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World Perspective | WOMEN'S RIGHTS

Activists Seek End to Jordan's 'Honor' Killings

Despite royal support, efforts to outlaw practice--in which males murder female kin who shame the family--face strong opposition from Islamists.

March 11, 2000|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AMMAN, Jordan — Last year, 18-year-old Iman told her family that she was in love with a man. In response, her 21-year-old brother poisoned her, then smashed her skull with a rock. He served less than a year in jail.

Last month, 14-year-old Israa was strangled to death by her 15-year-old brother after she spoke to a neighbor boy. The brother acted because he knew failure to do so would have proved him a coward, unable to defend his family's honor.

These are the cases that cross the desk of Jordanian attorney Asma Khader with chilling regularity. For nearly two decades, Khader has been waging a battle to ban so-called honor killings, the practice of males murdering female relatives who bring "shame" to the family.

The punishment is applied when women commit adultery or have sex outside marriage. But some women and girls have been killed for doing nothing more than flirting or because they were the victims of rape.

Jordanian law essentially condones such killings by dictating light sentences for the male perpetrators. Reversing that law has been the focus of efforts by Khader and a coalition of human rights activists, politicians and members of the royal family.

Yet even the support of King Abdullah II has failed to loosen the grip of tradition-bound tribal leaders and conservative Islamists who wield great influence over the way things are run in Jordan.

Three times in the last four months, the Jordanian parliament's 80-member lower house rejected government-sponsored legislation that would revamp the penal code and stiffen sentences for honor killers.

Several lawmakers argued that cracking down on honor killings would encourage women to misbehave and subject Jordanian society to harmful Western influences that will destroy Islamic family values.

Khader is frustrated.

"Even if we change the laws, it won't solve the problem," she said. "We need a real change in the mentality and in the awareness of human rights. All society shares the blame."

When Khader became involved in this cause nearly 20 years ago, she says, no one wanted to talk about it. One case in particular egged her on to fight: A man killed his 15-year-old daughter when she was found to be pregnant. It was later learned that the father was also the one who impregnated the girl.

Today, the rate of honor murders is not increasing, but publicity and public outrage are. Officials estimate that about 25 women and girls are killed each year in Jordan by male relatives, possibly the highest rate in the world. Jordan is a small country of only 4.8 million people; honor killing is also practiced in Palestinian society, Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen, among other countries.

When parliament failed again to change the law last month, thousands of Jordanians marched through downtown Amman in protest--a rarity in this usually placid capital. Even more unusual, Abdullah's brother, Prince Ali, and their cousin, Prince Ghazi, led the demonstration.

Ali, in fact, was so outraged by the legislative inaction that he posted an angry letter on the Internet criticizing parliament. Members of the royal family normally refrain from making such overt political statements, and Ali, under enormous pressure from the legislators, removed the letter a couple of hours later. A senior government official then summoned Jordanian reporters and ordered them to not write about Ali's statement.

The difficulty in outlawing honor killings here underscores the tension between Jordan's new, more progressive generation of royal rulers--Abdullah succeeded his late father, King Hussein, more than a year ago--and the old guard of conservative politicians and tribal masters.

Abdullah has appointed women to his government. Yet antiquated rules and regulations continue to treat women as dependents of their husbands or fathers, who have near-total say over their lives. A bill to allow women to take out passports, for example, languishes before parliament.

"How can we trust a woman to be planning minister," Khader said, "while saying that only her husband can control her behavior? We talk about democracy in Jordan, but there's no real implementation of equality."

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