If a woman brings shame to the family--through allegations of premarital or extramarital sex, by refusing an arranged marriage, or attempting to obtain a divorce--her male relatives are bound by duty and culture to murder her.
Honor is everything," says Ahmed, a 52-year-old Palestinian Muslim. "If a person loses his honor, he becomes like an animal." The significance of honor among Muslims is complex, especially when compared to Western standards, but in the high-context, collectivist cultures of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, the inappropriate behavior of relatives brings shame to everyone in the extended family.
Palestinian communities are typically insular. Family members often remain in the same village or neighborhood for their entire lives. "Everyone knows each other," says Muhib Nimrat, consul with the Embassy of Jordan in Washington, D.C. "When you mention someone's family name, most people can tell you their history." Wealthy or poor, the reputation and honor of a family are its most important attributes.
Steeped in a collective sense of identity, families take pride in the accomplishments of individual members and feel shame if one of them does something dishonorable. "The family plays a role in every aspect of life in the Arab world," says Nimrat. "Whatever you do, you have to consider the immediate family and extended family, even the neighbors. How will they react? What will they think?"
Unlike Western countries, which champion individualism, Arabs focus on the group. The family is more important than the individual.
In the feudal, patriarchal societies of the Middle East, honor is based on what men feel is important, and reputation is everything. Unfortunately, thousands of women have been killed in the name of honor because imagination and rumors are as important as actions and events. Most, but not all, of these killings involve Muslims. Some Jewish communities, from the ancient fortress of Masada to conservative Hasidic sects of today, have similar views of tradition and ritual law but refrain from killing women in the name of honor.
Murder by family
The murder of females in the Middle East is an ancient tradition. Prior to the arrival of Islam in AD 622, Arabs occasionally buried infant daughters to avoid the possibility that they would later bring shame to the family. This practice continued through the centuries. It may still occur today among Bedouins, who consider girls most likely to sully the family honor.
Several thousand women a year are victims of honor killings. Numerous murders are ruled an accident, suicide, or family dispute, if they're reported at all. Police and government officials are often bribed to ignore crimes and hinder investigations. A woman beaten, burned, strangled, shot, or stabbed to death is often ruled a suicide, even when there are multiple wounds.
Many women are killed and buried in unmarked graves; their very existence is removed from community and clan records. The fact that so many murders go unreported is indicative of the status of women and the role of culture in fundamentalist Islamic countries. "It shows that women are still sometimes seen as commodities that are owned by men," says Carolyn Hannan, director of the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women.
In the Palestinian communities of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Israel, and Jordan, women are executed in their homes, in open fields, and occasionally in public, sometimes before crowds of cheering onlookers. Honor killings account for virtually all of the murders of Palestinian women in these areas.
Honor killings occur for a variety of offenses, including allegations of premarital or extramarital sex, refusing an arranged marriage, attempting to obtain a divorce, or simply talking with a man. If a woman brings shame to the family, her male relatives are bound by duty and culture to kill her. "A woman shamed is like rotting flesh," a Palestinian merchant tells me. "If it is not cut away, it will consume the body. What I mean is the whole family will be tainted if she is not killed."
Among Arabs, marriage is traditionally a family affair, not a personal choice. Girls are often pressured into arranged marriages, while boys are not. "I was forced to marry my cousin," laments a young Palestinian woman. "I hated him. He beat me and humiliated me in front of his family and friends. But what could I do? If I had fled, I would have been killed."
Men hold all the power in the marriage. They are allowed up to four wives and may divorce a wife simply by saying "I divorce thee" three times before witnesses prior to registering the decree in court. The process for divorce is much more difficult for a woman and in some communities virtually impossible without her husband's consent.
A woman's activities are closely monitored by her family. Her virginity is considered their responsibility, and she is dominated by men her entire life--first her father, then her husband, and finally her sons. When a woman's chastity is in question, her family feels the shame, even if she is raped or the rumors prove unsubstantiated. As a result of "her" shame, the extended family is compromised. It will be difficult to arrange marriages for her unwed sisters, and her male relatives will be scorned and ridiculed until they kill her.
Women are killed by their fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, cousins, or sons. In communities where the crime is prosecuted, teenage brothers are encouraged to kill their sisters because the consequences will be less severe due to their age. Relatives of the victims, including mothers and sisters, often defend the killings and occasionally help set them up.
Islam is inaccurately cited as justification for these crimes. In one case, a Palestinian boy admitted to reciting the Qur'an while strangling his sister for dishonoring her family. The girl was killed because her desire for independence became public knowledge.
Most honor killings occur in poor, rural tribal areas or among uneducated urban dwellers. "The tribal influence is an important factor," notes Nimrat. "Education is also important. Someone who is not well educated will immediately kill his sister or wife. If he has a higher level of education, there might be some understanding."
Sanctioned to kill
Critics claim honor killings are sanctioned by the educated elite, who pass laws that enable murderers to get off with little or no punishment. "Many groups want harsher punishment for those who commit such acts," continues Nimrat, "but the cultural dimension plays an important role. To eradicate this will take time."
Even when apprehended, murderers serve little or no jail time because honor killings are accorded special status in the courts. Men convicted of premeditated murder may be imprisoned for as little as three to six months. Upon their release, friends and relatives treat them like celebrities. Ahmed, a Palestinian boy who killed his teenage sister because she refused an arranged marriage, was commended upon his release from jail. Neighbors showered him with compliments, and his father called him a hero for restoring the family honor.
The West Bank and Gaza Strip are governed by the Palestinian Authority under a combination of Jordanian, Egyptian, and tribal laws. Israel has no jurisdiction in these territories. There are at least twenty-five "official" honor killings a year among the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and thirty-five a year in Jordan. The actual number of deaths is much higher.
Hundreds of women have died from strange and unusual accidents or questionable suicides. Many more are buried in the desert, unreported and unaccounted for. The secret of their fate is entombed with them in the sand. The lack of reliable statistics has hindered women's groups and human rights organizations in their campaign to eliminate honor killings.
"Uncontrollable rage" at having lost their honor is another reason given to excuse perpetrators of these killings. It's the American equivalent of innocent by reason of insanity.
The brutality of the attacks is shocking. An eighteen-year-old Palestinian man stabbed his teenage sister forty times because of a rumor that she was involved in an extramarital affair. The family thanked God for her death. In an adjacent neighborhood, a sixteen-year-old boy killed his divorced mother, stabbing her repeatedly as he chased her into the street. The boy told authorities he was upset because neighbors were gossiping about her allegedly immoral behavior.
Among Palestinians, all sexual encounters, including rape and incest, are blamed on the woman. Men are presumed innocent; the woman must have tempted him into raping her or enticed him into having an affair. A woman is expected to protect her honor, even at the cost of her own life. If she survives a violent rape, she is condemned for her "mistake" and may be killed by her family.
"The issue of consent is irrelevant when it comes to honor killings," says Marsha Freeman, director of the International Women's Rights Action Watch (IWRAW). "It has to do with the woman being defiled. It completely objectifies the woman as being about her sexuality and purity. It makes her not human."
For Palestinian women accused of sexual infidelity or disobeying their family, there is little recourse. Few are given the opportunity to refute the charges or prove their innocence.
It's difficult for women to flee the situation. Arab societies are close knit, and most women lack the resources to live alone. Palestinian newspapers include advertisements placed by families who are looking for female relatives accused of immoral behavior. "When they find her, they'll kill her," says Jameel, a Palestinian businessman, "because the whole family wants the girl dead." The community is warned not to interfere, not to hide the woman.
The Palestinian community has limited resources and shelters. Women accused of inappropriate behavior are frequently jailed to protect them from their families. At least fifty women a year are imprisoned in Jordan on honor-related cases. The number held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is unknown. The length of detention ranges from a few months to several years. Some of the female detainees expressed concern that they would never be able to leave jail because their families would kill them.
Once imprisoned, women can be released only to a male relative, who must first agree not to execute them. Regardless of assurances, women are often murdered within hours of their discharge. Fayez Mohammed secured the release of his seventeen-year-old daughter, Lamis, from a Jordanian detention center where she was staying for her protection. He guaranteed her safety and then slit her throat. Fayez was sentenced to nine months in prison for the crime.
Victims of dishonor
In Palestinian communities, a woman's purity reflects directly on a family's reputation. If a woman is raped, missing, or even rumored to have engaged in premarital sexual relations, she is taken to a medical clinic for a hymen exam. This process can have fatal consequences. Over 75 percent of the Palestinian women in Jordan subjected to hymen exams were subsequently killed by family members, even when tests proved they were still virgins.
Some women, including virgins, have operations to reattach their hymen prior to marriage, in part, to ensure that they bleed on their wedding night. This procedure, illegal in most Arab countries, can save a woman's honor, and perhaps her life. Among Arabs, it is essential that the new bride be a virgin. If the bride's hymen is not intact, or if she fails to bleed during initial penetration, the husband can declare the marriage void and return her to her family. Viewing her as damaged goods, her family may feel they have no alternative but to kill her, even if they believe she is innocent of any wrongdoing.
From the tribal standpoint, the only way a family can regain its honor is to eliminate the women in question. "The law of the clan is sacred," notes Jibril, a Palestinian merchant. "A man is entitled to kill for his honor." Several Palestinians justified honor killings by equating a woman's reputation to glass, porcelain, or other fragile objects, stating, "Once broken, it is ruined. It cannot be fixed or repaired."
In some areas, a Palestinian woman is required to have a male relative accompany her whenever she leaves the home. Unfortunately, her male "guardian"--father, brother, uncle, or cousin--may be a sexual predator who rapes her. Should she become pregnant, he will publicly condemn her for dishonoring the family after killing both her and their unborn child. Last year, seventeen-year-old Afaf Younes was killed by her father, who had allegedly been sexually molesting her. Afaf had tried to escape his sexual abuse by running away, but she was caught and returned to her father. He then shot her in the name of honor.
A sixteen-year-old Palestinian girl became pregnant after being raped by her younger brother. Once her condition became known, her family encouraged her older brother to kill her to remove the blemish from their honor. Her brothers, the rapist and the murderer, were exonerated. The girl was blamed. "She made a mistake," said one of her male cousins. "She had to pay for it."
Even more horrifically, a four-year-old Palestinian girl, raped by a man in his mid-twenties, was left by her family to bleed to death. They did this because they felt her misfortune would sully their honor.
Women often accept their fate and expect to be executed, even in the case of incest and rape. "They have to kill us," exclaims Ritza, a middle-aged Palestinian woman, "to keep others from doing wrong. It is the law of our society." It is hard to grasp the logic.
Girls, feeling they are ruined by scandal, go submissively to the slaughter. Such is the power of culture that has conditioned both victim and killer to accept their roles. "He had no choice but to kill her," says Rateb, whose son killed his sixteen-year-old sister after she was raped. "He was tormented. The community was persecuting him because of what his sister did. Her death has helped to wash away his shame."
James Emery is an anthropologist and journalist. Information for this article was obtained through interviews and research conducted in North America, West Asia, and the Middle East. The names of some of the Palestinians interviewed were changed to protect their identities.