but Arabic offers no such euphemism, so the words for “prison” or “institution” are used. Syria does not have shelters where girls or women can go if they are threatened with honor killing; instead, minors are often placed in girls’ prisons for their protection. Like many of the teenagers who arrive there, Zahra felt humiliated at having gone through the forcible genital examination and tried at first for a show of defiance, according to Maha Ali. “I came in and met Zahra,” Ali said. “And she just looked at me and said, ‘God, do I have to tell the story all over again?’ ”

For girls like Zahra, prison is only a temporary solution. Even the most murderously inclined families often issue emotional court appeals to have their daughters returned to them. Judges usually try to extract sworn statements from male guardians, promises that the girls, if released, will not be harmed. But those promises are often broken.

Among Syria’s so-called tribal families — settled Bedouin clans like the one that Zahra belonged to — first-cousin marriage is common. So it wasn’t a shock when her family, looking for someone who could marry her while she was in prison and help secure her release, turned to one of her cousins, Fawaz. But Fawaz hadn’t intended to marry a cousin, he told me recently, and was startled when Zahra’s brother Fayyez showed up one day at his home.

“Fayyez started telling us that his sister, Zahra, had been kidnapped,” said Fawaz’s mother, who is usually addressed by the honorific Umm Fawaz, meaning “mother of Fawaz.” She was sitting cross-legged, along with her son and husband, in the front room of the family apartment outside Damascus. The shades were pulled down to keep out the searing late spring heat, and the room was lighted by a single fluorescent tube. Umm Fawaz pointed out the place on the cushions — arranged, Arab-style, on the floor against the walls — where Fayyez had sat.

The mere fact that Zahra had been taken from her home for a few days signaled dishonor for the family. “ ‘Oh, Auntie, I don’t know what to say,’ ” Umm Fawaz recalled Fayyez saying as she adjusted her hijab with one hand and dabbed her eyes with a tissue in the other. “I said: ‘Don’t be ashamed for your sister. Even in the best families, something like this can happen.’ ” Fayyez claimed that despite having been kidnapped, his sister was still a virgin. Slowly, he broached the subject he had come to discuss. Would Fawaz consider marrying Zahra in order to secure her release?

At first, Fawaz, a shy, wiry man, politely demurred. He felt sorry for Fayyez, he told me, but he couldn’t help recoiling a little at the story, which in his community constitutes an ugly sexual scandal. Besides, he was already engaged to another girl. After Fayyez left, though, Fawaz and his mother talked over Zahra’s situation. “We decided to visit the girl, just to see,” Umm Fawaz said. And so several days later the two of them took a taxi to the girls’ prison. They walked past a heavy steel gate, and a guard led them to an office.

Fawaz smiled as he recalled the moment Zahra was brought in. It would be indelicate for him to comment on Zahra’s appearance, so it was Umm Fawaz who talked about Zahra’s beauty (“As lovely as Sibel Can!” she exclaimed, mentioning a Turkish singer popular in the Arab world).

“I liked the girl,” said Fawaz, who seemed embarrassed to have admitted such a personal thing in public, and he quickly corrected himself. “I mean, here we fall in love with a girl after we marry her. But I decided to leave my fiancée for Zahra. I felt that a normal girl like my fiancée would have other chances. With Zahra I thought, my God, she’s such a child to be stuck in this prison.”

Fawaz’s father disapproved, suspecting from the outset that Zahra’s family would kill her once she left prison. But when, months later, Zahra’s family begged the other family to reconsider, Fawaz’s father relented, and Fawaz eventually accompanied Zahra’s father to court to sign her release papers. Zahra and Fawaz were married in a civil ceremony at the prison on Dec. 11, 2006, and then a week later in a formal celebration for the neighborhood, held in the bride’s new home. The few photographs of the wedding were taken with cellphones, so the prints have a blurry, ephemeral quality. In them, Zahra looks stunned and a bit sulky, her hair teased high on her head, her childish features thickly coated with foundation, shocking pink eye shadow and frosted lipstick.

The marriage, by all accounts, was happy. “Zahra used to call me even after her wedding,” Ali, the lawyer, recalled. “ ‘How is Fawaz?’ I’d ask her. And she’d say, ‘Oh, Auntie Maha, we’re spending all night up together, talking and having fun.’ Once, her aunt called me. She said: ‘Don’t tell Zahra I called, but can you talk to her? You have influence on her. Fawaz can’t get up for work because Zahra keeps him up all night.’ ”

Fawaz told me that, according to his interpretation of Islam, he was “honoring Zahra again” — restoring her lost virtue — by marrying her. In this decision he was supported by his sheik, or religious teacher, who according to Fawaz subscribes to a progressive school of Koranic interpretation. Fawaz and his immediate family, though not well educated, are proud of their open-mindedness, and he boasts about Zahra’s intelligence and literacy. Even so, he and the family rebuffed Zahra’s efforts to describe her ordeal to them, so that to this day they know the details only secondhand. “So many times, when we were married, she wanted to talk to me about what had happened to her,” Fawaz said. “But I refused. I told her, ‘Your past is your past.’ ”

According to Fawaz, Zahra had been married just five weeks when her brother, Fayyez, arrived on an unannounced visit, saying he planned to look for work in Damascus. Zahra was happy to see her brother, but Fawaz described feeling painfully torn between his duties to hospitality, a cardinal virtue in Bedouin culture, and his feeling that Fayyez — sleeping just upstairs in Fawaz’s parents’ apartment — was a danger to his wife. On the morning Zahra was attacked, Fawaz recalls going upstairs before leaving for work to find Fayyez awake and tapping nervously at his cellphone.

“He couldn’t afford to have a mobile,” Fawaz said. “I’d been wondering about that. It turned out that his uncle had given him the phone so that he could call and tell the family that he’d killed his sister. We learned later that they had a party that night to celebrate the cleansing of their honor. The whole village was invited.”

Most honor killings receive only brief mention in Syrian newspapers, but Zahra al-Azzo’s death has been unlike any other. Dozens of articles and television programs have discussed her story at length, fueling an unprecedented public conversation about the roots and morality of honor crimes.

In May, hoping to gauge public feeling about Zahra’s case, I spent a couple of hours walking around a crowded lower-middle-class neighborhood in Damascus. In the wealthiest areas of the city, half the people on the streets might be female, but here, in the late evening, there were very few women to be found. In shawarma sandwich shops and juice stalls, most men had heard of Zahra, but more than half of them believed that the practice of honor killing is protected — or outright required — by Islamic law. A man named Abu Rajab, who ran a cigarette stall, described it as “something that is found in religion” and added that even if the laws were changed, “a man will kill his sister if he needs to, even if it means 15 years in prison.”

Yet the notion that Islam condones honor killing is a misconception, according to some lawyers and a few prominent Islamic scholars. Daad Mousa, a Syrian women’s rights advocate and lawyer, told me that though beliefs about cleansing a man’s honor derive from Bedouin tradition, the three Syrian laws used to pardon men who commit honor crimes can be traced back not to Islamic law but to the law codes, based on the Napoleonic code, that were imposed in the Levant during the French mandate. “Article 192 states that if a man commits a crime with an ‘honorable motive,’ he will go free,” Mousa said. “In Western countries this law usually applies in cases where doctors kill their patients accidentally, intending to save them, but here the idea of ‘honorable motive’ is often expanded to include men who are seen as acting in defense of their honor.

“Article 242 refers to crimes of passion,” Mousa continued. “But it’s Article 548 that we’re really up against. Article 548 states precisely that if a man witnesses a female relative in an immoral act and kills her, he will go free.” Judges frequently interpret these laws so loosely that a premeditated killing — like the one Fayyez is accused of — is often judged a “crime of passion”; “witnessing” a female relative’s behavior is sometimes defined as hearing neighborhood gossip about it; and for a woman, merely speaking to a man may be ruled an “immoral act.” Syria, which has been governed since 1963 by a secular Baathist regime, has a strong reputation in the region for sex equality; women graduate from high schools and universities in numbers roughly equal to men, and they frequently hold influential positions as doctors, professors and even government ministers. But in the family, a different standard applies. “Honor here means only one thing: women, and especially the sexual life of women,” Mousa said. The decision to carry out an honor killing is usually made by the family as a group, and an under-age boy is often nominated to carry out the task, to eliminate even the smallest risk of a prison sentence.

Some advocates claim that Syria has an especially high number of honor killings per capita, saying that the country is second or third in the world. In fact, reliable statistics on honor killing are nearly impossible to come by. The United Nations Population Fund says that about 5,000 honor killings take place each year around the world, but since they often occur in rural areas where births and deaths go unreported, it is very difficult to count them by country. Some killings have been recorded in European cultures, including Italy, and in Christian or Druse communities in predominantly Muslim countries. But it is widely agreed that honor killings are found disproportionately in Muslim communities, from Bangladesh to Egypt to Great Britain.

The Grand Mufti Ahmad Badr Eddin Hassoun, Syria’s highest-ranking Islamic teacher, has condemned honor killing and Article 548 in unequivocal terms. Earlier this year, when we met for a rare interview in his spacious office on the 10th floor of Syria’s ministry of religious endowments, he told me, “It happens sometimes that a misogynistic religious scholar will argue that women are the source of all kinds of evil.” In fact, he said, the Koran does not differentiate between women and men in its moral laws, requiring sexual chastity of both, for example. The commonly held view that Article 548 is derived from Islamic law, he said, is false.

With his tightly wound white turban and giant pearl ring, the grand mufti is one of Syria’s most recognizable public figures. He is a charismatic and generally popular sheik, but because he is appointed by the state, many Syrians believe that his views reflect those of the ruling party, and they may find his teachings suspect as a result. In downtown Damascus, one man I interviewed on the street declared that the grand mufti was not a “real Muslim” if he believed in canceling Article 548. “It’s an Islamic law to kill your relative if she errs,” said the man, who gave his name as Ahmed and said that he learned of Zahra’s story on Syrian television. “If the sheik tries to fight this, the people will rise up and slit his throat.”

There are religious figures who defend the status quo. At a conference on honor killing held this year at Damascus University, Mohammed Said Ramadan al-Bouti, one of Syria’s most esteemed clerics, maintained that the laws should not be changed, defending them on the principle in Shariah law that people who kill in defense of their property should be treated with lenience (he is believed to have moderated his stance since). When, at an earlier conference, the grand mufti announced that he didn’t believe protecting a woman’s virginity was the most important component of honor, many attendees were upset. In response, a group of about a dozen women, all dressed in the long black abayas that in Syria are usually worn by only very conservative women, walked out of the room.

In our interview, the grand mufti told me that he believed Article 548 would be struck down by the Syrian Parliament within months, and given his government ties he might be expected to know. Still, women’s rights advocates are not so optimistic. They point out that Syria’s educated elites have long opposed honor killing, though there is often a squeamishness about discussing a practice that is embarrassing to them. They say that some conservative Syrians are having second thoughts about the custom thanks to the efforts of their Islamic teachers, but that their numbers are small.

Bassam al-Kadi, a women’s advocate, told me that Zahra’s case made an ideal rallying point. “We have hundreds of Zahras,” he said. “But there are some stories that you can campaign with, and others that you can’t.” Zahra, in other words — extremely young, a victim of rape, married at the time she was killed — makes a sympathetic figure for a broad Syrian public in a way that, say, someone older who was killed after being seen with her boyfriend in a cafe might not.

With tensions like these in play, Syrian women’s advocates are careful to phrase their criticisms of tribal traditions of honor and Article 548 in Islamic terms. Though some will privately admit that they are secularists, even feminists, they keep it quiet. It would be politically impossible to suggest in public, for example, that women have the right to choose their sexual partners. The basic culture of chastity is in no way being publicly rethought. Some advocates say that their cause is damaged if they are perceived as sympathetic to “Western values,” and even that honor killing is seen by some conservatives as a bulwark against those values. Where 15 years ago Syria banned the import of fax machines and modems, today the Internet is widely accessible. “There’s been a very complicated reaction to the new availability of Western media in this part of the world,” Kadi, the women’s rights advocate, explained. “We’re going through a transition, and our values are changing dramatically.

“Our parents tell us that there was an earlier day when honor meant that you were honorable in your work, that you didn’t take bribes, for example,” Kadi said. “But now, the political and economic situation is so bad that some degree of corruption is necessary to survive. People will say that you’re a good earner for your family; they won’t blame you. Historically speaking, all our other ideologies have collapsed. No one talks about loyalty to country, about professional honor. Now it’s just the family, the tribe, the woman. That’s the only kind of honor we have left.”

Syrian activists say that while many in government would like to see Article 548 changed, the government, which is led by a tiny religious minority, the Alawites, may be afraid to risk offending the more conservative elements of Syria’s Sunni majority. In other parts of the Middle East, too, tensions between ruling elites and religious conservatives have complicated efforts to combat honor killing. Rana Husseini, a Jordanian women’s advocate, told me that though an effort to establish harsher punishments for men who kill female relatives received support from members of the royal family, Jordan’s Parliament rejected the law in 2003 after conservative groups opposed it. In Morocco, a campaign to stop honor killing resulted instead in a ruling that, if anything, endorsed the practice, by extending to women who kill in a fit of sexual jealousy the same protection under law that men had.

Yet there are signs of change. In Lebanon last month, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the top Shiite cleric and spiritual leader of Hezbollah, issued a fatwa banning honor killing and describing it as “a repulsive act, condemned and prohibited by religion.” And earlier this year, Egypt’s grand mufti upheld a fatwa stating that Islam permits a woman to have her virginity “refurbished” through hymen surgery, which would allow her to marry and would eliminate the need to cleanse the so-called stain on her family’s honor. He even appeared on national television to advise Egyptian women considering the procedure. Although the ruling has been assailed by conservative scholars, it has been welcomed by those who hope it will prevent future honor killings.

In Syria, activists say that the existence of a case like Zahra’s — which has remained open in part because of the bad blood between Fawaz and Zahra’s family — has proved essential to keeping up momentum in the campaign to change Article 548. The civil suit brought by Fawaz claims that Fayyez conspired to deceive him, and the existence of the civil case means that, under Syrian law, the criminal case is unlikely to be dropped as quickly as similar ones. Fayyez is in custody awaiting trial (no lawyer has been appointed for him yet), and if Zahra’s death is ruled a murder rather than an honor crime, he could go to prison for 12 to 15 years. Activists say that penalty, whether or not Article 548 is struck down, would stand as a powerful warning to other would-be killers in the name of honor. Fawaz and his family are under enormous pressure from their tribe to drop the case. They have been in touch with Zahra’s family members — who, they say, do not deny the crime, nor having celebrated it. Zahra’s family has offered Fawaz money and another daughter to marry, he says, if he will abandon the lawsuit that is now the cause of so much public scrutiny.

“It’s a big scandal now, in the whole neighborhood, the whole community,” Fawaz said. “I can’t even have coffee now with my best friends, because they’re afraid for their sisters.”

But Fawaz told me that he didn’t understand his own feelings about honor killing until Zahra’s death, and that he hoped the publicity surrounding her case would help other men to re-evaluate theirs. “In Zahra’s case, the girl was basically kidnapped,” Fawaz said. “If she’d been a bad girl, if she’d decided to run away with a man, I’d say, maybe. It’s a brutal solution, but maybe.”

His father broke in. “Even then! When a girl does something wrong like that, especially a girl that young, I don’t think that she is responsible. The family is responsible. The father is responsible. I don’t want to give anyone excuses for murder.”

Fawaz nodded. “I start thinking about Zahra lying there, dying, and I don’t think I can believe in that set of values any longer.”

By: Katherine Zoepf

23 September 2007