Sunday, December 6, 2009

Queen faces fight to stop honour killings in Jordan
Queen faces fight to stop honour killings in Jordan
By Richard Spencer in JORDAN
Sunday December 06 2009

ON one side is the fashionably dressed Queen Rania of Jordan, an elegant symbol of progressive values for Arab women. On the other are her country's conservative social and religious leaders.

At stake is a political test case for reform in the Middle East, one that pits demands for greater democracy against the need to end the so-called honour killings of women.

Queen Rania, who regularly appears without a headscarf, let alone a hijab, has given her quiet support to women's rights groups which want to change laws amounting to legal impunity for men involved in honour killings.

But standing against her is another symbol of the country's attempts to show a progressive face. Jordan's MPs have shown little enthusiasm for the moves.

"This whole issue is being exaggerated, and the reason behind it is not innocent," said Sheikh Hamza Mansour, leader of the parliament's Islamic Action Front.

His coalition of Islamist and tribal representatives has so far blocked an attempt to introduce tougher sentences for men who have killed their sisters and daughters for bringing "shame" on their families.

"It's as if the government is giving up our personality to turn us into a Westernised society," he said.

Honour killing is more often associated with impoverished and remote areas of countries like Pakistan than cities such as Amman, Jordan's sophisticated and Westernised capital. But it was in Amman's outskirts that Abu Ishmael and his three brothers recently picked up their sister after a call from her husband, took her home, and stabbed her to death.

Abu Ishmael insists he had nothing to do with the killing -- he was, he says, outside the home when it happened.

The police have arrested two of his brothers.

"I was angry with her," Abu Ishmael said as he sat in his lawyer's office.

"I looked at her in the rear-view mirror as I drove. She said nothing, but she had a barbarous look."

His sister's crime was simple. Her husband complained that she had left the house in the middle of the night carrying her 16-month-old son. Police found her wandering the streets half an hour later.

The dishonour such behaviour brought on her own family, it seemed, could only be expunged by her death.

The sister, a mother of eight, though aged just 37, thus became one of an estimated 5,000 women worldwide who will die this year in the name of honour, with their killers likely to face little if any punishment.

For Queen Rania, it is deeply offensive that the killing of women not only appears to be condoned, but also seems to be on the rise: the number of deaths reported in Jordan is increasing. Sentences remain low, often as little as six months to three years in jail.

The government is introducing a special tribunal to hear honour-killing cases, but a parliamentary alliance has blocked attempts to change two articles of the legal code. The first allows an "in flagrante" defence to a man who kills his wife and her lover if he finds them in bed. It has only been used once. Article 98, a "crime of passion" defence, is common and gives reduced sentences to men who say they commit violence in the fury of the moment.

The government wants a minimum penalty of five years, even under this defence, but is coming under attack.

"We are not for taking the law into your own hands," said Sheikh Hamza, who is among the government's more measured critics. He insists that Sharia, or Islamic law, does not support honour killings.

"But we believe there are political forces which stand behind this issue, and they are trying to destroy the family," he said.

Social researchers say honour killings are mostly carried out in the poorer, more conservative parts of Jordan. Those include Palestinian families living in semi-permanent refugee camps, like Abu Ishmael's sister.

The issue has risen up the political agenda for more than a decade, ever since a woman journalist named Rana Husseini started reporting what had been a taboo subject.

The "dishonour" involved was not just adultery, or having a secret boyfriend. Women have been attacked for talking to a stranger; in January, a 13-year-old was killed by her brother because she had been given a piece of paper with a phone number on it.

Abu Ishmael said the pressure from the brother-in-law's family was "so great". He said he is full of remorse.

He and his brothers now allege their sister only left her home after being severely beaten by her husband.

Yet Abu Ishmael does not seem angry. "If she really had left the house of her own free will, she would have deserved what happened to her," he said, with a sad shake of his head. "But it appears not."


- Richard Spencer in JORDAN

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