The case was a facsimile of countless others that Rana Husseini has investigated in the past 15 years: A woman in Jordan is brutally murdered – not by strangers but by her own brothers, who reportedly acted to restore the family’s honor. The men said their sister – a divorcee – had a “bad reputation,” and refused their requests to leave the family’s apartment house in Amman. After killing her with knives, the brothers allegedly tried to cover their tracks by setting fire to the building – with their sister inside.
In the pages of the Jordan Times, Husseini has chronicled the deaths of more than 100 similar women – some of whom were just teenagers, many of whom were killed by family members with guns or bare hands. Mothers have admitted to killing their own daughters. “Sometimes,” Husseini
admits, “the cases get to me.”
But never enough to leave her job as a reporter at Jordan’s most important English-language newspaper. In fact, the continued bloodshed (Jordan averages about 20 “honor killings” every year) has made Husseini more resolved to publicize the practice in the hope of eliminating it. The daughter of a prominent family that’s been rooted in the Holy Land for generations, Husseini has become one of Jordan’s – and the world’s – most vigilant activists against honor killings. Invited to speak at international conferences, recognized with major awards (including the Reebok Human Rights Award in 1998, and one from Human Rights Watch in 2000), and consulted by the United Nations Development Fund for Women in its anti-violence campaign, Husseini has added a new platform from which to address the issue: Author.
Husseini needed five years to write “Murder in the Name of Honor: The True Story of One Woman’s Heroic Fight Against An Unbelievable Crime.” Sitting in a San Francisco café on a recent visit, Husseini could state unequivocally that her reporting has saved lives. She knows this because women (and men) have told her.
“I’m doing something good for women in my country and women in the world,” Husseini says. “This is the ultimate that you can reach.”
The flip side is that some Jordanians hate Husseini – hate her for making public a social problem that stains the country’s reputation. Husseini’s critics say her reporting has hurt Jordan’s tourist industry, and that the honor killings are a relatively minor phenomenon in a country with more than six million people. Via email and letters, Husseini has been threatened with violence herself (“if you don’t stop reporting these murders,” one letter said, “I will send someone to visit you at your house and workplace”) – but Husseini dismisses the hatred, saying it’s a sign that her work is affecting people. In her book, Husseini emphasizs that the practice of honor killing isn’t limited to Jordan – she details its occurrence in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, Turkey, Egypt, and the Palestinian territories. All of these homelands have Muslim majorities, but religion isn’t the main catalyst for the problem – it’s poor education and a misogynistic culture, according to Husseni and Amin Muhammad, a professor of psychiatry at Canada’s University of Newfoundland who’s an expert on the subject.
Muhammad, who was born and raised in Pakistan, where he’s done research on the practice of “honor killings,” says it predates Islam. “The Muslim religion,” Muhammad tells me, “doesn’t sanction any such practice.”
Around the world, according to United Nations estimates, about 5,000 women die every year from intra-family violence related to “honor.” Frequently, says Muhammad, perpetrators use “honor” to mask a hidden agenda, such as wanting to rid a sister from competing for an inherited property. In one of the first murders that Husseini researched, a man shot his 23-year-old sister, Kifaya, and an older sister (32-year-old Nadia) before turning himself in to police and claiming he acted after seeing a “strange man” in Kifaya’s house. Husseini – curious about the brother’s motives – interviewed a male shopkeeper in the Jordanian city of Zarqa, where the murders happened, and was told, “They were killed for their inheritance. Those poor women were totally innocent. Everyone here knows this is the truth.”
The Jordanian prosecutor in the sisters’ murders ignored the shopkeeper’s testimony, and a judge – citing a Jordanian law (Article 98) that gives reduced sentences to those who’ve committed crimes in a “state of great fury” – ordered the brother behind bars for just one year. It was that kind of ruling that convinced Husseini she should do more than just report the facts. With other Jordanian activists, Husseini organized protests and gathered 15,000 signatures to change Article 98 and another Jordanian law (Article 340) that contains language reducing prison terms for those who kill alleged adulterers. This was 1999. Ten years later, the two laws still stand in Jordan, though the long public debate about intra-family violence has prompted some prosecutors and judges to reassess their views and to seek harsher sentences for “honor killings.”
Many men in Jordan – including King Abdullah II and Crown Prince Hassan – have joined Husseini in condemning the murders and demanding legal changes to discourage the practice. In Jordan, though, legislative power is concentrated in the hands of conservative members of Parliament, who’ve rebuffed Husseini and her supporters by branding them as Westerners trying to impose “outside” values onto Jordan’s culture. (Husseini, who lived in the United States for seven years while getting a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Oklahoma City University, has been accused of being “a Western agent.”) Even some women in Jordan have said Husseini should move on to other issues, but she remains undaunted.
“The good thing is the level of awareness we’ve managed to secure,” Husseini says, sitting in a café, looking out the window as pedestrians walk by. “In the past, you’d never see discussion (about the issue) in the papers or among people. It’s the start of change. This is an issue that’s not going to change overnight.”
Like Husseini, Muhammad believes the problem won’t recede without constant attention from activists, journalists, academics and others. Muhammad, who has written about the issue for the past eight years, publishes his research in academic journals, and speaks publicly about honor killings whenever he can. Among Pakistan’s most recent cases: In June, relatives of a teenage girl who had married against her parent’s wishes killed her and her husband, along with the husband’s mother, father and sister. The murders happened in rural northwest Pakistan, where police frequently ignore the country’s laws. Human rights groups accuse Pakistan’s government of doing too little to prevent intra-family violence.
“To stop it, you have to change the infrastructure – the political and governmental infrastructure,” Muhammad says. “You need to bring a revolution to countries like Pakistan and Jordan.”
Fearful of the publicity, families in Jordan who’ve experienced honor killings have threatened to sue Husseini and the Jordan Times if the paper printed the full name of a murder victim. The divorcee who was killed and burned in her Amman apartment recently remained nameless in the Jordan Times, but her story was still there for all to see. Some readers undoubtedly looked away when they saw the report and Husseini’s byline. Husseini doesn’t care. With her stories – and now her book – she says she’s making sure that every victim of an honor killing is acknowledged. For many of these women, Husseini’s citation is their last – and only – recognition.
“I have to be the voices of these women,” Husseini says. “They were deprived the right to live and even the right for someone to say they lived on this earth and had their lives taken away.”