Murder in the Name of Honor – Rana Husseini
‘Murder in the name of honour’ is the title of Rana Husseini’s first book, and was also the title of an article, one of her first, that she published in the English language newspaper Jordan Times in 1994, covering the murder of Kifaya, a 16-year-old girl murdered by her brothers after having been a victim of incestuous rape. Other papers in the region covering these kinds of familial murders in an off-hand way, as if they were private matters, refusing to name the phenomenon nor investigate the circumstances to avoid causing further scandal to the family. Rana vowed on that day that Kifaya’s story would not just be another four line story in a newspaper, and to make ‘honour’ killings a national issue in Jordan.
Since then, Rana’s name has become synonymous with Jordanian women’s struggle against violence and the discriminatory legal codes which allow murderers to escape with short, and in some cases nugatory sentences, less than those for petty theft. Her career has been marked on one hand by human rights awards and international recognition and on the other by death threats and condemnation from conservative elements who accuse her of being ‘westernised’ and of tarnishing the image of Jordan. Through her journalism, Rana exposed the prevalence and persistence of ‘honour’ killing in Jordan, recording and investigating each case she uncovered through a commitment to give a voice to the victims. It’s a technique repeated throughout in the book, which also features case after case of horrific, devastating murders to an almost overwhelming effect. The subtitle refers to ‘honour’ killings as an ‘unbelievable crime’ and Rana uses the detail of many individual murders to wear down the incredulity of readers who may find it hard to believe that a family could conspire to murder a female relative for offences against restrictive sexual mores or simply for causing gossip in the community; in some cases the acceptance of ‘honour’ as a justification for murder allows criminals who have killed for monetary reasons to benefit from reduced sentences and the higher status that ‘honour’ killers enjoy in prison.
It’s not just a parade of misery: Rana’s first-hand accounts of the campaign for legal change in Jordan, the petitions and marches is an insight into the tremendous energy of the movement for women’s rights but also of the obstructionism of various political groups and religious figures who she characterizes as a ‘small but powerful minority’ making the movement towards harsher sentencing for so-called ‘honour’ crimes painfully slow. Rana also discusses the negative impact of the gross stereotyping of ‘honour’ upon native efforts to reform, in particular indentifying ‘Forbidden Love’, an international bestseller by Norma Khoury which purported to be a true story of ‘honour’ killing in Jordan, but which was filled with exaggerated depictions of Arab women’s subordination. Rana identifies how Western powers used such stereotypes to build their case for the war on Iraq under the banner of women’s liberation: a war which has in fact greatly increased the number of ‘honour’ killings in the turmoil of war, as she herself enumerates in later chapters.
Chapter 11 in particular deals concisely with the underpinnings of ‘honour’, seen as a form of control and commodification of women’s fertility, and considers the issue of ‘honour’ killings on a more international basis, again providing case detail of many individual murders in various countries including the horrific public stoning of 17-year old Du’a Khalil Aswad, a crime particularly notorious for the fact that the murder was carried out before an audience of hundreds of men baying for blood and recording the grisly and prolonged death on cellphones. She points to some cases of so-called ‘crimes of passion’ in Latin America, which are similar to those justified by ‘honour’ in the sense of being motivated by a wish to maintain male dominance and incurring lesser legal penalties, but dissimilar in being individual rather than collective/familial crimes. Rana also discusses the growing evidence for the occurrence of ‘honour’ killings and similar crimes in immigrant populations in Europe in the wake of particular murders which put the issue on the public agenda such as Fadime Sahindal and Heshu Yones. Again the case studies are supplemented by studies in activism and campaigning work including our work in dealing with violence against minority women in the UK, and the work of organizations like the Swedish Sharaf Hjällter, a group of young men of Turkish, Kurdish and Somali origin who actively combat the doctrine of ‘honour’ in their communities.
Rana Husseini’s book dispels some of the myths about ‘honour’ killings while never understating their horrific nature. Her personal journey is very much indicative of the progression of action against ‘honour’ killings: from recognition, to awareness, into an activism which is becoming more and more internationally based, but which confronts a growth in all forms of violence against women as part of a backlash against gains in women’s rights.