(AFP) – Sep 2, 2008
AMMAN (AFP) — When 18-year-old Maha decided that she wanted to quit her family's prostitution ring, her brother killed her and alleged it was to "cleanse" the family's honour.
Maha is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of women in Jordan and other conservative societies who rights groups say are killed every year by their male relatives in so-called honour crimes for "sullying" the reputation of their families.
The United Nations has reported such crimes in Brazil, Britain, Ecuador, India, Israel, Italy, Sweden and Uganda as well as in Muslim nations such as Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey.
Accurate figures on such killings are hard to come by because they often go unreported.
In Jordan, between 15 and 20 women are murdered annually in the name of "honour" and at least eight such killings have been reported so far this year, according to Jordanian authorities. Last year 17 such murders were recorded.
But the label "honour killings" can be misleading in this tiny kingdom's male-dominated society of about six million people.
Judges, lawyers, activists and experts agree that in most cases men exploit lenient laws and social misconceptions about women to murder them for inheritance, settling family feuds or to hide other crimes.
"Maha did not want to continue to prostitute herself, so her brother killed her," Israa Tawalbeh, Jordan's first woman coroner, told AFP.
According to Tawalbeh, Maha's brother was a drug addict with a criminal record and ran the family's prostitution ring in an east Amman neighbourhood.
"After killing his sister, he turned himself in and claimed that he murdered her to cleanse the family's honour. Of course forensic examination proved that she worked in prostitution, and the brother was sentenced to two years in prison," she said.
"Nobody cared that the girl wanted to quit the prostitution business. Her brother got away because it is a male-dominated society and it is unfair."
In another case a few years ago, a man beat his 16-year-old daughter to death, claiming she was pregnant. Investigations, however, proved that he had molested the girl.
Judge Jehad Oteibi, spokesman for the Judiciary Council, said court records show that many "honour killings" are committed for reasons related to inheritance. Under sharia-based laws in Jordan, female heirs are entitled to an inheritance, even though it is half that which male heirs receive.
"Forensic tests prove that a lot of victims were virgins, which show that there are other motives behind the killings, including family problems. It's a very sensitive issue in our society," Oteibi said.
In early August, a 26-year-old man shot dead his unmarried 23-year-old sister near Amman because she had disappeared from home for four months with a man. A medical examination, however, showed that the woman was a virgin when she died.
According to Human Rights Watch, 95 percent of women killed in 1997 in Jordan in alleged honour killings were later proved to be innocent.
"Many women are forced to give up their rights or face death. Their families might kill them and allege it is related to honour, and not money," Oteibi said.
"But we can't know the truth because the women are dead. The entire family and the neighbours would lie and claim it was an honour killing."
He said mothers testify against their daughters to protect their sons or husbands.
"Ignorance and poverty is a deadly mix," the judge stressed.
University of Jordan sociologist Seri Nasser blamed the legal system.
"Most of the judges are males who use their powers to reduce the sentence. They forget that women are victims of their male relatives' greed," Nasser said.
Perpetrators get reduced sentences as parliament has refused to reform the penal code to ensure harsher sentences, despite campaigns by local and international human rights activists.
According to article 340 of the penal code, a defendant who "surprises his wife or any close female relative" in an act of adultery or fornication may invoke a defence of "crime of honour" should they murder the woman.
For women, "a wife who surprises her husband in the crime of adultery or in an unlawful bed in the marital home" may invoke a similar defence -- though interestingly there are no reports or any official figures on any "honour" killings of men in Jordan.
Article 98 of the penal code stipulates that "an extenuating justification can be invoked by anyone who commits a crime in a fit of rage as a result of an unrightful and dangerous act carried out by the victim" -- which may significantly reduce penalties for murder.
Although only few defendants were able to meet the requirements of the law, most have avoided trial for murder, rights activists say. The maximum penalty for first-degree murder is death and for second-degree murder 15 years in jail.
But even those convicted rarely spend more than two years in prison.
"In the past 50 years, only a handful of (accused) were able to meet the requirements of the law," lawyer Rehab Qaddumi of rights group Amnesty International told AFP, agreeing with Oteibi that many of these killings are not related to "honour" in any way.
Qaddumi insisted along with other experts that Islam prohibits such crimes and that the problem is not "purely Jordanian".
"To stop the killing of women article 340 should be scrapped. I think Islamic sharia law should be applied," she said.
Under sharia law, which prohibits premarital sex, "punishment for adultery or fornication can't be enforced unless there is a confession by the culprit or a testimony of four reliable, sane and adult eyewitnesses who each saw the process of sexual intercourse."
Asma Khader, secretary general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, said "the level of leniency in enforcing the law has dropped."
"The government is trying to increase public awareness to tackle this problem. The number of 'honour killings' dropped from 20 to 25 crimes a year about 10 years ago to around 15 now," she added.
Khader, a lawyer and former minister, warned that such killings "disempower women and discourage them from playing a role in public life."
"I find this more dangerous than the killings," she said.
Jordan's King Abdullah II, his wife Queen Rania and other royals have led efforts to fight "honour killings" and reform the law.
"This practice of 'honour killing' is a form of murder without trial, which is contrary to Islam," the queen has said.
"We should have no tolerance for the acceptance of 'honour killings' ... We have to change some cultural and societal perceptions of the place and value of women in society."
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