Protesters say Jordanian law dealing with ‘honour’ crimes is a “license to kill”

Gathering outside the national parliament last month, a group of young protesters confronted one of Jordan’s most taboo topics.

Picture courtesy of I Change, the group started by Esraa Tayseer Kudair and her team who organised the protest against 'honour' killings in Jordan. Some rights reserved.

With banners that read ‘kill her, you will be protected’, ‘there is no honour in killing’ and ‘justifying crime is a crime,’ the campaigners, many of them high school students, expressed their horror and outrage at the growing number of women murdered in so-called ‘honour’ crimes in Jordan over the past 12 months.

The demonstration was led by 17-year-old student activist Esraa Tayseer Kudair through her group I Change to spotlight legal provisions that, she says, represent a “license to kill.” Pointing in particular to Article 340 of the Jordanian Penal Code, she says, “Criminals can receive a lower sentence if the crime is related to family honour so what’s to stop them? It’s like they are giving them excuses to carry out these crimes.”

Describing her shock and sadness every time reports surface of another woman brutally murdered in the name of family ‘honour’, Kudair says she feels compelled to act. I Change is planning visits to schools around Amman to lecture on the criminal dimension of honour killings, which are still seen as a means of resolution in some Jordanian communities. “We’re the new generation and it’s up to us to work together and change things,” Kudair says.

The situation is getting worse for women in Jordan amid a regression in societal attitudes towards equality

Their voices join a growing chorus from activists who say that the situation is getting worse for women in Jordan amid a regression in societal attitudes towards equality. Last year saw a 53 percent rise in the number of women killed for reasons related to ‘honour’, according to a report released by the Sisterhood is Global Institute (SIGI) in October. That month, five deaths were reported during a single week, including two sisters shot by their brother for leaving the house without permission and an 18-year-old man charged with killing his sister for using a mobile phone the family didn’t know about.

Asma Khader, executive director of SIGI, describes the growth of a more conservative mindset in recent years causing a “decline in freedoms” for women and girls. “The political will is for gender equality here; the problem is the mentality of the people. We are not only fighting the perpetrators, we are fighting the whole society,” she explains.

In patriarchal communities, leaving the house without permission, talking with a male non-relative and marrying without consent can all be considered violations of a woman’s virtue. Even if a woman is raped, says Lubna Dawany, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist, she might still be killed to “cleanse the family (because) it was through her that they were shamed.”

Social media is also playing a part. “Women are sharing information about their lives on social media, often under pseudonyms, which gives their guardians a lot of insecurity about what they’re doing on these platforms,” says Aseel Abu Albandora, project coordinator at the Jordanian Women’s Union. “Conservativism continues on Facebook,” she adds, explaining that most girls are not allowed to post pictures of themselves. “Social media just becomes a new tool to spy on female relatives and accuse them of wrongdoing.”

While movements to confront honour culture and the crimes committed in its name have gathered pace over recent years, the mentality is often deep-rooted and ingrained from an early age. A Cambridge University study conducted in 2013 found that almost half the boys and one in five girls interviewed during a survey of 850 students in Amman, believed that killing a daughter, sister or wife who had ‘dishonoured’ the family was justified. 

Often it’s a family decision to carry out the crime.

“I’m very disappointed to say that it’s a lot of young people who commit these crimes,” says Albandora pointing to gender discrimination inherent in school curriculums and the social pressure on young men to be seen to protect the family name. Coming from a conservative tribal community, she is all too aware of the priority placed on upholding ideals of honour. “Often it’s a family decision to carry out the crime. They all sit down and decide who will kill her,” she says.

Sometimes boys under the age of 18, who are subject to a significantly lighter sentence than adult relatives, are made to carry out the crime. Dawany recalls dealing with one young man under pressure to kill his little sisters, both of whom had fallen pregnant. “He didn’t want to do it…but it’s the whole society, his friends, his relatives, his teachers, saying he’s not a real man. Eventually he decides, yes, he does want to be a ‘real’ man.”

Albandora believes that stronger legal deterrents will lead the way. “It’s a matter of changing the law. If ‘honour’ crimes are clearly illegal then it will raise awareness and people will know they can’t get away with it.” Articles 340 and 98 of Jordan’s Penal Code give judges discretion to grant the perpetrators of ‘honour’ crimes reduced sentences in mitigating circumstances, which include cases involving adultery or crimes committed in a ‘fit of fury’ respectively. 

A reduced sentence may also be granted if the victim’s family waives their personal right to litigate. Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, explains that, “prosecutors are using these articles less and less and they do now tend to prosecute ‘honour’ crimes as murder. The problem is the families removing their legal claim, which qualifies the perpetrator for a shorter sentence.”

According to Dr. Salma Nims, secretary general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, this is a frequent outcome for ‘honour’ crime cases, most of which occur within families. Looking at recent figures, she believes that the situation is getting worse and that a “paradigm shift” is needed in the way ‘honour’ crimes are perceived in Jordan. “We need to deconstruct the concept of honour and stop applying it to women,” Nims says.

“The most important and difficult thing to do is to change a culture, to change a way of thinking for an entire people,” says Dawany.

Last year, Jordan’s Iftaa Department, which is responsible for issuing religious decrees, released the country’s first fatwa prohibiting the murder of women in the name of family honour. But much work remains to be done in Jordan, both at the legal level, where, says Khader “escape routes must be closed,” and in local communities, where men are treated as heroes for murdering a female relative to restore their family’s ‘honour.’

Olivia Cuthbert is a Jordan-based freelance journalist focusing on women's rights, issues affecting marginalised groups and the situation of refugees in Jordan as well the environment and other areas related to international development.

This article was first published on Open Democracy



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