Syria: Women fear retribution for so-called 'honour' crimes
Bushra's story is not an exceptional one in Syria, where women's organisations estimate more than 200 women are murdered every year by brothers, cousins or fathers. But she is one of the lucky ones. Bushra was arrested after her family reported her to the police, and taken into custody. The juvenile centre where now lives gives her some protection, but her freedom of movement is severely limited.
The Syrian authorities are trying to crack down on the practice of "honour killing", and they have widespread support. About 10,000 people have signed a petition calling for an end to the practice, in a campaign backed by senior Muslim officials.
Although Bushra has been in contact with the family, her eldest sister told her not to come back unless she married her cousin. "She said: 'Even if you do (get married), hide for two or three months until things calm down. But don't come now, the family will definitely kill you'," Bushra tells me.
So she waits at the centre run by the National Organisation for the Development of Women (NODW) and the interior ministry, whose aim is to rehabilitate the girls and get them ready for a new life. Many of them are serving sentences for vagrancy, prostitution, begging or running away. But when they leave, they are still at risk, as the case of 16-year-old Zahra al-Ezzo tragically showed.
Zahra was kidnapped and raped by a family friend. The family reported the incident to the police and three days later the kidnapper, Taiseer Muhanna, was arrested and Zahra was freed. He was sent into jail and she was brought to the juvenile centre, where she remained for 10 months until her family had her released after arranging that she marry her cousin. One month later, Zahra's brother Fayez paid the young couple a visit. On the third morning of his stay, he murdered her while she was asleep.
"Zahra was a victim at the beginning and a victim at the end," says NODW head Rania al-Jabiri. Her organisation is campaigning along with other groups for a change in the law. They have prepared a draft law which has been passed to parliament.
"We cannot do everything. We need the whole society with us to change this idea. It takes time and a change in mentality," she says.
It is an issue for all communities - Christian, Muslim and Druze - says Daed Musa, a lawyer and women's rights activist
"The laws are old and go back to the 1940s. No woman can feel safe under the current legislation."
Murders considered to have been in defence of honour are not considered a "crime" under Syrian law, but an "offence". It carries a maximum penalty of a year's imprisonment, but could be reduced to a month by a judge. Some families entrust the task of erasing dishonour to a juvenile, further reducing the penalty.
After Zahra's death, the NODW renewed the campaign, circulating the petition and mobilising religious clerics to denounce the killing.
Syria's top Sunni cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Hassoun, rejects any suggestion that "honour crime" is sanctioned by Islam.
He explains that Islamic law requires four witnesses for the crime of adultery - an almost impossibly high burden of proof, which means in effect that no-one can be found guilty of it. The mufti believes, however, that the starting point should be in education and tolerance especially with religious preachers. "It is difficult to change laws that people are used to it and considered it as Sharia. In many cases, it is traditions rather than laws," he says.
"What we need is to educate people and spread awareness among the society. The problem is when you have people preaching at mosques and don't have a profound knowledge on Islam."
No women can be protected of an act of killing unless legal changes are introduced. This will take political will to actually happen. Until then, women in Syria will still be at risk."
By: Lina Sinjab
12 October 2007
- Violence against Women in the context of Political Transformations and Economic Crisis in the Euro-Mediterranean Region:
- Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Rashida Manjoo*
- Disposable Victims: Laws and Practices on Gender-related Killings of Women and Girls in the Islamic Republic of Iran
- Stoning: Legal or Practised in 16 Countries and Showing No Signs of Abating
- Factsheet: Violence Against Women - the Missing MDG?