Louis Palme / Jan 23, 2010

Book Digest by Louis Palme


Apologists for Islam have been promoting a new mantra that instructs non-Muslims to accept and respect the anti-humanitarian prerogatives of Muslims, because those practices will never change and because failure to do so is undemocratic and illiberal.  Not only is speaking out against certain barbaric practices being prosecuted (as with the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders) but any criticism of Islam is condemned as racist and Islamophobic.  In view of this, it is important to consider an excellent new book by a Jordanian Muslima, Rana Husseini, titled, “Murder in the Name of Honor – The True Story of One Woman’s Heroic Fight Against an Unbelievable Crime.” It is an account of her own experiences since beginning a journalism career with the English language The Jordan Times some 15 years ago.  A graduate of Oklahoma City University, Rana felt called to cover women’s issues in a country where women’s rights were clearly given more attention than in most countries in the Middle East. Even Jordan’s Queen Noor lent her influence and support to a campaign to change Jordan’s laws which protect male relatives who murder women to save their family’s honor.  But her book goes beyond the problems in Jordan.  Honor killing is endemic throughout the Middle East, and it is spreading elsewhere as immigrants come into Europe and North America.  Rana’s outrage over honor killing cannot be called racist or Islamophobic, and it underscores the need in all societies to distinguish between cultural norms and criminal behavior.


Rana’s book is filled with scores of detailed case histories of horrific and senseless murders of young women to protect or restore the family honor. Here is just one abbreviated account that is chilling in its scope:


The parents of twenty-three-year-old Rania had arranged her future marriage to a cousin when she was quite young. While attending university, however, she fell in love with an Iraqi student named Khaled.  She felt no attraction to her cousin who was more like a brother to her, so as the long-planned wedding date approached, she ran away from home and moved in with Khaled.


Rania appealed to her family to understand, and her impassioned letter was read over national television: “Father, mother, brothers and sisters . . you are all dear to me and I need you.  I am ready to return home this moment but I want a promise from you that you will not force me to marry my cousin.” 


Her father called the television station promising not to harm their daughter and that the wedding plans had been cancelled. He said, “I am urging you from a father’s heart that is bleeding tears and blood over your absence, come home and God and I will forgive you. I will do whatever you wish even if it costs me dear.”  The father even signed a JD5,000 ($7,500) bond with the police guaranteeing that he would not harm his daughter. “Just hand her over to me and I will take good care of her. I will protect her.”


Two weeks later after returning home, Rania’s two aunts told her they’d taken pity on her and arranged a secret meeting with her boyfriend Khaled. As they walked near some railway lines, the aunts suddenly ran off. Instead of finding Khaled, Rania saw her seventeen-year-old brother Rami waiting for her.  He pulled out a pistol, and fired 5 shots into his sister, the last one point-blank through her forehead.


A medical examination indicated that Rania was still a virgin.  Rania, an innocent child, had been betrayed by the closest members of her family. Her father, out of town when the murder took place, escaped prosecution. Her brother Rami, a minor, was sentenced to only six months in jail.   



In case after case, in country after country, the picture that Rana paints is consistently misogynic, cruel, and seeped in the notion that family honor can be preserved or restored by killing the “deviant” women in the family.  In reality, the families never regain their honor after killing a member, and agony spreads from one generation to the next.   Here are some of the common elements of honor killing:


1. Women are Targets -- The family’s honor is somehow tied up in the virtue and obedience of the women in the family.  Women are the only targets of honor killings. The sense of family honor is heightened when immigrant families are living in Western countries, because their minority status and their sometimes disadvantaged situations make pride in the family that much more important to their personal self-worth. 


2.  Reasons for Honor Killing Often Trivial -- Women have been murdered for the most trivial of reasons – marrying out of love instead of submitting to an arranged marriage, suspected loss of virginity (which often proves to be mistaken), staying out too late, or even wearing jeans.  Sometimes the honor killing is done merely to increase the inheritance of the remaining siblings. 


3. Women are Often Lured Back Home to be Killed -- Often when a woman has shamed the family and goes into hiding, there is a concerted effort by the family to show her that all is forgiven and that the family is ready to welcome her back.  This is often a ruse to lure the woman out of seclusion so that she can be killed. 


4. Community Pressure to Cleanse Family Honor -- There is tremendous community pressure on families to cleanse their family honor by killing the wayward women.  From cases Rana has documented, the family was often remorseful over the outcome but felt they had no choice given the community pressure.  Rarely, however, does the honor killing truly liberate the family from shame and regret after the murder. 


5. Relative Impunity of Honor Murder -- Since Muslim countries do not prosecute honor murders as seriously as other murders, there is no effective deterrent to carrying out these heinous acts.  A few months in prison is seen as a reasonable trade-off for restoring the family’s honor.   Immigrants often do not appreciate that North American and European counties usually (but not always) give no special consideration to honor murderers.  When immigrants realize this, however, they often take their women back to their native countries for the honor killing because the murder will receive a much lighter punishment there. Officials in the UK are becoming increasingly aware of this problem. In Bedford alone, three hundred South Asian girls between ages thirteen and sixteen have disappeared off the school registers.


6. Social Workers Exacerbate the Problems -- In Western countries, family social service organizations often lack an understanding of Islamic law and cultural dynamics of immigrant populations. Western civilization is appealing to immigrant women because it promises more independence and equality, while at the same time the men develop stronger attachments to the security of their old patriarchal system.  The immigrants do not always appreciate that the police have different views about “honor killing” than those in their native countries, so women don’t seek help and men often act with the assumption of impunity.  Government protective services often apply a double standard to violence immigrant communities. They see honor-based violence as a cultural expression, and so they avoid getting involved with it.  To make matters worse the family assistance workers often compromise the situation by using family members and religious leaders as interpreters rather than neutral parties.


7. Brothers Often Carry Out the Killing -- Families often force their teenage sons to carry out murders of sisters because they know the young offender will get a lighter sentence than the adult parents. 


Honor killings are by no means aberrations or isolated events. Because honor killings are still punished to some extent even in the most authoritarian countries, the number of actual cases is severely underreported.  But just to give an indication the scope of this problem, here are statistics from Rana’s book:


Jordan – no statistics on honor murders, but 97 women are in prison indefinitely for “protective custody” to prevent them from being killed by family members.

Pakistan – has the worst record in the world with over 600 cases reported in 2007

Afghanistan – with 400 honor killings in 2004 there were only 20 arrests, and all of those were given mild sentences.

Iraq – because of the ongoing insurgency and deep tribal divisions, Iraq is one of the most danger places on earth to be a woman.  It is estimated that 4,000 Iraqi women have been victims of honor killings between 1990 and 2001.

Iran – Since stoning for adultery and immunity for prosecution for killing family members is part of the Penal Code, the Iranian government is complicit in carrying out these murders. In 2005, over half of the 397 women in Evin prison were awaiting death sentences for moral or sexual offences such as adultery.

Syria – between two hundred and three hundred honor killings take place each year.

Yemen – around 400 women are reported victims of honor killing each year.

Lebanonabout a dozen women die each year as a result of honor crimes.

Saudi Arabia – no statistics are available, but the government is aware that many of these honor murders are done secretly and the bodies are buried in the desert. The families usually say that the missing women are traveling or have run away.

Turkey the Kurdish regions of Turkey have some of the highest rates of honor killings in the world. The number of women and girls murdered annually is about two hundred.  In Istanbul alone there is one honor killing every week.

Egyptin 1999 ten percent of all murders were honor killings.  This may approach 100 such murders of women each year.

India – there are more than one thousand honor killings of women each year. Every six hours in India a young married woman is burned alive, beaten to death, or driven to commit suicide.

Bangladesh – out of 639 rapes committed in 2006, 126 of the victims were killed and thirteen committed suicide. In the same year, 243 dowry-related killings were reported to the police.

UK and USA – “I think most people will be truly shocked to learn the frequency with which honor killings are now occurring in Western countries. . . Unfortunately, it seems as though we will see many more horrific honor killings in the USA before policy-makers get around to legislating for their prevention.”


Throughout her book Rana uses the expression “so-called honor killing” because the real issue is control. Men who cannot control their women are seen as weak.  But as UK Home Office Minister Mike O’Brien said, “Multi-cultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness.”  According to Rana, real honor is for women and men to get a decent education and make a contribution to society. “Real honor is about tolerance, equality, and civic responsibility.”

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