June 20, 1999


A special report

Arab Honor's Price: A Woman's Blood


ESAIFAH, Jordan -- It took six years for the al-Goul family to hunt down their daughter Basma. She had run away with a man, afraid for her life after her husband suspected her of infidelity. Her husband divorced her and, in hiding, she married the other man. But back in this overcrowded, largely Palestinian village, where a woman's chastity is everyone's business, the contempt for her family kept spreading.

Women accused in sexual misconduct cases in Arab countries, like these three in Jordan, are jailed to protect them from being killed.

"We were the most prominent family, with the best reputation," said Um Tayseer, the mother. "Then we were disgraced. Even my brother and his family stopped talking to us. No one would even visit us. They would say only, 'You have to kill.' "

Um Tayseer went looking for Basma, carrying a gun. In the end, it was Basma's 16-year-old brother, just 10 when she ran away, who pulled the trigger.

"Now we can walk with our heads held high," said Amal, her 18-year-old sister.

What is honor? Abeer Allam, a young Egyptian journalist, remembered how it was explained by a high-school biology teacher as he sketched the female reproductive system and pointed out the entrance to the vagina.

"This is where the family honor lies!" the teacher declared, as Allam remembers it.

More than pride, more than honesty, more than anything a man might do, female chastity is seen in the Arab world as an indelible line, the boundary between respect and shame. An unchaste woman, it is sometimes said, is worse than a murderer, affecting not just one victim, but her family and her tribe.

It is an unforgiving logic, and its product, for centuries and now, has been murder -- the killings of girls and women by their relatives, to cleanse honor that has been soiled.

Across the Arab world, in Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, the Palestinian territories and among Israeli Arabs, a new generation of activists has quietly begun to battle these honor killings, an enduring wave of attacks prompted by sexual conduct that is sometimes only imagined.

In Jordan, home to the most candid talk about the issue, the Government under King Abdullah has promised to join in the fight, following the example set by the late King Hussein and Queen Noor, who helped to lift a lid on public discussion of the killings. At a conference in Jordan in early June, delegates from the region were asked to develop ways to respond "sensitively to the situation in countries of concern." But those engaged in the battle say it would be hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the opposition they face.

Across today's Arab world, modernizers may be wrangling with traditionalists, and secularists with Islamists, but a nationalism overlain by Islam remains a powerful political force. Even leaders like the late King Hussein and Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak, long entrenched, have had to balance pro-Western outlooks against the risk of being seen as the instruments of outsiders.

Activists trying to call attention to honor killings say they face a similar challenge from those who portray their campaign as an assault on Arab ways. "They accuse me of trying to make the country promiscuous," said Asma Khader, a Jordanian lawyer who is a leader in efforts to tighten the laws against honor killing.

Even in places like Resaifah, a largely Palestinian village of noisy streets and dirt alleyways 45 minutes from Jordan's capital, Amman, contempt for honor killing can be heard. "If you spit, does it come back clean?" said Sheik Ali al-Auteh, 57, a tribal leader, mocking the idea that honor could be cleansed with blood.

"A guy who kills might think that dishonor goes away," said his daughter, Yousra, 17. "But when he walks past, people will say, 'There goes the guy who killed his daughter.' "

The Code: Broad Acceptance of Tribal Justice

et the stories told by the al-Goul family and others, including killers and women who were attacked by their families, suggest a broad acceptance of an unwritten code, one that sees the unchaste woman as a threat. As long as they can remember, girls like Amal al-Goul say, their brothers warned them: If you stray, you die.

Bill Lyons for The New York Times Asma Khader, a Jordanian lawyer in Amman, is a leader in efforts to tighten the laws against honor killing.

And when a woman like Basma al-Goul is thought to have crossed the line, her family is ostracized, with her eight sisters deemed unmarriageable by the neighbors, and her five brothers confronted with taunts in the street. It was after other boys questioned his manhood, saying that Basma should be dead, the family said, that Mahmoud al-Goul ran to shoot his sister down.

"Before my sister was killed," Amal, the 18-year-old said, "I had to walk with my eyes to the ground."

Most often, the killings occur among the poorer and less educated, particularly in Arab tribal societies like Jordan's and the Palestinians, with long traditions of self-administered justice. The killings are rare among the educated and urbane.

But even among those upper classes, it is rare to hear condemnation of the killings. Across Arab society, a bride is expected to be a virgin, and other people's justice is not a subject for polite company.

In dozens of conversations in the Arab world in recent months, lawyers, laborers, clerics, cooks, physicians and politicians said most often that, personally, they could not condone honor killing. But most also said they felt the tug of traditions that could lead a man to kill, and some suggested that they would be inclined to act on them.

"I would do what I have to do," said Bassam al-Hadid, a Jordanian with an American doctorate who spent 12 years as a hospital administrator in the United States, when asked whether he would kill a daughter who had sex outside marriage.

Even some victims of the attacks said they deserved their fate. "He shouldn't have let me live," said Roweida, 17, who was shot three times by her father after she confessed to an adulterous affair, and, along with dozens of girls with similar stories, is being held for her own protection in a Jordanian prison. "A girl who commits a sin deserves to die."

The System: Built-In Empathy for the Killer

mong all Arab countries, only Jordan publishes what are considered credible crime statistics, so the extent of honor killing is difficult to gauge. Often the killings are hushed up, experts say, and disguised as accidental deaths. And, most often, the killings occur outside the big cities, far from government scrutiny.

Except in Jordan, government officials tend to treat the issue as taboo, at least in response to queries from foreign journalists.

But the statistics show that honor killings regularly claim 25 lives a year in Jordan alone, about one in four homicides in a country of just four million people, according to Jordanian officials.

In Egypt, which last reported crime statistics in 1995, a Government report counted 52 honor killings out of 819 slayings. In Yemen, with a population of 16 million, Mohammed Ba Obaid, who heads the department of Women's Studies in Sanaa University, said his surveys found that more than 400 women were killed for reasons of honor in 1997, the last year for which research is complete.

"The culture does not allow any other choice for males," said Dr. Obaid, who attended the recent conference in Jordan and called the figures "very alarming."

The killings are also known in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other Persian Gulf countries, and among Arabs in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The experts say it would be safe to estimate that the number of Arab women killed for reasons of honor amounts to hundreds each year.

But in most countries, activists and human-rights groups say, most killers receive light punishment, when they are prosecuted at all. Arab judges, who are almost always male, are generally allowed great latitude in sentencing, and most tend to see honor as a circumstance akin to self-defense.

"Nobody can really want to kill his wife or daughter or sister," said Mohammed Ajjarmeh, chief judge of the High Criminal Court in Jordan. "But sometimes circumstances force him to do this. Sometimes, it's society that forces him to do this, because the people won't forget. Sometimes, there are two victims -- the murdered and the murderer."

That sense of empathy is built into judicial procedures.

An explicit exemption in Jordanian law, for example, allows a man who kills a female relative surprised in an act of adultery or fornication to be judged "not guilty" of murder. Another loophole sought out by most defendants allows leniency for those who can persuade the court that their sense of lost honor caused them to act in an uncontrollable rage.

A Jordanian found guilty in an honor killing can be sentenced to as little as six months as prison. If the killing is ruled to be premeditated, the minimum penalty is a year. No similar forgiveness is offered to a woman who kills, even if the circumstances are the same.

Those are the laws that Jordan's Government has signaled that it intends to toughen. But, in an indication of the depth of opposition in place around the region, the speaker of the lower house of Parliament, Abul-Hadi al-Majali, and the District Attorney of Amman, Tawfiq al-Quaisi, said in interviews that they opposed the effort.

"There is an internalized belief that the woman is the one responsible for shame, because she could have resisted the seduction," said Zahra Sharabiti, a Jordanian lawyer who specializes in defending those accused of honor killings. In Egypt and in Jordan, convicted killers who opened their doors warily to a Western stranger soon spoke with a defiant pride about the justice they administered and received.

"We do not consider this murder," said Wafik Abu Abseh, a 22-year-old Jordanian woodcutter, as his mother, brother and sisters nodded in agreement. "It was like cutting off a finger."

Last June, Abu Abseh killed his sister, bashing her over the head with a paving stone when he found her with a man. He spent just four months in prison.

Marzouk Abdel Rahim, a Cairo tile maker, stabbed his 25-year-old daughter to death at her boyfriend's house in 1997, then chopped off her head.

He also said he had no regrets. "Honor is more precious than my own flesh and blood," said Abdel Rahim, who was released after two months.

In fact, honor is so precious that it is not unusual, experts say, for a victim to be slain on the basis of rumor alone. As often as not, said Dr. Hani Jahshan, the deputy medical examiner of Jordan, his autopsy of a woman slain for reasons of honor will find that her hymen is intact.

In Jordan, premarital sex is a criminal offense, regarded as equal to adultery, while a girl under 18 who engages in consensual sex is deemed to have been raped. A woman cannot leave home without the permission of her family, and an unmarried woman who becomes pregnant is not merely a criminal, but, by law, her child is taken away at birth to be raised in an orphanage.

Dr. Jahshan's duties include examining girls and women taken into custody and accused of involvement in breaking sex laws. His findings are reported to the police and prosecutors, not to the girls' families. But three times already, girls he examined alive have been returned to him dead.

The most recent was a 17-year-old girl arrested as a runaway this spring. Her father had heard that the girl and her 16-year-old sister had been in restaurants with men. Dr. Jahshan found that the girl was a virgin, and she was ordered released by the authorities, who first obtained assurances from her family that she would be safe.

But two weeks later, the girl was back on his table, killed, along with her sister, by her father and two brothers, who could not believe that they were innocent.

"Working here is very difficult," Dr. Jahshan said, as he showed forensic photographs of the bruised, burned, battered or punctured bodies of the young women who have come to him as corpses. "We have to solve this problem."

Honor killings are not exclusively an Arab phenomenon. They are known in India, Pakistan and Turkey, among other places, particularly among poor, rural Muslims. Many Arabs complain that attention to their society's portion of the problem reflects a Western tendency to see them as backward.

"When a Western man kills his lover or wife, the crime is called a crime of passion," said Mohammed Haj Yahya, an Arab-Israeli sociologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who is active in efforts to combat honor killings. "But when it happens in Arab societies, it is called a family honor killing, and we are viewed as barbarous." Still, the prevailing tendency in the Arab world has been to leave the phenomenon unexplored. In Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and other places where honor killings take place, newspapers rarely mention such killings.

The Fervor: Islam's Teachings and Chastity

nd when an American news magazine wrote earlier this year about the killings in Jordan, its Egyptian counterpart, Rose al-Youssef, issued a loud defense, saying that the notion that such a "brutal custom" was still being practiced was a product of foreigners' imaginations.

But what distinguishes honor killings in the Arab world is that they are seen less as crimes of passion than as inherently just. "Women are largely looked upon as bodies owned and protected by the husband, by the father, by the brother or even other relatives," said Salwa Bakr, a novelist who is Egypt's most prominent feminist writer.

In many Arab countries, judges see honor killings as a circumstance akin to self-defense. Ayman, 38, in jail in Amman, Jordan, for killing his sister over her sexual relationship with a man, said he expected a sentence of less than a year.

"And these crimes are committed under the pretext that these men are defending not only their honor, but society's morality."

Abu Abseh, the Jordanian who killed his sister with a paving stone, was doing more. He was administering God's law, he said. "We are Muslims," Abu Abseh's older brother said, "and in our religion, she had to be executed." That is certainly a misunderstanding of Islam, Islamic scholars say, but it is not an uncommon one.

As a result of a fundamentalist fervor that has touched much of the Arab world in the last two decades, Islamic faith has come to be worn more and more often as a badge of honor. Sometimes, it as a badge less earned than invoked, for purposes that do not always have a basis in the Koran.

"These crimes are occurring because of ignorance of Islam -- by the women who commit these un-Islamic acts, but also by the men who kill them," said Abul Menem Abu Zant, a prominent Islamic leader in Jordan.

For women, and for men, Islam does put a premium on chastity, and it prescribes harsh punishments for sexual misconduct -- death for adultery, flogging for fornication. But Islam also teaches that religious authorities, not family members, be the judges, and that any punishment be deferred until a considered judgment is reached.

Islamic teachings caution further against false accusations. Only repeated confessions from the accused or the testimony of four male witnesses are seen as conclusive evidence of sexual misconduct. "Treat your women well, and be kind to them," the Prophet Mohammed is recorded as saying.

But Islam has always coexisted and, in some practices, become intertwined with older Arab traditions. One pre-Islamic Arab custom still prevalent in Mohammed's time was known as al-maoudeh -- the practice, explicitly condemned in the Koran, of burying baby daughters alive so that they would not later cause the family shame.

The era that preceded Islam's arrival in the 7th century is now known to Muslims as Al Jahiliya, or the Age of Ignorance. But its traditions of harsh justice, rendered in verse by the 10th-century poet Al Motanabi ("Your utmost honor will not be cleansed, until blood is spilled," he wrote) have survived in Arab folklore and culture.

Even today, Arab Christian as well as Muslim men are often advised on their wedding night, only half in jest, to "slaughter the cat." The phrase is a reference to a tale in which a groom brutally beheads a kitten in the bedchamber before having sex with his virgin bride. If she strays, the man tells her, she will suffer the cat's fate.

Honor killings are not committed by Arab Muslims alone. Arab Christians are a small minority today in places like Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories, but they account for a proportionate share of those killings, experts say.

It is among Arab tribes, whose centuries of intermarriage have created powerful bonds, that traditional notions of honor may be most enduring. Even in modern urban life, in places like Jordan, many people identify most strongly with a tribe, so that the conduct of one reflects on all.

"When a man's daughter does a wrong, he cannot sit amongst men," Banjes al-Hadid, a member of Jordan's Parliament and a prominent tribal leader, told a visitor to his home, atop Amman's highest hill.

"He will be ostracized. They will not even give him coffee. Who would like to kill his wife or daughter? But if he does not, in a village or among a tribe, they will look down on him."

Some people, like Sheik Abu Zant, the Islamic leader, argue that stricter allegiance to Islam is the answer. They note that honor killing, by most accounts, is far less common in Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have imposed strict Islamic law and where premarital sex, sometimes, is indeed punished by lashing, and adultery by death.

If Jordan were to follow that example, Sheik Abu Zant said, fathers, brothers and sons would be less inclined to carry out the honor killings that some now justify as taking Islamic law into their own hands.

But a broader consensus holds that a better solution is silence, when it comes to sexual misconduct. "You have to cover it up," said Sheik Hadid. "If no one knows what happened, everyone will be more secure."

One option pursued by some young Arab women is surgery. On her wedding night, an Arab bride is expected to bleed. A woman who does not can expect to be hauled to a gynecologist by her husband, who would demand to be told whether she had truly been a virgin.

The Solutions: Proposals of Sharia and of Silence

or women who have had premarital sex, a way to avoid discovery is known as hymen restoration. As long as the woman's sexual experience has been limited, gynecologists say, the surgical procedure is simple and inexpensive -- a stitching together of what remains of the hymen, usually a few days before the wedding, so that it will tear again during intercourse.

In Egypt, Jordan, and most other Arab countries, the procedure is illegal, because it is seen as defrauding the husband. But it is also widely practiced.

"What's important is saving the woman's life," said a Jordanian gynecologist who asked not to be identified.

Banjes al-Hadid, a member of Jordan's Parliament and a prominent tribal leader, supports honor killing.

But the more traditional Arab way to cover up is through a kind of shotgun marriage that keeps honor intact. Tribal leaders in Jordan, who serve with the blessing of the Government, say they act as intermediaries many dozens of times a year, sometimes at the request of young women, and sometimes by their families, in the hope of legitimizing a union before it becomes fodder for gossip.

If the male partner is reluctant, Sheik Hadid said, he makes a powerful plea: "Do you want her parents to kill her? Do you want her to die?" And as cruel as it may sound, Sheik Hadid said, he tries to arrange marriages between the sexual partners even in cases of violent rape. "It might not be her fault," he said, "but as I see it, the girl has no other choice."

Until the Egyptian Parliament acted in April, that thinking was built into Egyptian law, with the statute that promised a pardon to any rapist who agreed to marry his victim. One attempt to change that statute failed last December, and the usually compliant Parliament did not finally acquiesce until Mubarak ordered it repealed by decree.

And even now, some Egyptian legal scholars argue that old provision should be restored. "Executing or putting a rapist in jail does not help anyone," said Mustafa Ewis, a senior lawyer in Cairo's Legal Resource Research Center, which describes itself as a human-rights advocacy group. "But if he marries the victim, then it helps both of them, giving them a chance to start fresh and to protect the girl from social stigma."

The attitude is repellent to people like Fawziya Abdel Sattar, a leading law professor and former member of the Egyptian Parliament who was active in pressing for the change. "Instead of punishing the rapist, the law gave him back his victim to re-rape her, legally this time," Ms. Abdel Sattar said.

Still, once the specter of shame begins to loom, some families come to see killing as the only choice. In March, the family of Amal, a 17-year-old Jordanian, discovered that she was pregnant. She told them she had been raped in December by a friend of her father's, who was staying in the family home. Her sister-in-law sold her gold jewelry to pay for an abortion.

But the doctor refused to perform the procedure, which is illegal in Jordan. And so instead, Amal said, her father decided to use the money to buy a gun.

The next day, he sent her mother and younger siblings from the house, closed the windows and curtains, then turned the music loud. As Amal lay on a mattress in her room, the father and her 22-year-old brother took turns with the revolver, shooting her eight times and leaving her for dead.

Amal's brother is still in jail, but her father is already free on bail. And Amal, now bullet-scarred and six months pregnant, is also in jail, with much less hope of swift release.

Officially, she is being held for her protection.

Her father, brother and her cousins all still want to kill her. But she is also a prisoner of her culture, and of a paternalistic Jordanian law that allows a woman to be released only to a close male relative.

Among the 40 or so other Jordanian women caught with Amal in a similar limbo, prison officials say, many have been in custody for years -- one since 1990.

Some activists have begun to conclude that their only escape from honor's thrall may be to leave Jordan forever, through complicated arrangements that require the help of foster families abroad. "They should be considered social refugees," said Ms. Khader, the Jordanian lawyer.