North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

A murder in Syria reignites the debate about so-called ‘honour killings’

Despite legal reforms, the country’s fragmentation and persistent attitudes about women and girls are a barrier to gender equality

Aman Bezreh
13 July 2021, 12.23pm
In 2014, the Autonomous Administration issued Legislative Decree No. 22, which outlawed and criminalised ‘honour killing’, classifiying it as murder
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Eddie Gerald / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Since 4 July, Arabic-language social media users have been enraged by a video showing the execution of a teenage girl by machine gun fire in Syria’s Al Hasakah Province. The perpetrators were her family members, including her father, brother and several cousins.

The girl – identified as Aida Alhamoudi – was described in several media sources as being between 16 and 18 years old. Her crime was loving the wrong man, who came from outside her tribe, and refusing to marry her cousin.

According to local media in Syria, the family intentionally disseminated the video to prove to people in their town that they have “washed away their disgrace”, meaning that they killed the girl who disobeyed them.

The graphic video is one of thousands that document human rights abuses in Syria, including crimes against women, such as those dubbed ‘honour killings’.

Alhamoudi is not the first victim of so-called ‘honour’ crimes, and will certainly not be the last. The crime against Alhamoudi was followed by another just a few days after, which was not widely discussed or covered in local media. Not much is known about the other case, except that it concerns another minor killed by her father.

Legal sanction

The legal grounds for ‘honour killing’ in Syria is as old as its Penal Code, issued by legislative Decree No. 148 in 1949. This was mainly based on the French penal code of 1810, which gave legal grounds for “crimes of passion”. The original law excuses the male perpetrator from the crime in circumstances where he acts after being taken by surprise or caught in a “state of anger”, to defend his “honour” by killing a female relative for engaging in “illicit” sexual relations.

In 2009, the first amendment to the law was enacted in Syria, stipulating that perpetrators motivated by the defence of their honour would be sentenced to a minimum of two years in prison. In 2011 the sentence was increased to between five and seven years, until the law was completely abolished, along with its amendments in 2020.

In the case of Alhamoudi, however, the crime did not occur in territory controlled by the Syrian government. That part of the country is held by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, also known as Rojava, where the Syrian government is present but not in power. The Autonomous Administration is a de facto authority, to whose presence the Syrian government did not consent. Therefore whenever the opportunity arises, the Syrian government issues statements to prove it still has a say in regulating the lives of Syrians in areas under its control.

In 2014, the Autonomous Administration issued Legislative Decree No. 22, which outlawed and criminalised ‘honour killing’, classifiying it as murder. It also stipulated that the perpetrator be punished for murder according to the Syrian Penal Code, adding that any legal rationale for committing this crime shall not be considered.

Law 22 could possibly be one of the most progressive laws in the Middle East and North Africa region for women. In comparison with other progressive laws, such as the Tunisian Code of Personal Status, which was considered to be “historic” in ending violence against women, Law 22 seems equally reformist. The Tunisian law included measures to prevent violence against women and introduced criminal provisions to increase penalties for different forms of violence committed within the family.

Changing system

After Alhamoudi’s killing, the Syrian government’s public prosecutor in Al Hasakah took responsibility for prosecuting the perpetrators, issuing a warrant for the arrest of five people for murder and 16 as accessories. A copy of the warrant, which openDemocracy has seen, was circulated on Facebook.

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In a telephone interview, human rights lawyer Dr. Aiman Menem said that although the media had labelled the case an honour crime, it did not fit traditional legal definitions of such.

“The term honour crime was usually used to describe a murder that had not been planned,” he said. “It was used to describe a crime conducted by a man against his wife, sister, mother or daughter found engaging in what is described as an illegitimate sexual act.”

He added that an element of surprise was central to the way the crime was defined under the old law. If a degree of planning was involved, then it would not have met the definition. But in any case, said Menem, the law was a “license to kill” and should not have been associated with honour.

Cases in which women are murdered over inheritance or other issues, and subsequently justified as a matter of protecting family honour, have been documented in the past. In most cases, Menem said, these crimes go unpunished.

It is impossible to provide figures on the number of women killed for reasons relating to ‘honour’ in Syria given the political fragmentation and differing governing entities across regions. However, in 2021, human rights group Syrians for Truth and Justice published a report on ‘honour killings’ and other forms of violence against women in the provinces of Idlib, Rural Aleppo, Daraa and As-Suwayda from 2020 to February 2021. The report documented 24 killings, in which 16 women had been killed by their relatives under the pretext of protecting family honour, while six other women were killed for undisclosed reasons. The organisation believes that these additional crimes had similar motivations.

While justifications for honour crimes no longer exist on paper, they remain present in collective memory and re-emerge any time a man kills a woman from his family

According to Menem, “it would be difficult to find numbers related to these cases since the abolition of the laws that justified ‘honour killings’, as these cases now fall under criminal law and are considered murders”. Menem added: “Although there is no evidence to confirm it, it is possible that crimes of such kind have decreased since the criminalisation of honour killing.”

Have the media failed women again?

Laws justifying ‘honour’ crimes have been abolished in Syria by several authorities. But why does the media continue to refer to such incidents in those terms? BBC Arabic, like other media outlets including openDemocracy, used the in quotation marks in its reporting on the Al Hassakah murder. The term was also widely used by social media users and platforms. For many, the term implies that the woman breached sociocultural norms prohibiting sexual relations outside marriage.

A founding member of the Syrian League for Citizenship and well-known activist, Sabah Hallak, commented on the incident by saying that “the media should highlight that the law excusing so-called honour killings was abolished”, and refrain from using the term. She added that the media should “play a role in documenting violations of such nature and analyse why women are being killed by male relatives”.

Sawsan Zakzak, a member of the Syrian Women’s League, said that there are several reasons why media outlets and activists continue to use the term ‘honour killing’. The crime in question resembles what people in Syria used to describe as 'honour' crime, said Zakzak, adding that article 192 of the Penal Code still gives legal grounds for crimes with “honourable motive”, whether committed by women or men, which in a way justifies so-called 'honour' crimes.

Zakzak said that the media and social media users have shown great solidarity with the case, but their framing may be unhelpful. “This honest mistake is taking us back to an era where so-called ‘honour crimes’ were tolerated. This proves that the term has not yet been rendered obsolete by the law change,” she said.

The pride that Alhamoudi’s family showed in disseminating the video, said Zakzak, shows the failure of the Syrian government's policies concerning the development of the region, not just in laws related to women.

Hallak noted that although the law justifying the crime has been abolished, there remains a “vacuum in the set of stipulated laws for the protection of women''. She called for a constitution that guarantees equality between men and women and one that ends discrimination against women in all laws and policies, and guarantees women’s freedom to choose their partners. Hallak also stressed on the importance of providing social and psychological support networks for women in Syria.

In response to the crime against Alhamoudi, hundreds of women in north-east Syria took to the streets in protest on Tuesday.

While justifications for honour crimes no longer exist on paper, they remain present in collective memory and re-emerge any time a man kills a woman from his family.

Changing people’s mentality requires collaborative social work to improve the status of women and girls. It is time for the Syrian and Arabic-speaking media to drop the term ‘honour killing’ altogether, as it inadvertently justifies the murder and violation of women and girls, and to join the league for change.

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