Honor Killing

There’s a real long article in the New York Times magazine about the recent “honor” killing of a Syrian teenager named Zahra al-Azzo. Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/23/magazine/23wwln-syria-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&ref=magazine

I just wanted to point out this part:

In shawarma sandwich shops and juice stalls, most men had heard of Zahra, but more than half of them believed that the practice of honor killing is protected — or outright required — by Islamic law. A man named Abu Rajab, who ran a cigarette stall, described it as “something that is found in religion” and added that even if the laws were changed, “a man will kill his sister if he needs to, even if it means 15 years in prison.”

Yet the notion that Islam condones honor killing is a misconception, according to some lawyers and a few prominent Islamic scholars. Daad Mousa, a Syrian women’s rights advocate and lawyer, told me that though beliefs about cleansing a man’s honor derive from Bedouin tradition, the three Syrian laws used to pardon men who commit honor crimes can be traced back not to Islamic law but to the law codes, based on the Napoleonic code, that were imposed in the Levant during the French mandate. “Article 192 states that if a man commits a crime with an ‘honorable motive,’ he will go free,” Mousa said. “In Western countries this law usually applies in cases where doctors kill their patients accidentally, intending to save them, but here the idea of ‘honorable motive’ is often expanded to include men who are seen as acting in defense of their honor.

“Article 242 refers to crimes of passion,” Mousa continued. “But it’s Article 548 that we’re really up against. Article 548 states precisely that if a man witnesses a female relative in an immoral act and kills her, he will go free.” Judges frequently interpret these laws so loosely that a premeditated killing — like the one Fayyez is accused of — is often judged a “crime of passion”; “witnessing” a female relative’s behavior is sometimes defined as hearing neighborhood gossip about it; and for a woman, merely speaking to a man may be ruled an “immoral act.” Syria, which has been governed since 1963 by a secular Baathist regime, has a strong reputation in the region for sex equality; women graduate from high schools and universities in numbers roughly equal to men, and they frequently hold influential positions as doctors, professors and even government ministers. But in the family, a different standard applies. “Honor here means only one thing: women, and especially the sexual life of women,” Mousa said. The decision to carry out an honor killing is usually made by the family as a group, and an under-age boy is often nominated to carry out the task, to eliminate even the smallest risk of a prison sentence.

The Grand Mufti Ahmad Badr Eddin Hassoun, Syria’s highest-ranking Islamic teacher, has condemned honor killing and Article 548 in unequivocal terms. Earlier this year, when we met for a rare interview in his spacious office on the 10th floor of Syria’s ministry of religious endowments, he told me, “It happens sometimes that a misogynistic religious scholar will argue that women are the source of all kinds of evil.” In fact, he said, the Koran does not differentiate between women and men in its moral laws, requiring sexual chastity of both, for example. The commonly held view that Article 548 is derived from Islamic law, he said, is false.

In our interview, the grand mufti told me that he believed Article 548 would be struck down by the Syrian Parliament within months, and given his government ties he might be expected to know. Still, women’s rights advocates are not so optimistic. They point out that Syria’s educated elites have long opposed honor killing, though there is often a squeamishness about discussing a practice that is embarrassing to them. They say that some conservative Syrians are having second thoughts about the custom thanks to the efforts of their Islamic teachers, but that their numbers are small.


Filed under arab, Islamic relations

3 responses to “Honor Killing

  1. Jordan finally did way with the laws protecting honor killing a few years ago, but as with other controversial laws, there is no legal penalty recommended for breaking the law.

    A journalist by the name of Rana Husseini with the Jordan Times was covering the stories of the killings, often receiving death threats herself. The last year I lived in Jordan there were some 30 honor killings. Some were as bizarre as a thirteen year old who killed his sister by strangulation with a telephone cord for talking to someone on the phone he thought was a man.

    My understanding is the Koran forbids parents from killing their children, so the father orders the killing. The Koran also says children must obey their parents so the girl’s brother must kill her when ordered. Also if there is some rumor about her, the brothers might be getting teased by the other kids at school and want to kill her to stop the teasing.

    It is true the Jordanian women do not speak to a man who is not in their family unless they are engaged to him.

  2. ammani

    Actually, Nijma, that is incorrect, but sadly a common misunderstanding. In late 1999/early 2000, there was a campaign to try to overturn one of the three Jordanian penal code articles on the books that offer such leniency to the killers that the average sentence is six months. The article the activists chose is one that, according to the Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, has never actually been used in a case. . .Article 340 (Article 98 is the one most commonly used). The Lower House of Parliament would not agree to overturning it. . .though, somewhat oddly, they changed the wording of the article such that now women can employ it as an “honor” killing defense, too.

    Nothing has changed for the better in Jordan for people who are at risk of being a victim in these crimes. At present, all three penal code articles remain on the books. There are still no shelters to protect these women, though one opened up earlier this year that will accept other people confronted with abuse, but specifically not people who are at risk for an “honor” killing. So, although they are not criminals or even charged with anything, they are still warehoused in Jweideh Correction Centre outside Amman in protective custody (average stay right now is seven years) while the people who threaten them walk free.

    These crimes are believed to have their origins in misinterpretations of pre-Islamic Arab tribal codes. Thus, they pre-date Islam. In fact, they are un-Islamic.

    These days, it is only very conservative Jordanian women who don’t speak to men who are not family members. And it really kind of depends on where they live. In Amman, Irbid, Zarqa, Aqaba, and other cities and medium-sized towns, women are pretty much incorporated into society and routinely speak to men who are not in their family, if for no other reason than to make it through the tasks of daily living.

    Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
    “Reclaiming Honor in Jordan”

  3. Thank you so much, Nijma and ammani, for posting these replies. What an interesting and awful subject.

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