Yet again, the international media reports on an ‘honour killing’ in Jordan. Three men were charged last month and are now being tried with premeditated murder after allegedly stabbing their divorced sister to death because they believed she was behaving in a manner that brought them and their family dishonour.
Honour killings are not a monopoly of Jordan. They also take place in societies in South and Latin America as well as Southern Europe, but these days, killing women for reasons having to do with ‘lack of virtue’ seems to fall mainly in the domain of Arabs and Muslims. And this is regrettable.
When Islam came to be, around 1500 years ago, it sought, among other things, to temper certain negative characteristics that were part of Arab culture at that time. Chief among those were the way women were treated.
The Quran, Islam’s holy book, dedicates many verses to issues having to do with women and there is a whole chapter called Surat Al Nisa’ (The Chapter on Women) addressing issues pertaining to females. Although today there are various interpretations of what some of these Quranic prescriptions mean, on the whole it is safe to say that Islam led the way for female emancipation at a time when the concept hardly existed in practice, in the East or the West.
If that is the case, one has to ask why do we still have honour killings in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and with such frequency?
When I was a student in the 1970s we studied the Quran at school in Jordan. There is a verse that talks about the pre-Islamic practice of female infanticide. Some poor families used to murder young females soon after birth. Males were preferred as they could generate income for the family. Others believed that if the family were poor, its female members would be more prone to behaving immorally (e.g. prostitution), which brought shame and dishonour on the family. Additionally, if a poor family could not repay debts, children were often taken by loan sharks in lieu of payment and it was preferred that this fate should befall male members of the family for, again, honour reasons.
But this is a reality that existed fifteen centuries ago or more. So, why do echoes of times past haunt us today?
There is a symbiotic relationship between Arab culture and Islam. Viewing the Arab and Islamic terrain, one can detect two gravity centres, Arab and Islamic. They are two sides of one coin and each has, throughout the centuries, influenced the other. At times, it was difficult to tell the two apart. And sometimes, the Arab and Muslim world would tilt more towards one pole than the other. This gravitational pull would influence how Arabs and Muslims behaved at a given point in time.
In many Arab and Muslim societies, Jordan included, the final say in a woman’s betrothal remains the prerogative of her father or, if he is not alive, her elder brother, uncle or other male guardian. Only a small percentage of families allow their women the freedom to choose their husbands, with no male veto hanging over their heads. There is nothing in Islam that calls for this type of guardianship over women.
Treating females with an element of ownership is not only prevalent in the Middle East but in Arab and Muslim communities living elsewhere. I am reminded of the story of a Muslim girl from a certain ethnic background. She was born and lives in the United States. Her parents immigrated there in search of better lives. Once, while in high school, her father and brother found out that she was seeing a fellow student, a friend of her brother. They beat her up so badly that she could not leave the house for weeks. She never went to the police. The bruises healed, but she was scarred in a way that will continue to influence any relationship she has with a man, husband or otherwise.
There is nothing in Islam that calls for or condones the killing of a woman on an assumption that she is behaving immorally. It should also be noted that over the centuries various types of marriages such as – nikah mut’a ‘pleasure marriage’ and kikah misyar ‘travel marriage’ have evolved in Islam. Depending on which school of thought one adheres to, Islam made room not only for the normal marriage but also for other associations between men and women, which may be consummated for various reasons including pleasure.
These arrangements may not be popular in certain Muslim communities nowadays but this does not change the fact that Islam is more tolerant of male-female relationships than meets the eye or than some would have us believe. Hence, the issue becomes not one of dishonour and immorality but of disobedience and control.
As humans, we tend to seek repositories in life to deposit issues in, and we behave towards those repositories in different ways, depending on the issues that we deposit in them. So, a wall or a building becomes holy because we deposit part of our reverence for the divine in these structures. Or, we may project evil into a group of people and seek to eradicate them. For a woman to become the repository of virtue for her family, she becomes an icon, and icons are images that we impose on a surface that never live up to our unreasonable expectations.
Rana Husseini, a Jordanian journalist and human rights activist, recently published a book on this subject entitled Murder in the Name of Honor. It is a brave step in the right direction. But many more are needed and not just in Jordan, but throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Nearly twenty women a year are murdered in ‘honour killings’ in Jordan. The Jordanian press is more forthright than some in reporting such crimes. Murder is a crime punishable by death, yet courts usually commute or reduce sentences in cases of honour killings. Jordan continues to grapple with this problem but no government has been able to stamp out this warped behaviour
At the end of the day, one has to say what is right is right, and what is wrong is wrong. Honour killings are heinous crimes and are against anything and everything that is holy in this life.